The Gabon woman who went from teacher to bamboo bike maker

Walking for miles to get to school put huge strain on her pupils – particularly the women – so Grace Mabika decided to make pedal power accessible for all

Deep in Gabon’s humid tropical rainforest, Grace Mabika is making a bicycle.

“Cutting bamboo is hard,” she says, hacking away at shoots with a machete. “The bamboo must be at least five years old to turn it into a bike. We are very selective about which shoots we cut.”

Mabika, 33, is co-founder of Bamga Bicycles, the first company in Gabon to make bamboo bikes.

It will take her and a team of five a day to fill a truckload of bamboo to make 200 bikes at her factory in Mouila, a town six hours south of Gabon’s capital Libreville. The raw material will be dried in the sun, carved into bike frames and varnished. Handlebars and wheels, made by a local manufacturer, will then be added.

Grace Mabika, co-founder of Bamga Bicycles.
Grace Mabika, co-founder of Bamga Bicycles. Photograph: Handout

Mabika had the idea to make bikes while working as an English teacher in Mouila, her hometown, a few years ago. She saw that many of her pupils walked for hours each day to get to school. “It pained me to know that my students had to walk for so long. For women, it’s even worse because when they get home they have to cook – it’s exhausting,” she says.

“But we have the resources here in abundance to create simple solutions to impact local communities.”

She put her idea into action in 2020, during the Covid pandemic. By then she was managing a hotel, but the lockdown saw 40 people lose their jobs. Mabika employed the former staff to cut down bamboo. Using money from friends and family, she built her first bike – a child’s tricycle.

Within months of its launch, Bamga Bicycles had secured more than 2,000 orders within Mouila, a town of 20,000 people. A further 3,000 bikes have been ordered by an outdoor company which has 39 shops across Gabon, replacing the ones it imports from China. Half the bikes will be specifically made for women.

The first prototype cost around £550 to build, but Mabika wants to cut production costs to make it more affordable. “People have money,” Mabika says, but bringing the price down would “democratise access” to bikes for everyone.

Despite being one of the richest countries in Africa, with a per capita GDP of around $8,000 (£6,600), about a third of the population lives below the national poverty line. Its 2 million has been ruled by the Bongo family since 1967, and the country is one of Africa’s largest oil producers.

Most bikes in Gabon are made with men in mind. Mabika makes smaller bikes designed for women, with a basket on the front. She hopes to encourage more women to start cycling. “If we can get just 5% more women riding bikes, I would be very happy,” she says. So far, she’s had a lot of interest from female students who want to cut their long walks to school and keep themselves safe.

Mabika also wants to employ more women. She currently hires some women to cut down bamboo, but as production increases, she wants more women trained to work in the manufacturing plant.

Mabika’s ultimate goal is to build and sell 20,000 bamboo bikes a year and put Africa on the map as a source of quality bamboo. “Africa is not well known for its bamboo, but Gabon has very good and strong bamboo, and there is an opportunity for us to take a share of the market.”

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Tom Collins

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