Made in Africa: Bamboo bikes put Zambian business on right track

Story highlights

  • Zambikes is a Zambia-based company producing bamboo bicycles
  • Other products include bicycle ambulances that help carry patients to clinics
  • The company says it want to help Zambia address its social and economic needs
  • It provides jobs and skills training to the "uneducated and underprivileged"
In Zambia, bicycles are grown from the ground.
Making the most of the southern African country's bamboo plants, two Americans and two Zambians have set up a company that is crafting high-end, lightweight bicycles with frames made out of the locally-grown wooden weed.
Dubbed Zambikes, the company is putting its custom-built Zambian bikes on roads around the world, offering pedal enthusiasts a unique ride while helping to empower local communities back home.
"It's a plus to have a product that is grown in Africa, made in Africa and exported to everywhere else in the world," says Zambikes co-founder Mwewa Chikamba. "It's rare that we have such incentives coming through -- mostly we are importing stuff from the rest of the world."
Eye-catching, super light and extremely durable, bamboo bicycles have gained traction in recent years, becoming a popular alternative to traditional steel or aluminium bikes. The material, one of nature's fastest growing resources, has great shock absorbing abilities that contribute to a smooth and eco-friendly ride.
"It's a green project and we are encouraging other entities and industries to look at ways and means of bringing down the levels of pollution," says Lusaka-born Chikamba, 43. "We produce it in a manner that is pollution-free and isn't by any chance devastating to the global warming issues."
The idea for Zambikes first surfaced in 2004 when two young Americans, Vaughn Spethmann and Dustin McBride, visited Zambia on a six-week university field trip. The two college friends were impressed by the hospitality of Zambians but also witnessed first-hand the economic hardship that many of the country's people were suffering.
"We noticed that unemployment was well over 60%," says 27-year-old Spethmann. "Everybody we talked to didn't have jobs or couldn't find jobs and when we looked around nobody had decent bicycles."
Spethmann and McBride decided to return to Zambia straight after their graduation. They teamed up with Chikamba and fellow Zambian Gershom Sikaala and together they set the Zambikes operation in motion in July 2007.
So far, the company, which employs some 40 people, has produced about 500 hand-made bamboo frames, but this year alone it expects to crank out another 450.
With a price tag of around $900, the company's bamboo bikes are primarily aimed at the international market, with countries such as Japan, Singapore, Germany, Brazil, Finland and the United States driving demand.
But from planting the bamboo in the Zambian forests to shipping the bicycles to the concrete urban jungles