Washington — Dustin McBride and Vaughn Spethmann, two extraordinary American entrepreneurs, have been working since 2007 to bring much needed jobs, transportation and opportunity to Zambia.
They co-founded the company Zambikes in 2007 to provide steel frame and bamboo bikes to customers in southern Africa. The sturdy, lightweight bamboo bikes take roughly two months to assemble, but offer a green alternative to traditional manufacturing methods.
Special frames attached to the steel bikes have been substituted for carts and ambulances in areas where motor vehicles and paved roads are rare. Zambikes products are now sold in South Africa, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and the United States.
McBride, the leadership development adviser, says his strong Christian faith and a fascination with other cultures influenced his decision to relocate. “I really felt a passion and was excited to see … other parts of the world where I could give back in time and energy.”
The opportunity came while he and Spethmann were students at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college located outside of Los Angeles. The two visited Zambia on a school trip in 2004 and were concerned by the high rates of poverty and unemployment. Noting a lack of transportation access, they resolved to return to Zambia upon graduating from college.
“We prayed about it and thought about it,” Spethmann said, “and kind of came to the same conclusion separately.” Soon afterward, the would-be businessmen came into contact with Zambians Gershom Sikaala and Mwewa Chikamba. Seeing that the Americans were eager to help, Sikaala and Chikamba didn't take long to offer their support.
“I think that from the initial start, the first time we met, we were all speaking the same language,” Chikamba said. “We were all passionate about changing the mindset of the Zambian people and providing a better means of transport which would be affordable by an average Zambian.”
The two pairs of businessmen stayed in touch by phone, email and Skype through 2007. Together with veteran bike engineer Daryl Funk, the American pair returned to Zambia then and partnered with Sikaala and Chikamba to form Zambikes.
In addition to providing much-needed transportation options to Zambians, the company is a source of employment and mentorship. Zambikes employs 30 Zambians who manufacture and distribute “Zambulances,” “Zamcarts” and “Zambikes” to Zambia and surrounding countries.
Through grants from the company, employees have been able to go to trade school, attend college and even pursue master’s degrees. One former employee went on to work for a major African mobile phone carrier. “Sometimes you’re happy for them, and many times you’re sorry to see them leave,” Spethmann said.
The company intentionally placed its warehouse in a poor neighborhood outside the bustling capital city of Lusaka.
“We set up the warehouse out there specifically to help with developing the community in that area,” McBride said. “It would have been easier to set up in the industrial area and have that as the main focus.”
Instead, Zambikes targets the poorer citizens of Lusaka West, teaching them everything from how to paint, weld and repair bikes to how to market them.
The company began a soccer team in 2007 as a way to build relationships with the community. “That’s something that really brings people together,” McBride said, describing how the game brought Zambikes some of its first employees.
“We just said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come and try to learn some mechanics?’ Those that did well we employed, and those that didn’t, well, they’re still playing soccer with us!” he joked.
The fledgling company’s impact is even starting to reach back to the United States.
Zambikes’ American operations, Zambikes USA and Zambikes LA, have partnered with Fred Jordan Mission in Los Angeles and Rolling Hills Covenant Church to teach ex-convicts and homeless people how to manufacture Zambikes products.
“It gave them a sense of responsibility that most of them had never even dreamed of in their current position,” McBride said.
Trainees who complete their welding courses have the opportunity to attend a nine-month California state-certified welding school. Zambulances and Zamcarts produced by these former inmates head to developing regions. Zambikes is planning operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. The programs are accepting donations that will enable them to reach sustainability.
“There’s people asking, ‘Hey, I’m in Nigeria … I’m in South Sudan. We need ambulance trailers. How do we get them here?’” McBride said.
Through hard work, innovation and a little faith, these young entrepreneurs are proving that ambition and compassion can mix.