It Takes a Village to Launch a Venture: Bandha Bikes’ Pilot Trip to Uganda

Brian, Laurel and Amos show off their bamboo poles

After devoting more than two years to planning, preparing, and perfecting our bamboo bike model and developing relationships with potential partners in Uganda, the Bandha Bikes team finally set out to test the bicycle building process in Uganda this past August. While the DC team’s ongoing research has made great strides, there is still much that needs to be done on the ground, and luckily we were able to take advantage of Bandha’s Co-Director Laurel Hamilton’s summer job near the pilot village of Jinja, Uganda, to start collecting in-country data.

On weekends during the months leading up to the August trip, Laurel worked alongside local partners Brian Waako and Amos Bobo with Skills of Hope Africa (SOHA) to prepare for the pilot. With sustainability and affordability being key to the success of the project, finding local materials was an essential element of the pilot, so with the assistance of Brian and Amos, Laurel explored informal and formal markets near Jinja as well as in the bustling capital city of Kampala. Traveling by cramped minibus -- and sometimes the exciting, yet hazardous, boda boda motorcycle taxis -- added to the thrill of searching for key materials like epoxy, hemp, and tung oil. With ongoing technical assistance from the team back home in DC, and concerted efforts from our SOHA partners, Laurel was also able to locate, harvest, and heat treat bamboo poles, which need two months to properly dry, in advance of the pilot building process.

Transporting the bamboo

Each day brought new adventures. One day-long saga brought Brian, Amos, and Laurel to a large, underused bamboo stand in a rural expanse. The trio examined grove after grove, searching for the straightest bamboo in order to make the strongest frames. After cutting down several 10-foot long pieces, they flagged down a passing vehicle and tossed the poles on top of the already loaded truck bed. Once they reached a paved road they unloaded and flagged down a new truck to make the second leg of the long journey. For the third and final leg, they convinced one of the local minibus taxis to carry the bamboo poles under the feet of passengers to the pilot site in the village. It took several strangers with kind hearts throughout the community to make the bamboo transportation process even possible. A task as simple as picking up bamboo a mere 25 miles away proved to be quite a feat!


Laurel, Brian and women from the village help roast the bamboo poles

To avoid insect infestation, bamboo must be treated soon after extraction, so the team wasted no time in slowly roasting the bamboo over a charcoal fire. Curious neighbors came from all corners of the community to ask questions, often offering a helping hand with the heat treatment. The sense of eagerness, kindheartedness, and curiosity created great opportunities for positive community interaction and engagement around the Bandha Bikes project.

In August Jordan Bleck, Bandha’s Technical Lead, joined Laurel in-country. Jordan had worked on two Bandha Bike models, but this was his first time visiting Uganda and seeing firsthand the communities that the project hopes to impact. Admittedly, the pilot got off to a rocky start: After some essential materials -- the epoxy and jig -- were lost or damaged during the travel from the US to Uganda, SOHA partners scrambled to identify replaceable parts from shops throughout Kampala in hopes of reassembling the jig, which secures the dimensions and overall design of the frame and was essential to the success of the pilot. During the visit to Kampala, SOHA partners took a detour to introduce Jordan and Laurel to Sandy, who has been developing his own bamboo bicycle while working in Uganda. He was able to carve custom wooden pieces to replace missing parts, and his woodworking skills played an invaluable role in fixing the broken jig. Sandy was excited to meet our team members and will continue to be a valuable partner to Bandha BIkes.

Ciprian, Jordan and Sandy hard at work

Ciprian and Sandy (not the same Sandy mentioned above) are two hard-working people who also played a significant role in the pilot, and would become Bandha Bike’s first trainees as project bike builders. For three days they worked diligently with Jordan, assembling the bamboo frame step by step.

Village women observing the bike-building process

Several women in the community who make handicrafts and jewelry through a SOHA program frequented the workshop during the pilot. The interest, level of engagement, and overall curiosity of the villagers was remarkable, and illustrated a significant advantage of our partnership with SOHA, since one of Bandha Bike’s longer-term goals is to improve the entrepreneurial skills of women in a country where opportunities for them are few.

Laurel and Jordan also met with Kasoma, the only expert bamboo bicycle builder currently working from Uganda. Kasoma builds custom bikes and ships them to international customers, and had an incredible knowledge base to share with the Bandha team about both the international and Ugandan markets as well as the business landscape available in-country.

Jordan served as a jungle gym for some village children

Part of the pilot trip included a village homestay directly across the street from the workshop, which gave the team an insider’s look into the community. They shopped for food from markets in nearby Jinja town and cooked local dishes over a small charcoal stove, which Laurel had learned to do during her time in Uganda. Jordan figured out how to take a bucket bath and hand-wash laundry, also with the help of Laurel’s seasoned experience. Neighbors welcomed the team by offering matoke (plantain), as well as a strange fruit that looked like a kumquat but tasted like an avocado. Children frequently surrounded the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of what the team was doing -- sometimes they lucked out when Jordan would let them climb all over him. A white man and a woman speaking the local greetings were probably a very strange occurrence for the village! The experience of the homestay gave the team a great look into the struggles as well as the simple but generous way of life in Uganda.

As for next steps, Bandha Bikes will continue to develop the implementation of bike building activities and partner relationships on the ground. Within the next year, the team hopes to finalize frame testing processes in Uganda, develop a full functioning manufacturing process, and continue to engage Ugandan communities through the project's educational sessions. If you would like to support our efforts, we are running a fundraising campaign through November 26, and need help to reach our tipping point. Please visit our campaign page for more information or to donate.

If you live in the Washington, DC, area, BicycleSPACE in the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood hosts a donation yoga class every Monday at 7:30 pm, and through November 24, all proceeds from these classes will benefit Bandha Bikes. Click here for more information. And thank you to BicycleSPACE for supporting us!

Hatch International’s Bandha Bikes projects aims to improve the well-being of impoverished Ugandans by providing rural communities with economically and environmentally sustainable bicycles. For more information on Bandha Bikes or to help support the project please click here.

This blog post was written by Laurel Hamilton, with contributions from Song Nguyen, Co-Directors of Hatch International’s Bandha Bikes Project. Photos by Laurel Hamilton. Additional pictures from the trip can be found on Bandha Bikes Facebook page.