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Ghana. Bernice, Nancy and bamboo bikes

A women’s initiative, launched on the outskirts of Accra.

“My children are currently studying, and who knows, they might become ‘important people’ someday”, says Nancy Adomako. This young woman is smiling again after much suffering. She has resumed to believe in the future. Four years ago her husband died in a mine accident and left her alone with five children. Three of them had to give up school to earn their living. But then Nancy and her family’s lives changed, thanks to bamboo bicycles. A women’s initiative, launched on the outskirts of Accra, and born from the friendship of three former classmates.

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Bernice Dapaah, an entrepreneur born and raised in the region of Accra, tells Southworld hers, and some other twenty girls’ stories. She and her friends Kwame Kyei and Winnifred Selby co-founded the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative. The first bamboo bike-frame, basically two bamboo canes and reinforced fibres held together by epoxy resin, was built in 2009. Since then, sales have increased continuously. More and more people like these durable and economic bikes that are suitable for roads paved with asphalt as well as for dirt tracks with holes and puddles. Bamboo bikes are growing in popularity not only in Ghana but also in the United States, Germany, Holland and Japan. The bike factory in Ghana has been run by women exclusively from the very beginning. By June of this year they will reach 100 bikes produced per month, therefore, they are planning an expansion of staff with 50 new assumptions, (there are currently 30 employees). “New employees are required for increasing output to meet growing demand and to keep up our high quality and almost entirely handmade production”, says Bernice. “Expanding the production capacity to 100 bikes per month is the bare minimum to meet Ghana farmers’ or foreign distributors’ demand. We have also had requests from Italy – adds the young entrepreneur – but at the moment we cannot afford it, it’s better to wait till the end of the summer”.

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A green one

The Ghana Bamboo Initiative is a green one and it is socio-ecological. Bamboo can grow everywhere, in the Volta River Basin area on the border with the Ivory Coast, or around the Guinea Gulf, and even in the Sahel steppes. Besides, the project is a great work opportunity in an ’emerging’ but still poor country. Despite the uncertainties of the international context, Ghana’s economy has grown significantly in recent years. The government expects the gross domestic product to increase by more than 7 % in 2014. To date, however, the per capita annual income is less than $1700 and the UN Human Development ranks Ghana at the 135th place.
But personal stories show more than figures. In the factory on the outskirts of Accra, Nancy is one of the many girls that dropped out of Junior High School. When she was 27 years, her husband died. He was the sole source of income for the family. They didn’t have either medical insurance, or a bank account. She and her children could not even eat two decent meals per day. “Making ends meet”, this is the English expression she uses, “had become impossible. But with the apprenticeship and the bike project everything has changed. “I have medical coverage now, and I can pay the house rent, but above all, my children can afford to attend school”, says Nancy. Now, she is self- employed, working with bamboo on weekends. She makes and sells fuel rods that help her earn a few thousand more ‘cedis’, contributing, at the same time, to combat deforestation. According to the World Bank’s 2010 estimates, 135,000 hectares of forest are destroyed every year in Ghana. At this rate the country averagely is expected to run out of forest cover in about 20 years.

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Recognizing the decreasing forest cover, the potential of bamboo and the role that it can play as a suitable alternative to traditional timber, the Government of Ghana introduced in 2002, the Bamboo and Rattan Development Program (BARADEP) to find sustainable ways of developing the bamboo sector. Promoting eco-friendly choices and initiatives is essential for a country, where the shortage of housing is one of the most critical socio-economic challenges. The one million house-units needed to bridge the gap, and the simultaneous Ghanaian real estate boom of the last several years are likely to irreversibly affect environment and biodiversity. Few people would have imagined that bamboo bicycles would be worth so much. “The prototype for a bamboo-framed bicycle was first developed as early as 1894 – causing a minor sensation when it was unveiled at a London technology show at the time – but despite the fact that the bicycle was light and durable, the idea never took off”, says Bernice. The bamboo bike was forgotten for almost a century. In the mid-90s, some African artisans, extremely skilled in working fibres, resumed the project. Bamboo bikes, symbolic vehicles for emancipation, are gaining popularity all over the world. Last November, Bernice, Kwame and Winnifred won the ‘Momentum for Change for Results Women Award’ 2013, a prize awarded by the United Nations to women who contribute to an innovative way to combat climate change. The event took place during the world climate change talks in Warsaw, on this occasion UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon himself gave a Ghanean bamboo bike a test ride in the conference centre. (V.G.)

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