Bicycles are one of the most sustainable means of transport around. One ambitious cyclist in Uganda is producing bicycles with an even lower CO2 footprint than the average. We visited him in his workshop in Kampala.
Follow a small reddish sandy path off the road in the outskirts of Kampala and you'll arrive at the Boogaali garage. The baby bamboo plants outside are the first sign that something else other than motorbikes (Kampala's favoured form of transportation) is being tinkered with inside. Here, thick, strong, smooth bamboo canes are being transformed into bicycle frames. Hence the name Boogaali: Gaali is the word for bicycle in Luganda, one of Uganda's official languages + (bam)boo.
Bicycles are probably the most environmentally-friendly means of transport around - besides our own two feet, of course. But most bicycles are made of steel, aluminum or carbon, meaning a lot of energy is needed to manufacture and produce them. A growing niche product on the market are bicycles made from renewable raw materials such as bamboo or flax. The trained electrician and ambitious cyclist Kasoma Noordin has been producing his own CO2-neutral means of transport from bamboo for several years now. To connect the various pieces of bamboo, he uses barkcloth, a kind of fabric made from tree bark. The production of bark cloth was entered into UNESCO's list of assets of intangible cultural heritage in 2008. It is one of the oldest methods of making clothing - even older than weaving. It's made by harvesting the bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) during the rainy season and then beating it into flat sheets using wooden mallets. But the barkcloth isn't the only local product. The bamboo is also sourced locally. The seedlings are grown in front of the Boogaali garage and when they are big enough, they are taken to the countryside just outside Kampala, where they are raised for three years. The good thing about bamboo is that it doesn't have to be watered - it gets all the water it needs during the rainy season and can survive the dry season with ease.
Tailormade Bamboo Bikes Made to Order
All bicycles are currently produced on demand, meaning customers can design and order a tailor-made ride - choosing between city bike, racing bike, mountain bike and cargo bike models. The bamboo for the frames is harvested after the plant is three years old. Only then is it strong enough to withstand the weight that will be placed on it when it's transformed into a bike frame. The bamboo is harvested during the dry season because it contains less moisture, then sun-dried, hardened, milled and carved down into the right size. One huge advantage of the material, aside from being renewable, is that bamboo is relatively light. Depending on the model, the finished frames weigh between 1.8 and 2.1 kg.
The sections where the handlebars, saddle and pedals are attached are imported - because Uganda doesn't produce the aluminium parts that are necessary. Kasoma gets those aluminium parts from his mentor and trainer Craig Calfee, who taught several groups in Uganda how to make bamboo bikes and still regularly tests the quality of his former students' handmade frames.
But Kasoma has long since brought his own style to the bicycles. Apart from the bark cloth, he also has a few tricks for how to create frames with different designs. The bamboo can be bent to create curves or split and then reconnected with bark cloth to create oval shapes. This also prevents the bamboo from breaking open in the heat, which can sometimes happen when the wood expands.
The Boogaali frames are primarily designed for an international market - and that is currently where most of the sales come from. A standard frame is available from 200 US dollars - more complex designs have a bigger price tag. Once the design has been chosen, the construction takes about ten days to complete, with the whole bike made entirely by hand. And the bike frames business is just the first step for Boogaali Bikes. Riding on the success of the business, Kasoma is planning to expand and starting offering young people an education too - while at the same time promote cycling in Uganda. Kasoma is set to open his own training centre near Kabale, a city on the border to Rwanda and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. For many travellers to Uganda this area is a must-see destination - the national park is home to the last remaining mountain gorillas. They plan to tap into the synergy between tourism and cycling - improving access to sustainable transportation, teaching young people valuable skills and fighting youth unemployment in the area all at the same time.