Six years ago, Bernice Dapaah decided to forge an unconventional path into employment. About to graduate with a business administration degree but facing a bleak job market in Ghana, she joined forces with a handful of engineering students to create an innovative product from an abundant crop: bamboo.
Her inspiration was an initiative, led by the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan, exploring sustainable, green ways to help producers out of poverty. “There’s a lot of unemployment in the country and we didn’t want to just follow the masses and look for white-collar jobs,” she says. “We wanted to come up with an idea that would also create employment for other youth.”
The result is the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative, a social enterprise based in Kumasi, southern Ghana, where strong, lightweight and durable bikes are made out of bamboo and built by an ever-growing team of young people specially trained for the role. The project has serious green credentials, too: not only are the bikes an affordable, environmentally sound alternative to cars, but bamboo is fast-growing, produces up to 35% more oxygen than other trees and helps to prevent soil erosion, a significant cause of concern for farmers in Ghana.
It’s an idea so brilliant the team won a Seed award in 2010, just six months after their first prototype, and have since gone on to win 10 other awards internationally. Along with the financial assistance, Dapaah says, “Seed gave us some technical support to develop a business plan, and gave us a lot of media platforms, too. Since then we have been growing and trying to see how best we can expand the business.”
The initiative has sold more than 1,000 bikes, including sales in Europe and the US; in Ghana, they cost $120 each, around $40 more than a secondhand steel bike, but as Dapaah points out, bamboo has a number of qualities that make it an attractive alternative to steel bike frames: “Bamboo is five times stronger than steel – in China they use it as scaffolding,” and bamboo bikes are more environmentally friendly to produce than steel bikes, as their construction uses much less energy. To meet demand while aiming to mitigate climate change, the team plans to plant 10 trees for each one they use in areas where the bamboo will help restore the soil after years of land degradation.
Dapaah and her co-founders have trained more than 35 people to make the bikes and are establishing two new workshops outside Kumasi, in the Brong Ahafo region, which will employ around 50 more youths. The idea is that each employee, once trained, can train and employ five or six others, meaning the bikes can be produced on a small scale all over Ghana.
“My favourite part of the job is when I go to the workshop to see the youths and know they are able to earn a living,” Dapaah says. “I feel so happy when I see we have been able to create a bit of laughter for them.”