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A bamboo bicycle for you…

Jacky Sutton

Wordsworth wasn’t wrong when he turned to nature for inspiration, and Canberra “bright and glittering in the smokeless air” seems to nourish an imaginative streak that thrives in the absence of “ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples” and other accoutrements of city life.

Wordsworth and his fellow romantics also believed in the beneficial effects of the natural world in cultivating the better side of humanity, turning to the lush valleys of England’s Lake District to shield them from the bleak and gritty realities of the Industrial Revolution.

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Given the therapeutic affects of green on the human soul it is perhaps not surprising that Canberra is set to be the launchpad of a small business that mixes philanthropy with novelty, with a dash of climate change awareness.

Ethical Wheels is an owner-owned collective that imports bamboo bicycle frames from a non-for-profit in Ghana and hire homeless people in Canberra to assemble and sell them.

“Everybody benefits from this,” explains Hussain, a banker who moved to the city from Pakistan a year and a half ago and jumped at the challenge to combine his business skills with kindness.

“We are working with the Noffs Foundation in the city to set up a scheme to teach people soft skills as well as other things such as marketing and bicycle maintenance to help them get back on their feet.”

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Ethical Wheels’ five members – Hussain, Jen, Greg, Judith and Janine – each chipped in AUD$1,000 and their time to import some demo frames, wheels and other parts to set up the bikes. They’re working their way through the paperwork to set up the cooperative and had their inaugural stall at Kingston Markets at the end of March.

“People were curious and amused, but they loved the bikes,” says Jen. “So we’re quite encouraged.”

And there is a lot to smile about.

Bamboo has been touted as “the next carbon fibre;” high praise for those in the manufacturing industry, which has been dominated by the oil-thirsty polymer resin for the last century.

“Bamboo is resilient, strong and doesn’t cost the earth. It grows quickly and is already being used in applications such as surfboards,” explains Hussain.

“It’s even making an appearance in the luxury car industry, replacing walnut wood on steering wheels and the dashboard.”

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While it is unlikely that bamboo could match the strength required for some auto applications, it is increasingly being used for bicycles, with groups of aficionados springing up as far apart as Britain, the US, Germany and Africa. The frames that Ethical Bikes are road testing have been stress-tested in Germany and the group are seeking to get the relevant Australian quality certification.

The idea for the Canberra initiative was born in China, where Jen was living with her husband, Greg. They met, by chance, with Kwabena Danso, the Ghanaian CEO of Boomers International and the director of the Yonso Project. These are non-for-profit initiatives that work with young people to provide them with employment and educational opportunities – including scholarships in the US, where the Yonso Project is a registered nonprofit organisation.

The bikes themselves are beautiful; bamboo has a buttery caramel sheen that is already a favourite for floors, furniture and even bedsheets. While I can’t see them replacing high-end racers, they are perfect for Canberra’s bike trails and leafy streets. There are a variety of frames, and current bike owners can recycle their existing components for additional climate points.

Hussain and Jen are already brainstorming about accessories and have even cast an eye on Australia’s native bamboo, which some consider a weed and others consider – an opportunity.

Jacky Sutton

Jacky Sutton landed in Canberra on a skilled migrant visa last year after almost two decades working with the United Nations in war zones around the world. Up until October she was working in Baghdad with the Iraqi election commission and before that she was working with journalists and bloggers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran. She started out with BBC World Service and Vatican Radio before moving into the development aid sector. She arrived in Canberra on Melbourne Cup Day – “It was like a nuclear winter – there was no one here!” – but is now enrolled as a research scholar at the Centre of Arabic and Islamic Studies at ANU and otherwise keeping busy with Vegan ACT, HerCanberra and two rescue cats called Shirin and Narla. More about the Author

  • Muffadal Quettawala

    Interesting idea. Ill be on a lookout for these guys

    • Jen Wong-Baines

      We’re at the Kingston Old Depot Market on 26 July. Please come by and have a chat. You can visit our website http://www.ethicalwheels.com/ for more information.

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