Ghana Bamboo Bike Journal, August 2008 Trip

The final product

Getting Down to Business

August is an excellent time to visit Ghana.  Although Ghana is located just north of the equator, the weather loosely follows the southern hemisphere, so August is one of the coolest months.   Ibrahim found a good location for the shop in the Darkoman neighborhood of North Accra.  The father of Gakpu (one of Ibrahim’s crew) owns a small house with a good sized courtyard.  Large enough for the 30 foot dome and assorted chickens and goats.

The tasks at hand were to obtain bamboo poles for the dome, assemble parts onto the now finished cargo bike, and start on the mountain bike.  We visited the BARADEP office to see if they would assist in sourcing bamboo locally.  A driver and truck were scheduled for the following morning.

We cut and trimmed 21 poles from an area just outside of town.  The driver told us that there used to be a lot more bamboo in that area but people moving to Accra were clearing it out and building small homesteads.  We also stopped by the BARADEP bamboo nursery and saw the propagation techniques they were using to develop populations of various imported species.

Ibrahim’s crew was anxious to build the mountain bike but it rained a few times, making the need to get the shelter built more urgent.  They did finish assembling the cargo bike with the help of Wisdom, the ace bike mechanic.  On the day before I was to leave for Abompe, we tried assembling the bamboo structure from which the fabric tent would be suspended.  We had trouble bending the bamboo but finally did it by making cuts halfway through the poles at 3 foot intervals.  It got dark before we could hang the tent.  Ibrahim wanted to wait until I returned before attempting to hang it.

I had made an appointment with a program manager at the Accra Peace Corps office.  I found the place after some effort.  Taxi drivers don’t use maps.  The usual way of finding a place is to go to the general area and ask someone where it is.  Often, the directions are inaccurate.  But I did find it and had an excellent meeting with Sammy, the Environmental program director and Beza, Small Enterprise Development program director.  We discussed how bamboo bike microbusinesses could be offered as a secondary project for The Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) to help with.  Often, many secondary projects become larger than the primary project.  The next step is for me to write a description of the project and how a PCV could assist.  I would soon put this concept to the test with Suzanne Hartley, the PCV in Abompe.

I had met Suzanne during my visit 6 moths ago.  She helped coordinate the Village Bicycle Project workshop.  She’s a boisterous and fun woman with a gift for language.  It’s amazing to watch her interactions with the villagers, who are still impressed that she has been able to pick up the local language in less than two years.  Her ability to motivate people and get a job done under difficult conditions would be quite valuable in the corporate world.  But she chooses to work with the people in a small village in Ghana with the hope that she will affect their lives in a positive way.

The drive to Abompe was uneventful.  Suzanne updated me on how she had conducted a skills assessment with the group of young men who had come forward to learn how to build bikes.  It was like a school exam but with a puzzle solving and a test on following written directions.  Some did very well while others were unable to complete the test.  One promising man was put off by it and did not return.

Suzanne’s main assistant in the bauxite bead project (her primary project), Ben Opoku did very well and was the most enthusiastic and motivated.  Although only 24, he demonstrated some strong leadership potential.  Ben came to have dinner with us, so we got a head start in getting to know each other.

I brought some of the bamboo that Ibrahim and I harvested on our last visit to Abompe.  It had been treated with the non-toxic, split-preventing chemical and was dry and ready to turn into a bicycle frame.

The training session went very well, even with some trainees having some difficulty showing up on time.  Perhaps they were not yet convinced that this would lead to something good for them.  But a core group formed and stuck with it for the five days of training.

During the building process, we investigated some local fiber sources.  One is known as the strongest one, from a vine that is found in the forest.  A village elder named Mr. Asanti showed us where to find some.  He processed it into fiber for us by heating it up over some charcoal and then beating it with a stone.  Then he pulled the fiber apart by hand.  It was a fairly labor intensive process and the fiber was somewhat coarse.  But it was stronger than the sisal.  We used it on the bike for a truly local style.

We also harvested bamboo for 6 future bikes, demonstrating the treatment process and using the new drying rack that had been built beforehand.  This went very well and the guys were very good at selecting the right diameters and lengths for the different parts of the frame.  They wrapped the cut sections in palm leaves and carried them out of the forest.  These tubes would be used in 5 months to build some more bikes, perhaps for a fleet of tourist bikes.  Hopefully some of those bikes will be purchased and taken home.

