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A Maintenance-Free Bike To Give Africans Some Mobility

Buffalo bicycles—a winner of a recent Chicago Innovation Award—won’t break down for five years, and fit almost anyone: kids going to school, entrepreneurs to bring goods to markets, and health care workers who visit patients on their bikes. It’s a two-wheeled piece of social change.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left thousands of people stranded, with ruined infrastructure putting basic needs-health care, school, building materials—out of reach. So bicycle-components manufacturer SRAM Corporation founded World Bicycle Relief, and, through partnerships with aid organizations, brought more than 24,000 bicycles to people in Sri Lanka.

The organization has since expanded its bike-giving to Africa, where the bikes are used by kids to get to school, entrepreneurs to bring goods to markets, and health care workers who visit patients on two wheels. Producers, too, are local and assemble all the bicycles in factories in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa, and mechanics trained by the organization fix bikes wherever problems pop up.

Luckily, problems popping up isn’t a common problem. That’s thanks to World Bicycle Relief’s Buffalo Bike. At first, the cycle doesn’t look like anything special: Other than a dip in the top tube, it looks like any flea-market cruiser. The secrets to the bike’s power as a tool for economic and social change are subtle. Take the odd top tube, for instance. The shape makes a single bike comfortable for people of different heights, and it allows women to ride it in dresses. The frame of the bike is made of 16-gauge steel, creating a strong—and heavy, at 55 pounds—ride. "It’s less of a bike and more of a truck," says COO Michael Collins, "and is built to last with no maintenance for more than five years." Hence the sealed-off coaster brake, which, hidden in the rear hub, is hardly different from the one you used as a kid—except for how well it’s shielded from dirt and water.

Another key to the bicycle, Collins says, is that all its parts are compatible with local parts. So if a spoke snaps, a local replacement will fit. "If we just shipped over Western bikes," he says, "the local parts wouldn’t fit."

In the last year, individual people—farmers, for instance—started requesting the bikes. So World Bicycle Relief began selling them. That’s good for both the organization and for Africa’s economy, says Collins. "It shows that Africa is a viable consumer market for good, solid products."

Buffalo Bicycles

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  • Keith Oberg

    At 55 lbs, these are heavy for many children walking miles to school. Do you have a smaller, lgihter version? 

  • OKfantastic

    This is a great concept. I just got back from Ethiopia where I spent quite a bit of time working on Chinese bikes (phoenix model) that were falling apart after 6 months of use. We had to replace pedals, forks, seats, and tires at no small fee. I hope these really do hold up under the harsh conditions.

  • Kai Wang

    Definitely an attempt to crack a sustainability problem. But it's probably not the ground-breaking solution one might be looking.

  • Lmday

    You are so correct.  The header is misleading.  We agree there is no bicycle which is maintenance free.  World Bicycle Relief strives to create a very strong sustainable product.  We train recipients to keep their tires filled to avoid punctures and remember to tighten the bolts that can loosen from the rock and pot hole filled roads.  Each bicycle comes with a kit attached to the back of the seat which contains theses wrenches. We also train one community selected Field Mechanic for appx. every 50 bicycles delivered into the field.  When a bicycle does need a new spare part such as a pedal or spokes or hub, our product is backwards compatible with parts found in most local bicycle repair shops. Within this last couple of years we are also able to provide spares for these Field Mechanics and bike shops to sell at competitive prices.  

  • wonderguy

    Except for a clever use of alloys I dont really see any innovation in this product. Bicycles with listed features already exist in Asia, probably not on a single one. Wondering whats the cost of each bicycle??

  • Ahall

    As the WBR Product Manager for these bikes, you are mostly correct in your assessment.  These bikes are not designed to be "innovative".  Instead we focus on world-class manufacturing and attention to the end users needs.  The difference is in the tolerances of the bearings and threading, reinforcements in the seat construction, consistent metallurgy, sealing, superior rubber formulation, proper assembly etc.  These are what make a world of difference in the longevity and utility of the bike.  We're not creating new technology; we're bringing to bear a level of excellence that no one has ever bothered to offer the African consumer.  And yes, no bike is maintenance-free.  We're talking about a bike that can be counted on to consistently get goods to markets, kids to school, and health services to patients versus a bike that can be counted on to be dragged to a mechanic every single day.

  • Frederic Mary

    The cheapest strongest and more reliable bike i have seen in my trips is the brasilian Caloi BarraForte with his curious (but beautiful) circular frame reinforcement…