Initially it did not occur to Vaughn Spethmann and Dustin McBride that their 2004 university field trip to Zambia would become a generative event. But the two friends unwittingly embarked on the journey of a lifetime.
As impressed as the two young men were with the kindness and hospitality of the Zambian people they met, their initial first impression was marred by the reality of the stark living conditions of those they encountered. The unemployment rate was mind boggling. Worse yet, few people had the means of traveling to a job were one to be offered.
Following graduation the two returned in 2007 to Zambia and partnered with Mwewa Chikamba and Gershom Sikaala to form Zambikes. Their vision was simple: build a means of transportation that would enable people to branch further out in search of a living and build that transportation from a cheap, readily available natural material. Their dream was not just to form an eco-friendly business but to serve the needs of local Zambians.
Naming their company Zambikes, the enterprise has grown and partnered with other similar concerns and is now marketing its custom built bicycles around the globe, offering biking enthusiasts a new type of riding experience as well as benefiting local Zambian communities.
Using the prolifically growing native African bamboo and local sisal, Zambikes crafts lightweight bikes that rival their steel and aluminum counterparts.
“It’s a green project and we are encouraging other entities and industries to look at ways and means of bringing down the levels of pollution,” says Lusaka native Chikamba, 43. “We produce it in a manner that is pollution-free and isn’t by any chance devastating to the global warming issues.”
The process of crafting a Zambike is not easy, nor quick. It takes nearly a week to make one of their hand crafted creations. Fortunately, the bamboo needed to make a bike is regenerated nearly as quickly as they are built. Bamboo is one of nature’s fastest growing plants and has extremely good shock absorbing qualities which make it an ideal material for the bikes.
In addition, the company is achieving its goal of giving back to the community by providing jobs for about 40 local workers. Those jobs offer much more than a paycheck. They are a road out of poverty and a tool for empowering the underprivileged and undereducated.
“The main goal we have is firstly to make the most vulnerable Zambians realize that they have an equal opportunity in life to excel.” said Chikamba.
This forward-thinking innovation does not come without a price. Marked for sale at $900 to more than $1200, most Zambians would never be able to afford to own a bike manufactured in their own country. The bikes are largely being manufactured for export to the international community.
For that reason, Zambikes also makes a more traditional steel-framed bike to provide an inexpensive alternative for local needs. Zambikes also has a partnership with a microfinance organization in the area to provide financial assistance to those who do not have enough money to purchase a bike.
To further serve the community, the group also decided to produce Zambulances, which are just what they sound like – bicycle ambulances. In a country where many people live many miles from the nearest medical facility and are without fuel for cars, the Zambulance fills a deep need. Patients can be transported in relative comfort and receive necessary treatment.
To help the agricultural community, Zambikes added a bicycle cart, Zamcarts, to their line of products that can easily be attached to a bike and used to transport goods to market in a more timely fashion.
Over the years Zambikes has expanded to now do everything from assembling bikes, manufacturing bike parts to offering maintenance and repair. More importantly, all of the profits that Zambikes realizes is reinvested back into the company or in community projects run by partner non-profit organizations.
The company is also offering additional business training and interest-free loans to its staff as part of its commitment to community development. In lieu of interest, Zambikes asks employees to demonstrate that the investment made in them is somehow benefiting their community.
Operations Director Divilance Machilika proved to be a fast learner, quickly mastering construction skills and bike mechanics. Now he supervises the daily operations of the workshop. He later used one of the company’s loans to buy a small piece of land. “I want to build three houses there. I’ll use the rent money to start other businesses and employ people myself.”
Machilika, says of the Zambikes, “I can see these selling well in America. They’ll like them because they’re natural,” he says.
Chikamba, says Machilika is an illustration of what Zambikes wanted to achieve. “It was never just about bikes. We wanted to give our workers practical skills and reward their dedication. We want to change lives,” he says.