On the last day of building the frame, we were honored by a visit from the queen mother and one of the village elders.  We had met previously when Suzanne and I sat in on a meeting of the chief, elders and queen mother.  There were a lot of issues discussed, including a recent victory in a case involving a challenge to the queen mother’s family authority.  Also, some goat rustlers were active, stealing goats and slaughtering them in the forest at night.  Guards would be positioned to see if the thieves could be caught.

After a number of delays, the bike was finally completed.  Most of the delays occurred as a result of not having all the right bicycle parts.  These were to be sourced locally but it turned out that many parts were simply not available or incompatible.  It turns out that this also causes a lot of bikes to lose functionality.  It usually starts with the derailleurs or shifters ceasing to work properly, causing the multi speed bikes to become stuck in one gear.  Then it progresses to steering or crank failure, or the wobbly wheels become unrideable.   Village Bicycle Project does a great job of teaching people how to maintain the bikes but once a crucial part breaks, it becomes very difficult to find a replacement.

But the bike they made worked very well.  Aponching, the “strong rider” in the video featuring the cargo bike, said it was very fast and smooth.  The bike will remain in Abompe for tourists to use and for the builders to have a demo bike.  It will be interesting to see how they manage that.  Suzanne will keep track of it.

We marked the bike with the “Bambusa” brand name and put “Abompe” on the top tube.  We also marked the seat tube with “Made in Ghana 8/14/08”.  The idea for the date arose when the question of how long the bike would last came up.  We thought it would be good to answer the question by pointing to this bike and having a date to refer to.

Suzanne and I began the journey to Accra the following morning.  We hired a taxi to take us part way.  We made a stop at the Arboretum that is not very far from Abompe.  It’s a beautiful place with some incredible trees.  We met Ben Buno, who was recently named “Best Tour Guide” for the Eastern Region of Ghana.  He showed us the highlights of his usual tour.  The first being a small tree that produces a berry with an unusual property:  After eating the berry, all food and drink tastes sweeter for a few hours.  The berry itself is sweet but it does not leave a sweet taste in your mouth the whole time.  It’s very effective and would be great for diabetics who are on a sugar-free diet.

We hiked around the Arboretum and saw some enormous trees that rival the Redwoods in California.  The roots of one particularly huge tree were like flying buttresses, supporting the convoluted trunk.  Ben explained the history and ecology of the trees with a practiced and entertaining dialog.  We ended the tour with a visit to the beautiful guest lodge and a stroll down the palm lined driveway.  Definitely a stop on the future bamboo bike tour!

We continued on, stopping at the best bike shop in the area.  It was the most organized bike shop I had seen in Ghana.  Everything in its place and easy to access.  And they were busy, with three mechanics working and the proprietor managing sales.  But they didn’t have the particular parts we had been looking for earlier in the week.

We left our taxi in Koforidua and hopped a tro-tro to Accra.  Suzanne checked with the driver, screening him as a more careful and mature driver.  And he was a good one -nothing like prior high strung drivers I had experience with.  It was great to know there is a way to deal with the most dangerous aspect of traveling in Ghana.

We made our way directly to Ibrahim’s shop to see how they were doing with the bike and to see if they had made any progress with improving the bamboo structure.  We found the bike to need some rework in the rear dropouts before the wheel would fit properly.  And the brake arch was not aligned very well.  It wasn’t going to be ready for Saturday morning’s TAN Conference.  But the cargo bike was done and working well.  Ibrahim would bring it in time for my panel talk.

The bamboo structure was a little better but I could see that we would need to use a different technique for bending them.  We decided to go ahead and hang the tent anyway, just to get a sense for how the shelter would work and see how much ventilation would be needed.  It went up easily and would do a fine job of keeping the sun and rain from slowing us down.  The crew enjoyed having their own shop and it showed in their willingness to get the mountain bike done before I jumped on a plane Monday morning.

The TAN (The African Network ) Conference was held at the La Palm Resort just outside of Accra.  It’s a beautiful, modern resort with all the amenities.  I would have liked to spend a night there but it is fairly expensive.  The attendees came to hear about entrepreneurship in Africa.  The lineup of speakers was impressive, consisting of experts in a wide variety of industries who were actively doing business.  The keynote speech was delivered by Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University.  He spoke about how Ghana might manage the potential wealth from newly discovered oil deposits off the coast.  It was a great speech, inspiring a world of possibilities for the people of Ghana.

During a break, Ibrahim brought the bike in and instantly had a crowd gather around him.  He did his best to answer questions about it while I watched how people reacted.  It was very positive, with one of the panelists asking if he could buy one on the spot.  They finalized the order later in the day.

