February 04, 2023
Riding the Bamboo

A project supported by Columbia University’s Earth Institute aims to put Ghanaians on wooden bikes

By Nick Jardine

Dan “Fence” Huanea, 22, stands in the spacious Brooklyn studio he’s just agreed to manage. Several feet above him hang about a dozen bicycle frames - all constructed from bamboo.

“Bamboo bikes have been around since the 1800s, but never on any large scale,” says Huanea, fetching a frame from the ceiling with a lengthy bamboo pole. “This one’s mine.”

Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, has offered customers the chance to make their own bicycles for the past two years. By fusing standard bike components with an all-bamboo frame, consumers create their own lean, green, cycling machines.

But the bikes aren’t designed just for New Yorkers. The studio’s volunteers are taking the project from Brooklyn to Africa.

A Factory in Ghana

As frames are mounted on to racks, ready to be worked on by the weekend’s clientele, the materials to build an entire bamboo-bike factory are sailing towards Ghana. They were packed into the shipping freight by the studio’s volunteers.

Backed by an unnamed Ghanaian investor, and by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the studio’s staff consists of about eight volunteers. Building the bikes is more of a passion than a business. Serving Ghana is its main priority.

“It’s a way to get super-cheap transportation into the hands of people who need it,” says Huanea. While an American customer pays $632 to construct a bamboo bike in the Brooklyn studio, Ghanaians will be able to purchase one for $50 to $60.

Chinese-made steel bikes are available in Ghana for about $100. The average yearly income in a Ghanaian household is $2,200, according to a 2005 study by The Globalist.

Sean Murray, a former botany teacher, co-owns the Brooklyn studio. As the prospect of a bike factory in Ghana progresses to reality, he can hardly contain his excitement.

“I can’t wait, I cannot wait!” says Murray, talking about the prospect of workers in Ghana mass-producing the bikes. “I have made about 350 bikes in my life. They’re going to make three bikes a day. These guys are going to be fantastic!”

Recently the studio announced that it had opened “the world’s first bamboo bike factory,” in Kumasi, Ghana.

In preparation for the project, the studio in Brooklyn has used a strain of bamboo imported from Mexico, nicknamed “iron bamboo” in botanical circles, to build its bikes. This is more representative of the stiffer species of the plant found in Ghana.

How Bikes Stoke Development

According to Murray, some Ghanaians spend about five hours of their day walking from place to place. A bike could cut this down to a single hour.

“It’ll free enough time for school,” he says.

Though the weekend workshops at the Brooklyn site are starting to generate some revenue, it’s not enough to pay salaries.

Murray, a high school botany teacher, is not the only member of the workforce who has a second job. Huanea works in a restaurant. Other members, such as Greg Schroy, who only joined the project a few months ago, work unpaid. All volunteers are under the age of 30.

The project still needs money. Information published on the Earth Institute’s website appeals for a donation of $80,000 to help the factory meet its goal of producing 20,000 bikes a year. The group declined to discuss the specifics of how the project was being financed.

They see no problem with the product, though. Bamboo is vastly available in Ghana, and it grows quickly. Murray is adamant that the wood is more than suitable for the mass production of bicycles.

“The bicycle is probably the most useful thing next to the computer,” he says. “And this is the best way of making the best thing.”

This story was adapted from Narrative NYC, the newsroom publication of Dale Maharidge and Jessica Bruder’s reporting class at New York’s Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

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