The rise of Zambikes

BikesCovenanter Vaughn Spethmann never imagined that the small nonprofit business he co-founded as a mission – Acirfa (Africa spelled backwards) – would have grown so quickly, branched out, and received worldwide attention through a recent British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report.

Spethmann, 24, and a member of Clairemont Covenant Church, helped start the ministry after graduating from Azusa Pacific College two years ago. He founded the ministry with classmate Dustin McBride and two Zambians. Click here to read a December 2007 online article about the formation of the new venture.

Spethmann and McBride started Acirfa as an overarching corporation for Zambikes. Through Zambikes they are developing a self-sustainable business that manufactures and sells low-cost bicycles that enable people to travel over rough terrain to work or even start their own micro-businesses. They also hope to provide employment and a livable wage in a country where the average income is less than $2 a day.

The bikes have proved sturdy and popular. Employees have learned new skills. And renowned bicycle designer Daryl Funk has trained 30 employees. “Daryl has set up a production line for these guys to weld perfect trailers every time,” Spethmann says, “and he took guys who did not know how to use a tape measure and has turned them into really skilled welders, machinists and painters.”

As the workers’ skill advanced, the company started making bikes that can carry cargo, a bike trailer, and a bike-drawn “Zambulance.” The Zambulances (accompanying photo) are used at 10 medical clinics around Lusaka. Click here to view a YouTube video.

“With the Zambulances we have seen that with every 10-20 days it is in the field, it saves a life!” says Spethmann.

The business to date has distributed more than 1,200 bicycles and 150 Zamcarts and Zambulance trailers.

Zambikes hopes to build more than 500 bicycle ambulances and cargo trailers this year. The business is expanding and is looking to complete a fabrication shop and a community center.

“Zambikes has exceeded our expectations in many ways,” says Spethmann. “When coming to Zambia in August of 2007, we had no idea we would be making Zambulances, Zamcarts and bamboo bikes.”

The innovative business recently caught the attention of others around the world. The American Enterprise Institute published an article on the ministry and the BBC published a feature on its website. The article highlights the bamboo bikes, which were the idea of Craig Calfee, a bike designer in Santa Cruz, California. The bike is much lighter than metal, is strong and even more comfortable for riding long distances than traditional bikes.

“BBC has proven to be a huge piece for us,” Spethmann says. “It has put us in the limelight of a ton of new people, especially in Europe.”

The company has temporarily halted building the bamboo bikes while it waits for more supplies. “It takes more than three months for the bamboo to cure in a preservative, so we are waiting for the next load to be ready for production, and then we will be ready to make a fresh batch, Spethmann says.

The bikes cost more than what many Zambians can afford, so the business plans to sell them in others areas to produce revenue that can support the Zambia initiative and help make that operation self-sustaining. “We will be excited to get bamboo bikes to individuals in southern Africa, Europe, the States or wherever we can.”

“… Seeing our workers have hope, enriched character, strong families and renewed belief in themselves has been my favorite part.”

In addition to providing bicycles, a primary goal of Zambikes is spreading the Gospel through daily personal interaction with customers and employees. The Zambikes’ Giving Ministry contributes to other community projects.

“When I came to Zambia, I thought delivering bikes would be my favorite part of my job,” Spethmann says. “Instead, seeing our workers have hope, enriched character, strong families and renewed belief in themselves has been my favorite part.”

Spethmann is excited that the business is now looking to start an affiliate in Mozambique. “We are solidifying partnerships and still needing to raise funds for that venture,” he says. Those interested in learning more can email Spethmann.

Spethmann says the support he has received from Clairemont Covenant “has been amazing.” Children at the church have sent soccer balls, teddy bears and cards to Zambian children who live in the Lusaka area.

They also have participated in Bike4bikes, which raises money for the ministry. “Bike4bikes is so fun because it lets families feel connected to what we are doing here, have fun, and have the kids be able to think and help the extremely needy all the way on the other side of the world.”

Several students from North Park University cycled across the United States last year and raised money for Zambikes.

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