The Bicycles of Ethiopia – Photos From a Bike-Obsessed Traveler

by Tom on July 12, 2009 · 21 comments

in Afribike,Ethiopia,Timeless Posts

On a work trip to Ethiopia in May, I took these bike photos. Ethiopia is a warm and friendly country, and asking people about their bikes was an easy way to open conversations (though a white guy with a Nikon taking pictures also often attracted a crowd, laughing and talking in Amharic all around me).

This guy has a little sidewalk shop in Dessie doing repairs, with very limited tools, and a lot of pals hanging around laughing and chewing khat.

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In Ethiopia, bikes are just a tool for getting from A to B more quickly than walking and more comfortably than being jammed in a crowded minibus. Still, I think there is a joy of riding that’s universal. This kid was doing lazy loops on a borrowed bike in the street by my hotel early one morning.

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Most of the bikes I saw on this trip are the cheap Chinese Phoenix brand. Phoenix bikes (and some Indian bikes) have been ubiquitous in Africa for a long time. With the influx of Chinese investment in Africa (there are Chinese-engineered and -financed road projects underway everywhere you drive), there has been a wave of these newer bikes arriving in the “general merchandise” stores.

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The newer “mountain bikes” are very cheaply made, and on balance are probably not an improvement over the heavy old black bikes I’d seen on previous trips (with few parts, the tough old one speed black bikes are indestructible, whereas the newer Phoenix bikes offer lots of cheaply made “extras” that quickly start rattling and falling apart).eth_oldphoenix

Wandering around Mekele, a small city in the north of the country, I came to this little bike shop selling new Phoenix cycles, and spare parts. I’d seen plenty of dirty little mechanics’ huts, and bikes for sale in “general merchandise” shops alongside plumbing and roofing supplies and plastic buckets, but finding a dedicated storefront bike shop like this was unusual. The man in the store assembling a Phoenix, named Mebrah Tukiros, told me the Phoenix bikes retail for between $75 and $125 depending on components.

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Ethiopia is a vast rural country where the average per-capita income is somewhere just short of $1000, though in the small cities where I found these bikes, income is probably higher than that, with service employees, merchants, government workers, and other wage earners able to afford a bike. But most places we went there were almost no cars on the road, and in many places there were horse carts and even, in some areas, camels.

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Wandering around the city of Dessie I came across a stand of bikes and started talking to the proprietors in the few common words of English and Amharic we shared (as a crowd gathered round to gawk at me and offer comments). The bikes were for rent, for five birr (or about fifty cents) an hour, though I am certain there is a high degree of price variability and barter available, depending on your relationship to the stand’s proprietors.

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Teshome, the “pump man,” took care of charging customers, many of whom were returning bikes in the twilight hour after having run errands, pumping tires, and parking the bikes in a neat row. He suggested his friend Abush Hailu and I take two of the bikes for a short ride. I jumped at the chance (the their surprise, I think), rolled up a pantleg, and off we went down the urban obstacle course of rutted roads and throngs of people, staring at me as I passed on my rattling bike.

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The bike was in terrible shape, with a non-functional front brake, a rear brake that barely functioned, nonfunctioning gears, and loose handlebars slightly misaligned. Still, it felt great to be back in the saddle after more than a week off bikes of any kind, and to be hauling around Dessie, Ethiopia with my new friend Abush. Until, after about 5 minutes, his chain came off.

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We got that fixed (again a “helpful” crowd had gathered), and Abush and I returned the bikes to the rental guys (they graciously refused my offer of ten cents rental fee). Then I took my new friend out for a little thank you, doing the thing Ethiopians do together, at dusk, in the city: a sidewalk cafe, the world walking by, and two perfectly-made macchiatos. You gotta love traveling in the birthplace of coffee. Mmmm.

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PS: Here is a two-minute audio story from Worldvision, and a short article from Oxfam, about the Phoenix in use in Sudan. Like I said, it’s ubiquitous.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

bikedate July 12, 2009 at 3:51 pm

really nice photos. i like how in these small third world towns the dogs just sleep anywhere – the one in one of the photos looks like he found the LEAST comfortable spot!

and that coffee looks delish…

sara July 12, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Travel + Bikes + Coffee = three of my favorite things.

Tom July 12, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Sara you and me both!

gwadzilla July 13, 2009 at 6:34 am

I too am bike obsessed… but not a traveler

I threw mention of your link on my blog

Heidi shared it with me

Tom July 13, 2009 at 9:22 am

Thanks Gwadzilla, I love your DC cycling culture photos and the way you always set them up as multiples within one frame.

