Off the beaten track: Business lessons from building bamboo bikes

In 2010, when Ghanaian Bernice Dapaah was still at college, her entrepreneurship professor challenged the class to stop searching for non-existent white-collar jobs and instead create self employment opportunities for themselves and others in their community.

Bernice Dapaah, co-founder of Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative

Bernice Dapaah, co-founder of Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative

Noticing an abundance of bamboo forests in the country, Dapaah and two fellow students realised they could convert the wood into quality, shock-resistant bicycles that would both address the transportation needs in their community, and provide employment.

Thus Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative was formed, and today employs 30 people and produces between 60 and 100 handcrafted bicycles each month. Recently named a 2014 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, Dapaah tells How we made it in Africa about the challenges she has faced, and shares advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Who are your customers and how much do you sell your bamboo bikes for?

The majority of our customers are mainly importers who import the high-end bamboo bike frames from us at US$300 and fully bamboo bikes at $400. In the local market we subsidised our production and sell full bamboo, multi-purpose bikes for $150.

What were the main challenges you faced when setting up your initiative and how did you overcome them?

Lack of financing: apart from investing personal savings, we used different innovative strategies including organising bamboo bike building classes to raise funds from our “students” from abroad. We also managed to convince some of our prospective buyers to advance to us monies for production and through that we could quickly buy some of our inventory and get some basic tools for production whilst working on their frames.

Labour related problems: there were no existing bamboo bike builders to start with so we had to invest in the training of highly skilled bamboo bike builders… We trained some of our bamboo bike builders with multiple skill sets, so that they can replace other positions for a short period of time when necessary.

Slow market development for our bamboo bikes: our communication designers explored different ways of strategic communication, advertisement and publicity. We also market the products as high durability and cost-efficient products. Their being made from bamboo and by people from rural communities is just a “story” behind the products. Most of our products cannot be identified as made from bamboo unless specified. This attracts a larger audience as well.

Perception about NGOs: often, communities are used to NGO giveaways and we have to ensure a shift from this to ensure that Ghana Bamboo Bikes is perceived as a business opportunity since we operate as a profit social enterprise to empower rural dwellers and their communities.

How important do you think entrepreneurship is in Ghana today?

Well, I can say formal entrepreneurship is still a growing phenomenon and catching up gradually. With the needed financing to support the sector, the right approach, management expertise and access to the relevant information and capacity building needs, it can be transformed into a success story.

The best business advice you have received?

I have come to learn to be patient and not to give up too quickly. It takes patience and persistence to bring a new and innovative product and ways of doing things to a community. There are early adopters who immediately embrace the product and there are traditionalists who resist the change that the initiative represents.

What are some of the main challenges Ghanaian entrepreneurs face?

The major obstacle is financing for business. In our part of the world, it is very tough getting the needed financing for innovative business. The financial institutions in Ghana do not support startups, no matter how brilliant your ideas are. I do not know of any active angel investors in the country probably except those that exist by name or on paper, and since most entrepreneurs often lack the education, skills, and access to information required to turn their entrepreneurial spirit into bankable project ideas they cannot access the needed funding from venture capital firms.

The other aspect has got to do with finding the right calibre of people to work with. There are so many graduates from technical and vocational schools, universities and other training institutions but most are poorly trained for the job market so human resource becomes a big challenge for entrepreneurs.

Drawing from your experience, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I will give aspiring entrepreneurs three basic principles that will guide them. First of all they should have a very clear direction of where they want to be and see entrepreneurship as a calling and not a last resort for those who are looking for employment in the formal sector and could not find one.

Secondly, they should invest in businesses in which they are familiar. They should not enter into a business just because they have heard money is in business. That will be a recipe for disaster for them if they do that.

Last but not least, they should know that no good thing can be achieved instantly since Rome was not built in a day. They should have it in mind that along the line they might fail. If it happens they should not be discouraged but learn from their failure and appreciate the fact that success is a journey on which the path is wrought with a lot of challenges. Many have failed numerous times but they have never given up.

Successful people are able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on. I can name very successful businesspeople from Bill Gates through to Oprah Winfrey to Walt Disney and Richard Branson who have failed at one time or the other in their businesses. But they never gave up and moved on to become very successful entrepreneurs.