The Bicycles of Ethiopia – From a Bike-Obsessed Traveler

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.

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 making lazy loops on a borrowed bike in the street by my hotel early one morning.

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 have been a wave of these newer bikes arriving in the “general merchandise” stores.

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).

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 was assembling a Phoenix named Mebrah Tukiros, and told me the Phoenix bikes retail for between $75 and $125 depending on components.

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.

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.

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 (their surprise, I think), rolled up a pant leg, 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.

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.

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.