Bamboo Bike To Help Build Sustainable Industry

by Clare Oh

When Marty Odlin, assistant director of the Center for Sustainable Engineering at Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, rides his bike on the streets of New York, strangers inevitably stare, smile and often stop to ask, “What are you riding?”

His bike, made entirely of sustainable bamboo, is one of 20 prototypes he created with volunteers for the Bamboo Bike Project. Founded by two Columbia professors, the project’s aim is to replace poor-quality imports in Ghana and, perhaps, ignite the spark for a cottage industry in the west African nation, where the unemployment rate is 11 percent and bicycles are often the only means of transportation.

Marty Odlin shows off prototypes of bamboo bikes.
Marty Odlin shows off prototypes of bamboo bikes.

Bamboo, part of the grass family, is as strong as it is beautiful. The tensile strength of bamboo fiber is about 28,000 Newtons (unit of force) per square inch—greater than that of steel, which measures 23,000 Newtons per square inch. Bamboo is indigenous to East and Southeast Asia, parts of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and is plentiful in Ghana, making it a cheap material for building. In 2001, the country’s Ministry of Forestry established the Bamboo and Rattan Development Program to increase the value of bamboo and promote sustainable uses of the natural resource.

In 2007, two researchers at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, John Mutter and David Ho (who is now at the University of Hawaii), began looking into the feasibility of low-cost, highly durable bamboo bicycles that could be assembled and sold in Ghana. Collaborating with a bike maker on concept and design, they traveled there to test the prototype and gauge its social viability.

Based on enthusiastic feedback, they returned to New York City excited to roll out the bamboo bike on a broader scale. Mutter and Ho continue to work on achieving their ultimate goal to make the bikes with local materials and to sell them at roughly about $55, half the price of imports.

“In Ghana, where most people live miles away from the closest market or hospital, an affordable, rugged bike can be the difference between life or death, opportunity or stagnation,” said Mutter, who is also a professor of earth and environmental sciences and international and public affairs at Columbia. “We are working toward the day when a bamboo bike is no longer a novelty, but rather an everyday, household item that is part of a sustainable, local industry.”

The bamboo bicycle is designed to carry large loads, particularly agricultural products, at great distances from villages to cities. Odlin, who was once a product designer for K2, a successful sports equipment maker, attests to the bamboo bikes’ street-strength. “I ride the bike from Red Hook (in Brooklyn) to work at Columbia almost every day,” said Odlin, who heads up logistics and process design for the project in his off hours. “While the streets of New York are not equal to the unpaved roads in rural Ghana, the bike has shown that it can withstand the stresses of everyday use.”

In 2008, the Millennium Cities Initiative, part of Columbia’s Earth Institute, worked with the project team to assess the feasibility and investment opportunity for a bamboo bicycle production facility in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, located in the rain forest region. The assessment found that the production and sale of bamboo bicycles in Ghana “could be a financially viable, scalable, and socially responsible venture” according to the report by consulting firm KPMG.

Mutter, Ho and Odlin now want to take the project to the next phase by finding investment to scale-up the assembly and sale of the bamboo bikes. The team hopes to return to Ghana soon to work with potential investors and lay the groundwork for starting development and assembly.

For more information about the project, visit www.bamboobikes.org.

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