A university trip to Zambia led two California students on a path that resulted in establishing Zambikes, a company that is an example of how an African country can solve its own transportation needs and create high-end product with a waiting list in US.
Vaughn Spethmann and Dustin McBride, class 2007 business students at the Azusa Pacific University in California teemed up with two Zambian partners to create an unusual and edgy project of making Zambian bicycles for Zambian riders. The idealistic, Christian men answered a question weather a bicycle be any more green and ecological… then a concept of a self propelled two-wheel propulsion already is. Their project went from being a sample study in a University business class to a reality within just a couple years.
In 2008 Zambikes first entered the market with Amakasana- a right yellow metal bike with a snazzy logo. “We created a bike that is specifically made for Zambian terrain,” says Mwewa Chikamba, one of Zambikes two Zambian founders, about a bike that has a stronger carrier, reinforced pedals and simple six gears. Amakasane, is assembled from parts shipped from Taiwan and China, and assembled at Zambikes plant 16 kilometers outside Zambias capital Lusaka.
Amakasane is winning individual customers and companies all over Zambia. “Some people will come in and say: ‘I am buying this because it was made in Zambia’,” says Chikamba.
After Amakasane, Zambikes came out with its Zambulance- an invention that uses a bike with a ball attachment and a two-meter-long fabric covered cart. Before Zambulance local communities relied on wheelbarrows with welded grates to transport their severely sick and immobile patients to the clinics. Chikamba says, that a live is saved by a Zambuklance every 10 days.
One of dozens of clinics that use Zambulances is Chipata Health Clinic on thee outskirts of Lusaka. Mijohn Mwanza, the clinic’s accountant, does double duty as the Zam-driver. Several times a week he is called to bring his Zambulance to a Chiapta, known as “Little Bombay” and pedal them in to get help.
Company’s third product, the metal Zamcart, is meant to haul up to 250 kilos of goods and pulled by a bicycle tied to it with a simple ball-attachment. Zamcart is sold for $250 to small Zambian entrepreneurs hauling goods from their stores and farms. “It [Zamcart] looks like something a six grader could design,” says McBride “but it actually took a long process to get there.”
To create a high end product – a Zambikes bamboo bike, the company teamed up with California bike designer Craig Calfee. They produced a low-tech method of creating different size bamboo bike frames with simple adjustable rectangular jig. The entire process begins with choosing two-three year old bamboos for straightness and circumference. Different pieces of bamboo, grown locally, are categorized based on width and cut to size. Seven pieces make a bamboo bike from that is then tied with sisal and glued. The bamboo is soaked for a day then dried several weeks. Then a two day long process of sanding the frame begins.
“If you have passion in your heart you will be able see what others don’t. Its amazing to see that when looking at bamboo some people were able to see a bicycle or a cupboard,” says Chikamba.
The US waiting list for the bamboo bikes frames, meant to retail for between $700 and $800, is just getting longer. A bamboo bicycle frame weighs about as much as does an aluminum frame and is more absorbent of vibrations. What is even more impressive is that Zambikes produces low-impact, high-end, green product exported from a Third World country to a first world country.
In a way, Zambikes has reinvented the current Chinese model of aid to Africa. While the Chinese focus their aid on the continent on building roads and government building infrastructure, the Zambikes took the Chinese ideas of a bicycles for everyone, bamboo and provided a model that rewards the productivity of its employees is reflected not in bonuses to its shareholders, but that gives financial rewards to employees. “It is only a matter of time before someone else will bet into the business. Maybe even Chinese themselves,” says about the bamboo bike initiative McBride. “We hope to have a few years out of this.”
There is a fair amount of pride when you speak to Zambian owners of the bike.
In a country that used to export only raw materials, and relay on imports for all its transportation needs, Zambikes has already created a shift in thinking.
The success of Zambikes didn’t just come from finding several market niches. In Africa, a company has to also take care of its employee’s spiritual, social and intellectual needs. It does it to fill the vacuum left behind by a society and families decimated by AIDS and lack of male models. “Many if our [workshop] employees used to drunkards. Now they are getting married, building houses not out of mud but with brick,” says Chikamba. In two years a village where Zambikes bought land and from where most of its emploees come from is beginning to look way different.
Once a week, a pastor, or motivational speaker speaks to the 25-or-so employees of Zambikes. In case of emergency and in crisis, the employees can count on assistance and assistance in learning professions and life skills, like health and savings techniques.
The Zambikes partners are looking at other countries where to expand. The idea is to have ineventually 10 projects going around Africa and Uganda is seen as the next country. [/private]