With the bamboo bike parked in front of the stage, my turn came to talk about the project.  I discussed how our strategy was to start building bikes for tourists and export, generating better profits so the builders could tool up and become more efficient.  They then would be able to build a lower cost version for locals.  The idea of financing a bicycle for use by farmers as a productivity tool is still foreign.  And it will take time for that to become accepted.

Two presenters stood out for me in relation to this project.  One was Tricia Chirumbole, Director of Investors Without Borders, an ingenious micro/macro finance model.  It uses the best features of Kiva.org and Ebay, offering a platform for lenders and borrowers to work together on opportunities in the developing world.  Tricia chose Ghana as the best place to roll out the program.  It might be a good way to grow production of bamboo bikes.

Another presenter was Jonathan Porter from WAASPS.  Jon has first hand experience in setting up a business that assembles airplanes in Ghana.  He struggled for quite awhile with the challenges of employing young African males.  He now employs a group of women to assemble the aircraft.  But he encouraged me to keep at the entrepreneurship model with the men I was working with.  He also discussed the practicality of small aircraft as transportation in Africa – much more efficient than traveling by SUV.

The conference was as much about networking as about hearing people speak on various topics.  The Nigerian delegation was very interested in having us bring the project to their country.  During the lunch break, I mentioned the idea of creating micro businesses around a pedal powered cel phone battery charging unit for African villages.  This appealed to the telecom group at the table.  Lots of business cards were exchanged.

On Sunday, the mountain bike was finished up.  In keeping with the idea of building this one without my supervision, I just recommended the changes that needed to be made on the dropouts and brake brace.  Then I left with Suzanne to do some shopping at the Accra Mall.  She wanted to show the place to me in light of any future bike tour organizing.  And I wanted to get a case of cocoa powder to re-label as “Bamboo Bike Cocoa Powder” – perhaps to sell to people buying the Project Rwanda Coffee so they can make a mocha!  We found the cocoa powder – and everything else one could usually find in a modern shopping mall.  There was a promotional exposition around a new banking product: the E-Zwich SmartCard.  It’s designed to get Africans to use something other than cash for certain transactions.  It’s like a bank account in a card.  It is used in machines that read fingerprints, currently in most banks and many stores throughout Ghana.  It is attempting to address the difficulty people have with saving money and trusting banks – something that is of interest if we are getting involved with any microfinancing.

I said good-bye to Suzanne and wished her luck in keeping the Abompe group together long enough to build some more bikes.  Her role in this was crucial and underscored the value that an organization like the Peace Corps has in affecting people’s lives in a lot of remote areas.

Back at Ibrahim’s, I arrived to see that the bike was just started getting assembled with the sample parts I had brought from Taiwan. Wisdom arrived to save the day with his mechanic’s tools.  He and Ibrahim still had friction and were not working very well together.  We discussed things and came to an understanding.  But I did not come away with the feeling that they would be partners in the business.  But we got the bike finished as dusk arrived.  It rode very well, the Sunrace 8 speed drivetrain working flawlessly.  We celebrated at the Mambo, a local drinking and dancing spot.  The music was infectious, getting the only white guy in the place up for some dancing.

We took photos and some video at 7AM, just before I hopped in a taxi for the airport.  The flight was delayed due to a mechanical issue.  But that gave me an opportunity to meet some new people: the fellow passengers who waited most of the day at the airport to eventually find out the flight would be postponed until the following day.  They put us up at a few different hotels near the airport, allowing me to see first hand what sort of accommodations are available for the average traveler.  The rooms were nice and had hot showers.  The internet access worked well, so I could catch up on email.  I had been staying at the Hotel Bombay in the Darkoman neighborhood.  Not a huge contrast but there were certainly some nicer amenities in the tourist hotel.

It was interesting to fly back to the US with a planeload of people whose faces had become familiar:  The two big guys from Texas who were doing missionary work, the woman from Los Angeles who was starting an NGO in Senegal for orphaned kids, the Ghanaian government worker who finally got a visa to go visit her husband in the US, and many others with a wide variety of stories and experiences to share.

In conclusion, we are ready to go to the next level.  With some more funding, we will be able to speed things up by getting the supply of epoxy and bike parts steady and reliable.  The training method seems pretty well sorted out and the Peace Corps look like a great organization to help spread the idea far and wide.  It will just be a matter of time before Ghanaians will be making plenty of bamboo bikes.

Craig Calfee – August 2008

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