All over the world, bicycles from renewable materials are gaining ground. Egyptian Karim Creta is experimenting with a local variety: palm midribs. He is helped in his efforts by craftsmen with the needed expertise.

Bicycles are the well-known eco-friendly alternative to cars, but have you ever wondered how ‘green’ the production process of your bike is? According to the world steel association, on average, 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted for every ton of steel produced. According to the International Energy Agency, the iron and steel industry accounts for approximately 6.7 percent of total world CO2 emissions. Across the world, a growing number of individuals and enterprises are working to make bikes more ecofriendly. Among them is Egyptian national Karim Creta, 24 years old and currently an international relations and humanitarian logistics student in France.

“It all started two years ago when I was on a trip to Bangladesh and someone there showed me a picture of a bamboo bike,” he says. “I was very impressed by the idea and started doing some research. I found out that Craig Calfee, founder of Calfeedesign, was the first to introduce the concept of bamboo bikes in 1995 to the modern commercial bicycle market. Now bamboo bikes are produced all over the world.” Bamboo is stronger, lighter, more shock absorbing and cheaper than steel. Bamboo bikes were first patented in England by the Bamboo Cycle Company and introduced to the general public in 1894. However, with the development of tougher industrial metals, such as steel and aluminium, large-scale usage of bamboo to build bicycles never happened until 1995.

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Technical and socio-ecological benefits

Last year, when Karim Creta visited Egypt during his summer vacation, he decided to build a bamboo bike frame. “I started watching videos on how to create wooden frames.” The student did not only engage with the technical aspects of bamboo bikes, however. He was also intrigued by the socio-ecological side of such bike production. In this, he was inspired by two scientists at New York’s Columbia University. Using the slogan “Made in Africa, for Africa”, they founded the Bamboo Bike Project aiming to produce low-cost, high-quality bamboo bikes in Sub-Saharan Africa using a local raw material, which is bamboo. The project’s main large-scale bamboo bike production facility is located in Ghana under the control of Bamboo Bikes Limited (BBM), a Ghana-based company. They have also done experiments in Uganda, Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

Karim explains his fascination with the project: “The bikes will serve as a cheap means of transportation to the villages that are not connected by public transport networks. Also, producing the bikes locally will help create more job opportunities in countries with high unemployment rates.”

Learning the craft

When Karim himself began building frames, he faced many difficulties – but he soon had an encounter that did away with these problems. “It was a coincidence,” says Karim Abdallah one of the co-founders of Ain Bicycles, a bicycle shop for custom made bikes in Cairo. “Dirk Wanrooij, my co-founder, met Karim at a supply store in Cairo. Karim had a bamboo bike frame with him and this triggered the conversation between them.” The know-how of building bike frames is not that common in Egypt, Karim Abdallah explains. “Currently the frames manufactured locally in Egypt are made in small workshops and have major defects that make them unusable.”

Until the encounter with Karim Creta, Ain Bicycles had been working only with steel frames. They invited Karim to continue his work at their studio. The student says that Ain Bicycles gave him the knowledge of assembling a bicycle and also helped him in the manufacturing process of the prototypes he made.

Switching from Bamboo to Palm Trees

This was not the end of Karim’s innovation cycle, however. “I think Karim Creta is the first person to think of building a bicycle out of palm midribs. It is something I have never seen or heard of before. I was very impressed by his idea and imagination,” says Karim Abdallah.

Karim Creta explains why he decided to use palm midribs rather than continue with bamboo: “Palm midribs are much cheaper and easier to find here in Egypt. It takes about one and a half midribs to build one bike. When we start mass production, I am planning to get the midribs from Upper Egypt or the Delta in northern Egypt. The palms there have strong midribs.”

There is a tradition in Egypt in working with palm midribs. Those of date palms are often used for roofing or to make crates and furniture. According to a report published in 2009 by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization there are around 16 million palm trees in Egypt. It is also estimated that one palm produces 12 to 15 midribs during its annual pruning.

Prospects for greening the cycling scene

“Bamboo frames started out as an experiment with a different material. Now they are very popular. If palm midribs were proven to be as durable and as strong as bamboo and could also be standardized, then I think the bikes would definitely succeed commercially,” estimates Karim Abdallah.

Mohamed Hassan, in contrast, finds the idea interesting but still desires proof of the strength, durability and practicality of the wooden bikes before he would purchase one. Hassan is one of the co-founders of Assiut cyclists, a group that started in 2014 in Assiut, the largest city in Upper Egypt. The group includes people from different ages, backgrounds and genders. “We started by gathering every Friday to ride together as a group. Now we have many other activities. Most of us own cars, but due to the frequent traffic jams we prefer to ride our bikes,” says Mohamed Hassan.

Karim Abdallah of Ain Bicycles comments on the cycling movement. “We are used to seeing people riding different kinds of bikes in the streets as part of their jobs: the milkman, for example. What is new to the cycling scene is its expansion to higher social tiers. This trend has started in the early 2000s and has been growing fast especially in the past couple of years.” “We are now waiting for the test results on the final version of the palm bike to determine its endurance, strength and durability,” Karim Creta sums up the current state of the enterprise. “Unfortunately, I have to travel back to France. So my future plan is to have an organization or to pass my knowledge to others in Egypt to continue with the project and go commercial.” Karim has a clear vision of the path that his venture is to take: “The price of the bike should be kept low in order for it to be affordable and not lose the developmental side of the project.”