It is early morning in Lusaka town, as the Zambikes store in the town center opens. Manager Paul Mulenga wheels bikes onto the concrete display slab. He has already answered at least five phone queries and is rushing to take a group of kids on a tour to the factory.
“It’s like this all the time. The bikes are really in demand, sometimes people just want to see them. We always have people visiting the factory,” says Mulenga.
Zambikes is the brainchild of two Zambians and two Americans who spotted an opportunity to provide alternative transportation solutions using an abundant local resource: bamboo. Zambian bamboo permits the manufacture of lightweight bikes for international sale. Profits are split between developing the business and developing the local community.
Bamboo grows in abundance in the area surrounding the workshop, a sizable concrete structure located 20 kilometers out of the capital city of Lusaka. Often considered a weed, bamboo is among the fastest growing plants in the world. But this is a blessing for the Zambike staff, who harvest the grass directly from the site and feed it into production.
As mild-mannered project coordinator Anthony Bwalya explains the novel manufacturing process, it becomes clear why their products have captured the minds of so many. He shows how the bamboo undergoes a three-month heat treatment process to make it strong, yet light. A completed bike weighs only four kilograms, compared to 14 kilograms for the average steel frame. A stylish brown finish and sheen give it a sophisticated, Zambian-inspired look, and its eco-friendly attributes make it valuable abroad.
The company feeds profits from international trade of the bamboo bikes into solutions that are affordable for the community. These are traditional steel-framed bikes with simple attachments.
The Zambulance is a bike-drawn cart designed to weather tough terrain on the way to a clinic. In villages outside of Lusaka, family and friends resort to transporting the sick and wounded in metal wheelbarrows by foot to the nearest medical care. The Zambulance is quicker and also more comfortable—fitted with a padded seat and cover.
Another product, the Zamcart, helps transport goods, generally produce moved by farmers to market. The company recently launched the Njovu—meaning “elephant” in Cicewa—a long bike the company calls the “20-tonne truck” of bicycles. The Niovu bike sports two seats and reinforcements to the steel frame for heavy loads over rough terrain and long distances.
“To date we have sold 10,000 bikes, and the demand continues to rise,” explained Bwalya. “The aim is not only to make profit but to also change the lives of the people in Zambia and our imme- diate community.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Makeshift, a quarterly magazine about creativity and invention in informal economies around the world. This is the first time it has appeared online.