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Growing bikes, building community

February 5, 2010

On the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia, a man stands in the field watering his crop. But he is no ordinary farmer and this is not just any old crop – it’s next years production line of bicycles (which is why a BBC reporter is there with him). Benjamin Banda is the caretaker for Zambikes, a local bamboo bike company with the ambition to be truly sustainable – environmentally, economically and socially.

Having seen the shoddy bikes the Zambians got around on while traveling through the impoverished country a few years ago, two young American business graduates started thinking that it would be great if they could set up a business making bikes from local materials and provide employment at the same time – a fine initiative in a country where unemployment ranges from 50 to 80 percent and where over half of the population earn less than US$1.00 per day.

Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2006, Muhammad Yunus, advocates that the only way to break the cycle of poverty is through Social Business.  Social businesses operate and compete with any and all regular for profit businesses while ensuring profits go back into the community rather than into the hands of a few shareholders.

Which is exactly what Zambikes does. Through a partnership with non-profit organization ACIRFA (a.ker.fa), Zambikes operates as a for profit company set up to benefit the surrounding communities. After the first 300 bicycles were sold and distributed in 2007, the Directors decided to purchase land, build a warehouse for assembly and production, and double sales in the next year. As well as employment the workers are trained in welding, assembly and bike mechanics – transferable skills which they can take wherever they want.

Bamboo, if properly managed, is a truly sustainable material, renewing itself in just five years. The team has also developed a bamboo bike trailer ambulance to be towed behind a bike or pushed by hand where no motor vehicles can go. Road quality in the bush is very poor, resulting in hazardous driving conditions, which is why bikes have become the optimal mode of emergency transportation.  The zambulance means patients are no longer being ferried to health centers on ox carts or wheelbarrows; each one in service saving a life every nine days.

Aspiring to be more than just a producer of good bikes, zambikes provides  employment, empowerment, community, entrepreneurship and hope to Zambia. Read more about these heroes on zambikes.org.

(All images and map courtesy of ACIRFA).

If you think Zambia sounds like an interesting place, maybe consider a bit of volunteer work?

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