President Yoweri Museveni has always advised Ugandan traders to become manufacturers instead of simply selling imported goods.

Museveni’s lectures did not really change Charles Mulamata until the day he paid heavy taxes on a consignment of imported bicycles. At the end of the day, taxes took up more than two thirds of the total cost of getting the bicycles. “

We have a problem with high taxes on bicycles. We pay 10% import duty, 18% VAT, 15% interna  VAT, 6% withholding tax plus 10% surcharge on old items, in addition to top-up. When you add all these, you end up with taxes worth 69%,” revealed Mulamata.

He immediately started thinking he should manufacture and even export rather than import bicycles. But then he is an electronic, not a mechanical engineer.

He convinced himself that if he could understand electrons, which are invisible, he could definitely understand solid objects like bicycle parts.

How he started

It was then that a friend suggested to him that the idea of making bamboo bicycles.

The American-based friend recommended Craig Calfe, an expert in bamboo bicycle making, as someone who could effectively train Mulamata. In response, Craig Calfe who already has a similar project in Ghana, asked Mulamata to organise a few young people for training in bamboo bicycle making.

Inviting an American expert to Uganda to teach young people how to make bamboo bicycles was a good idea but the challenge was; would the young people were interested in the project?

“When I got that message, I wrote to the Uganda Cyclists Association (UCA), because these people used to buy tyres from us. Instead, UCA asked me how much we were going to pay the cyclists who would come for the training and in the end they didn’t send any,” Mulamata recalls.

He added: “We tried to get the youth interested in the project; some came and went away saying there was no food. Until David Matovu, one of the cyclists came over, and said they were ready to study despite their busy schedule because the training was to take 10 days”.

Meanwhile, Craig had asked Mulamata to harvest bamboo and dry it. With the interest from Matovu and other cyclists, they decided to harvest bamboo from around Rubaga Cathedral, and other villages.

“When the muzungu arrived, we were set and the training kicked off. He taught us how to make bamboo bicycle frames.”

The 10 days training course, which started on 30 March 2011 resulted into a completed bamboo mountain bike which was launched into an “Applied Cycle Race” on 27 March 2011.

In February 2011, after the training, Mulamata set up a workshop in Kampala to make bamboo bicycle frames. Located in Rubaga Division near Kabuusu round about, is Mulamata’s workshop, which also doubles as a training institution.

Mulamata explains that the bamboo is gotten from the forest, dried and joints removed. It’s then seasoned and treated with disinfectants, so that weevils do not drill it. It is then left to dry.

While on the table, the dry bamboo is smeared with a hardener and then filed to get a smooth finishing before being built into bicycle frames.

Their biggest market is in the US. An American-based company takes the frames and completes the process of making a bicycle.

“Our market currently is in the US but our partners also export the bicycle all over Europe. This type of product is so much appreciated in Europe because those people understand environmental issues. In the US, the completed bamboo bicycle goes for millions of shillings.

The workshop now employs four sports cyclists namely David Matovu, Najuuko, David Kasumba and Julius Kaggwa, who have been trained in making bamboo bicycle frames, and several unskilled workers.

Mulamata explains that they decided to employ the cyclists in the making of bamboo bicycle frames because they understand the bicycle better. Mulamata and his team plan to start sensitising the Ugandan community to appreciate the health and environmental benefits of using bamboo bicycles.

This way, they will create local demand in a way that benefits both the buyer and manufacturer. They plan to start making bamboo bicycles for the local market. He is also considering training other youth groups in Kampala and up country to take up bamboo bicycle-making.

He says apart from the obvious benefits and applications, bicycles can be used for shelling maize, generating electricity and many other things.

Facts about bamboo in Uganda

In Uganda, bamboo grows abundantly in a few areas such as Arua, Hoima, Kabale and the districts around Mt. Elgon. In most of these areas, the huge potential to make money out of bamboo has not yet been fully harnessed.

Bamboo can also be planted and some people have planted it in and around Kampala. In most areas, it is used for making furniture and building houses.

In Bugisu, the young shoots are a delicacy when processed and cooked in an intricate traditional way into a dish locally known as malewa.

By Prossy Nandudu, The New Vision

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