In Africa, very few people can own cars or even motorcycles and people without bicycles have to rely on inadequate and relatively expensive buses. Bicycles are creatively modified to become boda boda taxis. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) estimates that there are 5000 boda boda in The Earth Institute at Columbia University's Millennium City of Kisumu, the regional city in Western Kenya 27 miles from the Millennium Village of Sauri. They estimate that there are 14,000 bicycles altogether, and the number is rapidly growing. Lack of access to effective transportation is a fundamental limiter to employment opportunities, local and regional trade, and public health. A variety of NGO, perhaps most prominently The International Forum for Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD) has studied transportation issues in poor rural areas including western Kenya and has advocated a wide range of bicycle-based solutions to transport limitations.

As seen in Figure 1, bicycles currently used in Africa are utterly inappropriate for transportation in these regions. They are a throwback to the British colonial period, meant for the amusement of the wealthy classes in well-paved cities, not for critical transportation of poor rural people. They are manufactured outside Africa in China and India, and shipped complete. Despite the critical need for bicycles in Africa, there are no local bicycle building businesses anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

The objectives of this project are two-fold:

  1. 1.To build a better bike for poor Africans in rural areas

  2. 2.To stimulate a bicycle building industry in Africa to satisfy local needs.

In this project, we will examine the feasibility of employing native bamboo for the bicycle frames, instead of the expensive and technically demanding carbon fiber material, or even the less expensive but also technically demanding aluminum or chromium-molybdenum steel that is commonly used to build bicycle frames. The project will contribute to some of the Earth Clinic goals by providing a necessary and viable form of transportation that will contribute to alleviation of economic and health issues.


The bicycle is the primary mode of mobility for millions of people throughout many poorer parts of the world. In addition to individual transport, they see a vast number of applications including moving goods to market, the sick to hospital, and even the distributing medicines (see Figure 1).

It has been demonstrated that bicycles can be built using bamboo for the main tubing elements (Figure 2). Bamboo is a surprising strong material and has great vibration damping characteristics. It is used routinely in Asia as material for scaffolding on high-rise buildings, and has also been used to build other load bearing structure such as bridges. The goal of this project is to test the feasibility of implementing bamboo bikes as a new form of transportation in Africa. To achieve this goal, a number of steps need to be undertaken:

  1. 1.Design and build a bamboo bicycle that is suitable for the local terrain

  2. 2.Find cost effective and technological feasible ways to produce these bicycles in rural Africa

  3. 3.Engage local people to determine the potential for adoption of the bicycle

  4. 4.Develop a plan to make production and distribution of bamboo bicycles a self-sustaining micro-business.

One key to a sustainable business is that the bamboo grows locally. Figure 3 shows the distribution of bamboo species in sub-Saharan Africa; the African species most frequently used for products are Oreobambus buchwaldii, Oxytenanthera abyssinica and Yushania alpina (Bystriakova et al., 2004)). The bicycle would be built using bamboo tubing and component parts imported from China or India. Production of bicycle frames and assembly of bicycles would be completed by locals in Africa.

There are several advantages to making bicycles out of bamboo. Inexpensive bicycles and parts are currently made in China and India. Shipping bicycle component parts, as opposed to complete bikes, to Africa is easier and cheaper, because of their smaller size. A container could hold parts for ca. 2000 bicycles, whereas it would only hold ca. 500 complete bicycles. Because bamboo is grown locally in Africa, and the manufacturing of bamboo bicycle frames does not require extensive infrastructure (or even electricity), bamboo bicycles have the potential to be a sustainable business that provides local employment even in areas away from power and other facilities. If power and modern tools are available, the production of bamboo bicycles can increase. Bicycle design could easily evolve through local innovations and different bicycles could be designed for different terrains and purposes. As the local people gain skills in building bamboo bicycle they will have acquired translatable skills for building other types of vehicles.

Seed funding for the Bamboo Bike Project has been provided by:

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