The concept of bamboo bicycles has been around for over a century, though it was never widely adopted. This old technique of making bicycles is now enjoying a measure of popularity in Africa due to the effort of the young Ghanaian entrepreneur, Winifred Selby, founder of Afrocentric Bamboo, a company that manufactures bicycles with frames made of bamboo stalk.
Like many young African social entrepreneurs, Selby started the company in order to create solutions to problems in her community. She was especially bothered by the lack of creative enterprise in Ghana, poor transport infrastructure for students and farmers, and youth unemployment.
“But I was 15, a student, and didn’t have any money. I can’t make cars – they are too expensive,” she said. “But I kept thinking, what can I do to add value to bring a change in Africa? And then I realised what to do because I [remembered] my country is blessed with many things.”
So she decided to create bicycles with bamboo, which is abundant in Ghana. In high school, Selby had taken a course, ‘Basic Design in Technology’, which required students proffering innovative solutions to problems. She worked with two older students, Bernice Dapaah and Kwame Kyei, to explore the possibility of using bamboo to build bicycles. In 2010, the collaboration resulted in the founding of the social enterprise, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative, in Kumasi, Ghana. A few years later Selby founded Afrocentric Bamboo as the profit arm of initiative.
Afrocentric Bamboo designs, manufactures, and markets the bikes that have big carriers to allow farmers to carry their produce. It takes about two days to make one bicycle, which is sold in Ghana and as far as the United States and the United Kingdom.
“Most of the orders we are receiving are from the United Kingdom, where people use the bikes as a means of transport to tour Holland, where even politicians ride them to work, and the US where they’re popular in shops and exhibition stands because people love to look at them,” Konnect Africa quoted Selby.
Afrocentric Bamboo has trained about 50 people to manufacture the bikes, many of them women with little or no education. The company has hit an annual turnover of about US$320,000 and one of its main challenges is keeping up with demand. At a time, it had a waiting list of 4,000 bikes to supply.
Selby chose bamboo as her raw material, first because it was widely available in Ghana and then for its suitability to bicycle making.
“We conducted research and found out that bamboo is 5 times stronger than steel and could be used in manufacturing bicycles,” she said in an interview with Elle South Africa. “Bamboo has ideal properties that make it perfectly suited to bicycle construction. As a material, it has excellent vibration-dampening effects and all the bumps in the roads seem to be effortlessly absorbed by this material.”
In order to position her company as a leading bamboo bike manufacturer in Africa, Selby has started her own bamboo plantation at Seidi, in the Ashanti region of Ghana. While providing her company with raw material, she also earns extra revenue selling bamboo from her plantation.
She has started exploring the use of bamboo waste from her company to make charcoal briquettes as an alternative to using wood as cooking energy, thereby reducing deforestation.
Selby, a graduate of the Joy Standard College, has said that she draws a lot of inspiration from local female traders in her country; women who are illiterate but have created thriving businesses. Meanwhile, she considers Kenyan social entrepreneur, Marie O’Mara, as her role model.
“She has a heartbeat for Africa. She is ever willing to make an impact in the lives of women in Africa,” she noted.
In 2014, Selby was a finalist for the Anzisha Prize for young African entrepreneurs and the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, an international business plan competition.