At an African Leadership Academy event in Johannesburg last year, I asked a young Ghanaian entrepreneur, Winifred Selby, what motivated her to co-start Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative when she was just 15. The award winning company makes bicycles out of bamboo and has caught the attention of global organizations.
Her answer? She was fed-up. Whilst at school Selby discovered a number of things about Ghana, and the continent in general, that deeply upset her.
“I always say Africans are the richest… there are so many things we have and can add value to make a change. But Africans always seem to think they cannot do something extraordinary, but rather only people from foreign countries can,” she said sternly.
“It’s so sad and so serious that a common toothpick in my country has to be imported from other countries. We don’t do it ourselves because we look down on ourselves… We think foreigners are the people to make changes. It’s something that pains me because we have been blessed with so many things.”
She also realized there was demand for an affordable mode of transport in her country after learning many students in Ghana have to walk miles to get to school.
“By the time they get to the classroom they will be tired. What concentration are they going to have to study? Imagine walking eight miles (13km) to school, learning, and then walking eight miles back home.”
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She realized farmers faced a similar challenge and often had to walk great distances carrying heavy loads to get produce to markets, due to a lack of transportation in agricultural areas.
And in addition there is the high unemployment levels and the reality that Ghana needs many more growing businesses and entrepreneurs to provide much needed jobs. All of these things frustrated Selby, and she desperately wanted to be part of as many solutions as possible.
“But I was 15, a student, and didn’t have any money. I can’t make cars – they are too expensive. But I kept thinking, what can I do to add value to bring a change in Africa? And then I realized what to do because I [remembered] my country is blessed with many things.”
One is bamboo – which Ghana has an abundance of. And it wasn’t long before she – with the help of two older students, Bernice Dapaah and Kwame Kyei – discovered they could convert the bamboo into sturdy, shock-resistant bicycle frames.
And so the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative was born.
Becoming a global success story
The aim was to address both the transportation needs and unemployment problems in her community. Five years later the company employs around a dozen people full-time, produces between 60 and 100 bicycles a month, and has provided hundreds with a form of transport.
What is more, the bikes have found a large export market and received some international recognition. In November 2013 UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took a spin on one of Selby’s bikes at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference.