This blog post tells the story of a social enterprise called Booomers that makes bamboo bicycle frames in rural Ghana, chiefly for export to Europe. It is an inspiring example of an innovative entrepreneur, Kwabena Danso, finding a way to meld environmental concern with social and economic development in his home village. Kwabena’s personal journey resonates with some important current debates on rural development in Africa, which is one of the world’s greatest challenges.
Bamboo bikes debuted in London 120 years ago, when the Bamboo Bicycle Company showcased the new product. However, it was not until the early part of this century, with increasing interest in sustainability, that bamboo bikes have become more widespread. Modern bamboo bikes can be of excellent quality when they take full advantage of bamboo’s lightness, strength and vibration-absorbing properties. So alongside helping the planet by saving carbon when you choose a bamboo frame bike rather than a metal or carbon frame one, you can also end up on a bike that rides better – a virtuous cycle!
Kwabena Danso was born and brought up in the village of Yonso, in central Ghana. As in many rural areas across Africa, educational and employment opportunities in Yonso are limited, and there is a steady drift of young people to cities, even though these cities are not able to sustainably accommodate the continuing influx from rural areas.
Kwabena feels very fortunate to have been able to access educational opportunity himself despite not coming from a wealthy background. Reflecting on the transformation education had brought in his own life, he decided after completing his academic studies with an MBA from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi that he would return from the city to his home village. His aim was to enable many more young people from the Yonso area to access opportunities in education and employment similar to those he had enjoyed.
In 2007, Kwabena co-founded a non-governmental rural community development organisation, the Yonso Project, to try to deliver this vision. Through this project, he was able to provide a range of educational opportunities and scholarships to local young people. However, over time he came to the conclusion that he needed to find ways of generating employment and revenues locally. This would allow him to directly benefit local young people by providing decent jobs, the lack of which is a major driver of rural-urban drift, and it would also generate funds for investment in the community.
Kwabena explored a range of possible business ideas, and came across a programme run by Craig Calfree, a leading American bike frame designer who had done development work on modern high quality bamboo bike frames. Craig offered a programme in the USA for African entrepreneurs interested in learning bamboo bike frame manufacture: skills which they could take back to their home countries, and take advantage of local bamboo, which grows widely across Africa, in order to develop bamboo bike businesses. In 2009, Kwabena took this course, and decided bamboo bikes were the business opportunity for Yonso that he had been searching for. He therefore set up Booomers International (“Booomers”), a company that specializes in the production of bamboo framed bicycles.
Booomers commenced operations in 2009 and is now Ghana’s leading producer and exporter of bamboo bicycles which are distributed in a dozen countries. Booomers will be launching in the UK later in 2017, as the company continues to grow. As well as making more bamboo bikes, Booomers has recently expanded its product range to include bamboo electric bikes and mobile phone speaker amplifiers. Booomers provides more than 40 jobs directly in Yonso, which indirectly support more than 200 people, as well as providing continuing educational scholarships and investment through a share of profits.
Kwabena has benefitted over the years from a number of entrepreneurship support training programmes and awards typically funded by aid programmes, including UK Aid. Some of these have been very helpful, others less so, but the key lesson is that such programmes can be a valuable complement and support to the entrepreneur’s inner motivation and drive for success, but cannot provide these. All successful development is ultimately self-development!
If you’d like the chance to meet Kwabena and hear more of his story, and of his practical experiences in social entrepreneurship as a driver of development in Africa (and also get to see a beautiful Booomers bike!) he’s available in London at a talk and discussion on 13 June 2017
Henry Abraham FRSA lives in Ghana, West Africa, where he works with a number of socially responsible businesses (including chairing Booomers International)