Andrew Hall July 13, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Hi, thanks for the great article and pictures. I work for Worldbike currently down in Kenya and thought I might add a few thoughts for those interested in East African bicycle technologies.
Phoenix bikes are also the most popular bikes in Kenya. They’re one of the few companies that makes both the ubiquitous roadsters, often called Black Mambas, and mountain bikes. Interestingly they’re also the only Chinese company importing black mambas that I know of. The 20+ other brands are Indian.
The growing popularity of mountain bikes in Kenya is relatively new and it’s hard to know if it will last. The quality is so bad and the available spare parts are equally bad along with being expensive. Most MTBs that you see on the streets have brakes that are in some state of dysfunction and drivetrains that have been converted to single speed. There’s no difference between these bikes and a $50 Wal-Mart bike and unsurprisingly the results after a couple months of riding is the same.
The Phoenix bike shown in the first picture is one of the bikes that I’ve purchased and rode in order to get some of the local flavor. My experience is indicative of all the local MTBs. First, when you buy a bike at a shop it is assembled as a way of getting all the parts together in one place but not as a way of making it rideable. In order to reduce shipping costs, bikes are shipped “completely knocked down” or CKD in boxes of four or five units meaning that the parts for each bike have to be separated out from the others. The first thing you do with a new bike is take it to a mechanic where they will reassemble it correctly. How good that mechanic is is the probably the most important factor when it comes to the longevity of the bike. I rebuilt my bike myself using 10 years of experience as a professional mechanic and good quality tools. Unfortunately most local mechanics, despite their many skills, don’t know the finer points of MTB mechanics and results aren’t alwas so hot.
Overall, the frame was fine, actually heavier and with much worse welding than other bikes of similar price. Heavy doesn’t necessarily mean strong, though it might. Plastic thump shifters break quickly especially because the cable housing has no plastic liner to reduce friction. The force required to shift becomes much more of a task than a single thumb (or thumb shifter) can handle alone. Plastic brake levers are very soft and fragile if the bike falls over. The brake surfaces on the steel rims are beveled inward so sharply that the brake pad has a difficult time making contact. Steel rims also don’t stop when they’re wet. The cottered cranks are fine… except that they’re too thin and will bend. Cottered cranks are actually better here than square taper since the threads on the square taper BB axles and their corresponding nuts or bolts always strip when you try to tighten them. The BB axles appear to be cast not forged. Actually all threads are the same whether it’s the headset, the BB, the spokes, or the wheel bearing cones. They always strip even the first time that you try to tighten them. The thread cutting is always poor and the metal is always soft. Lastly, the derailleurs are okay but very flimsy and loose. So while they work for awhile they aren’t a long-term investment.
So that’s the story (longer than it was intended to be). The black mambas have their own list of quality issues that lead people to spend a new bike’s worth of money every year on their upkeep, but I’ll leave that for another day. Each in their own way, groups like Worldbike, ITDP, World Bicycle Relief, Project Rwanda, and Zambikes, to name a few, all have efforts to promote better quality bikes in East Africa… but it’s tough road to ride.
Thanks again.

Tom July 13, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Hey Andrew, thanks for the awesome comment. I’m in Africa a few times a year and I’ve been preparing a post on the various “Afribike” projects you mention, including Worldbike. In fact it was a ride in Windhoek with Michael from BEN Nambia that more or less made my mind up to start blogging about bikejuju for real. Stay tuned.

meligrosa July 13, 2009 at 11:34 pm

thanks for sharing this with us all Tom, such a wonderful post.
We might not all have the same economical social levels around the world, but bikes, cameras and coffee somehow bring us all together in a certain particular peaceful way.
cheers /xo.meli

Groover July 17, 2009 at 12:00 am

I found your site through the link that Meligrosa posted at her blog Bikes and The City. What an interesting article. Thanks for the sharing your experience and pictures.

Mary Moreau April 26, 2010 at 7:07 am

Thanks for the pictures of Dessie. It’s good for us to have a sense of Ethiopia 2010 supplementing memories from the 60s. I’ll be more in touch another time.

shah November 2, 2010 at 12:31 am

pl/.send me pricelist ofr CKD bicycles

Shah November 2, 2010 at 12:34 am

I like to import CKD bicycles.
SHAH

Tselot Kifle January 11, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Greetings ,
I know this is an old post but I had to comment. I’ll make this short sweet.
-I am an Ethiopian born in america
-I love bikes
-Italian influence made road racing very popular in Ethiopia
-My father raced with the Ethiopian olympic team in the 70′s
- If you’re interested I can share some old photos of my father and his buddies, racing around Addis Abba and training on legnano bicycles.

Shoangizaw Tegegne May 3, 2012 at 12:59 am

Hi Tom:

I truly enjoyed reading your article, “The Bicycles of Ethiopia”. I am an Ethiopian who now lives in Toronto. Although bicycles were not part of my childhood, I enjoy riding them and am now a hobby bamboo bike frame builder. My dream is to save money and establish a bamboo bike factory in Ethiopia.

The reason I am writing this email to you is to request your permission both use a cropped version of the picture of the black Phoenix bike shown on your web site and link to the same article as I did in this page of my website: http://www.bamboobiketoronto,com/about/.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon, I remain,

Sincerely yours,

Shoangizaw Tegegne May 3, 2012 at 1:15 am

Hi Tom:

I truly enjoyed reading your article, “The Bicycles of Ethiopia”. I am an Ethiopian who now lives in Toronto. Although bicycles were not part of my childhood, I enjoy riding them and am now a hobby bamboo bike frame builder. My dream is to save money and establish a bamboo bike factory in Ethiopia.

The reason I am writing this email to you is to request your permission both use a cropped version of the picture of the black Phoenix bike shown on your web site and link to the same article as I did in this page of my website: http://www.bamboobiketoronto.com/about/.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon, I remain,

Sincerely yours,

deb August 22, 2013 at 11:42 am

great article and the pictures were great, am going to Ethopia in nov and looking for some bike time. thanks again deb

Starla September 3, 2014 at 6:13 pm

I couldn’t resist commenting. ?ell written!

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