What started as a hobby for a few young women in the Ashanti regional town of Toase in using bamboos to make bicycles is now making life easier for farmers and villagers who cannot afford cars and trucks.
In 1999, an American engineer, David Peckham, came to Ghana to study ways to make bicycles more accessible.
He trained locals to craft the simple bikes, which need less electric machine tools to create; and that marked the beginning of what would be one of the country’s biggest innovations now receiving huge global attention more than a decade on.
Winifred Selby is 19 and has just come out of High school.
A master bamboo bike maker, she co-founded the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with school friends Kwame Kyei and Bernice Dapaah.
She’s now helping other young women like herself through the same training.
“There are no jobs here and most of the girls and young boys leave the community to Accra and Kumasi to do meager jobs after school. Some of them don’t even have a good education. We want to change that with this initiative,” she says.
Till date, more than 35 young men and women have received the training and are starting their own ventures of bamboo bike making in other small towns in the Atwima Nwabiagya district, where Toase is located.
Bikes are important means of transport especially in rural Ghana but for these women, it is also a crucial resource on farms.
Winifred tells me they now want to target head porters who flock the regional capital of Kumasi to engage in what is locally referred to as Kayayei mostly from Ghana’s three northern regions.
The life these poor girls live is dehumanizing, she says, smiling as she points to news paper reports of street girls being raped and robbed off their little belongings.
“We want to help them with the skills and build their capacity in making bikes so they can earn a decent living and get off the streets”.
Fighting climate change
Compared to the production of traditional metal bicycles, bamboo bikes require less electricity and no hazardous chemicals. This reduces the level of carbon emissions of transportation.
Last November these bicycles were the toast of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference in Poland where UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took a shaky ride on one of the Ghanaian bikes.
UN Chief, Ban Ki Moon on a ride round the conference center at COP 19 with a Ghana-made bamboo bike
These young men and women now also grow their own bamboo in the same area. This means they would cut down on the use of bamboos that grow naturally and also replenish the degraded lands with what they are planting now.
“When we go to the farm, we use the bamboo bike to carry food and other goods. That is lessoning our work and making us do more on the farms than we used to” says Madinatu Tuakaso, 18, who is in her final year in High school.
She has also received the training and now has plans of returning to the center to learn other things they can manufacture with bamboos on completion of school before she continues her formal education.
“I think that women have what it takes to be as innovative as men if we are given the chance. One of the things we want to do is donate our bikes to young people who walk long miles to school in other parts of the country” she tells me.
Bamboo bikes can create new jobs and lift several jobless youth out of poverty
George Orstin heads the UNDP’s Global Environment Facility in Ghana, one of the many global bodies that are supporting the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative.
GEF is the UN’s fund that provides financial and technical support to projects that conserve and restore the environment while enhancing people’s livelihoods
“This is a huge opportunity for government’s attention. If we make the needed investment we can generate real and sustainable jobs that would mean more jobs that protect our environment with a home-grown innovation” he says
More demand, less supply!
Increasing global attention has also brought huge demand for these bamboo bikes.
But the challenge of limited capital means these women can only supply a handful.
“Currently we have a lot of pressure on us because of the demand. If we are able to produce a thousand bicycles a month, there is a market for it but we are struggling to do that” says Bernice Dapaah now in her mid twenties and recently named a 2014 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
“Most of the orders we are having are from the United Kingdom where people are using them for touring, Holland, where even politicians are riding hem to work and the US where they’re popular with shops and exhibitors because people like the look of them.”