Can the Buffalo change Africa's bicycle culture?

Boy with bicycle in Chongwe, Zambia
Image caption Could the Buffalo bike transform lives?

Bicycles are used by millions of Africans to transport everything from children to chickens but the vast majority are cheap, flimsy, and generally unreliable imports.

An American charity World Bicycle Relief (WBR) hopes to change all that - by assembling reliable bikes locally.

Its ultimate aim is to create bikes completely manufactured in Africa - from the frames to the spokes.

Appropriately named the Buffalo, this sturdy bicycle is a new product with a retro look.

Its design is based on the British touring bikes of the 1950s - but with the latest technology, including a tough metal rack at the back for carrying up to 100kg.

There are now more than 70,000 of them in Africa, many of them donated to charities and non-governmental organisations.

WBR is an offshoot of the American SRAM Corporation, which supplied parts for Lance Armstrong's high performance racing machines used by the US former cyclist in the Tour de France.

It started life in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami when it donated 24,000 bicycles to Sri Lanka.

Into Africa

The charity then turned its attention to humanitarian projects in Africa and began distributing bicycles to health workers in Zambia.

There are already a number of charities operating in Africa, such as Bicycles for Humanity, Re-cycle and Bike Aid for Africa which deliver second-hand bicycles to the continent.

But WBR is not just motivated by altruism and philanthropy.

It also wants to make money, so the Buffalo had to be commercially sustainable.

Image caption The bicycles are assembled in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya

By 2008 there was sufficient demand for the company to start selling bicycles on a large scale.

"It's almost a crime against humanity - the junk that's been dumped into Africa in terms of quality bicycles," WBR head Frederick Day told the BBC.

Mr Day says he was appalled by what he saw of existing bicycles imported into Africa.

"They are assembled poorly, cared for poorly - and the people who buy the bikes are the poorest people in Africa and they have no voice if something fails or goes wrong," he says.

"So the suppliers are getting away with it."

He says that while the old bicycles of 60 years ago, in the pre-independence days, were tough and durable, they were quickly replaced with imports from China and India - which could not cope with tough African terrains and potholed roads.

Some say the cheaper models proved a false economy.

It is difficult to know how many bicycles there are in Africa.

Some estimates put the figure at more than 10 million out of a population of around 1 billion.

Whatever the exact figure, it is certainly rising. Last year, for example, Kenya imported 500,000 bikes.

WBR already assembles bicycles in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, employing around 75 people.

It has just started an operation in Pietermartizburg, South Africa, where it is training 25 women to become mechanics.

It has also supplied bikes indirectly to Mozambique, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda via various partnerships and aid projects.

But the Buffalos are not cheap; they cost between $130-$150 (£83-£96).

That price tag is beyond the reach of the poorest people.

Fransina Mamabolo works as a shop assistant in a store called the China Mall in Johannesburg, where bikes are sold for as little as $50.

"A bicycle for $130 is too expensive," she says. "It is unaffordable for many people. That company will have a problem if they are trying to attract the low-income market."

"People compare prices before they buy. We are one of the cheapest stockists around, so this company will not be a threat to us."

But WBR insists that the quality of the bicycles is paramount - and for Africa's professional cyclists, that is the only priority.

Gugu Zulu takes part in cycle races across South Africa. His own carbon fibre racer cost nearly $3,000.

Image caption Professional cyclist Gugu Zulu thinks the Buffalo bikes are good value

"When starting to cycle and when using it to ride to the shops, school or work, $130 is certainly a fair price to pay," he says.

"With good maintenance, even that kind of bicycle should last a long time."

An industrial revolution

Mr Day says he believes the Buffalo can provide a huge step forward in helping people reach markets, schools, hospitals or clean sanitation.

At the moment many more millions of Africans still walk everywhere, often for miles.

"The progression from walking to riding is a small industrial revolution in people's lives," he says.

"With a bicycle, you can go and get fresh water, with a bicycle you can go and get medical care, you can go to your job or get a better job. So it doesn't provide you with fresh water but it gives you access to it and it's all about access."

Last year WBR sold more than 25,000 bikes and hopes to surpass that figure in 2012.

Although the parts for the Buffalo are currently sourced from India, China and Taiwan, the eventual goal is to have all the constituent parts made exclusively in Africa to produce the first truly African mass market bike.

The charity is currently working on a project with the World Bank to supply bicycles to schoolgirls in Zambia who would otherwise have long walks to their classrooms.

Microfinance arrangements have also been put in place so that the girls can borrow the money to pay for the bikes. Already attendance levels have increased dramatically.

Since transport and infrastructure are often the biggest stumbling block to Africa's development, the company believes the humble bicycle could play an important role in that elusive African renaissance.

Additional reporting by Pumza Fihlani in Johannesburg

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