US investors release bicycle tubes for Africa

Baisikeli Ugunduzi co-founder and CEO Mr John Gershenson (right) with a mechanic, Mr Joseph Likhali (left) display the Milele Tube in Kisumu. Photo/Jacob Owiti
Baisikeli Ugunduzi co-founder and CEO Mr John Gershenson (right) with a mechanic, Mr Joseph Likhali (left) display the Milele Tube in Kisumu. Photo/Jacob Owiti  NATION MEDIA GROUP

Two American entrepreneurs Ben Mitchelle and John Gershenson are focused on sub-Saharan Africa’s bicycle business.

After touring Africa and seeing how bicycles are improving livelihoods of millions in villages, the two opened a spare parts business in Western Kenya — but it’s not an ordinary shop that seeks to cash in on the rising demand for bicycles.

The two are selling long-lasting tubes for bicycle tyres that help operators cut repair costs.

“I know how boda boda operators sweat to earn a living. They use the little money they get to repair the bicycles which break down often,” Mr Gershenson said.

Baisikeli Ugunduzi was started in 2010 in Kitale Town and Mr Mitchelle says the tubes will in the long term benefit about five million people in sub-Saharan Africa who earn a living from bicycles.

The company has distribution outlets in other towns like Kiminini, Moi’s Bridge, Endebes and Kakamega.

“After two years living in a remote village in Burkina Faso and taking a 2,500km bicycle journey through five West African countries, I understand the opportunity and value bicycles offer rural Africans. I understand what the customers want,” said Mr Mitchelle.

Many people in Africa depend on bicycles to earn a living either by transporting goods from one market to the other or by carrying people from one destination to the another.

Mr Gershenson said Baisikeli Ugunduzi Company works with bicycle operators, mechanics and retailers to design, produce and distribute products that improve the livelihoods of many in sub-Saharan Africa.

He said Baisikeli Ugunduzi started with the Milele Tube which was specifically designed for the African market and they recently launched bulbs that can be used by boda boda operators at night.

At a wholesale price of Sh1,000 and Sh1,200 for retailers, he said Milele Tubes will permanently eliminate the biggest problem bicycles face; flat tyres.

Tubes used in smaller bicycles go for Sh500. They use flexible solid tubes and not the conventional pneumatic tubes that wear and tear fast.

“Boda boda operators spend about a quarter of their income fixing flat tyres. The Milele Tube eliminates such risks and the burden of costly, frequent repairs,” said Mr Mitchell.

He added that the new tubes don’t need to be pumped with air.

Mr Charles Ochieng’ who has been using the Milele Tube for the last three months said he saves about Sh100 every month compared to when he was using other tubes.

“Before I started using this tube, I could spend most of what I had earned in repairs and buying new tyres every week,” said Mr Ochieng’.
Milele Tube fits tyres of ‘black mamba’ bicycles—that are common in rural areas.

“They are the most common type of bicycles found throughout sub-Saharan Africa because they are affordable. However, they need frequent repairs and suffer frequent punctures,” he said.

The demand for the tubes is high and customers are even asking if we can make for wheel chairs, motorcycles and handcarts, said the founder of Baisikeli Ugunduzi.

“Like the benefits on a bicycle, Milele Tubes installed in wheelchairs will help many as they won’t be stranded,” Mr Mitchell said.

The two entrepreneurs say sales are good and they are looking to reach the five million people in sub-Saharan Africa who earn a living from bicycles and help operators grow their earnings by cutting repair costs.

“Our factory in Kitale is producing more as sales grow and over 15 stores are stocking the Milele Tubes,” said Mr Gershenson.

He said with increased popularity of motorcycles, the company is looking at ways to also help these operators cut on tyre repair costs.

“After spending time in Kenya, we have seen an opportunity in revolutionising the motorcycle industry. It is clear that working with Africans to develop bicycle products for Africans will pave the way for lasting products,” the founder of Baisikeli Ugunduzi said.

Fake products

Like many businesses, their company has been affected by counterfeit products that have flooded the market.

“There are so many fake products in the market. Most customers don’t notice the difference in quality and are attracted by the cheap prices,” said Mr Gershenson.

He says Baisikeli Ugunduzi deals with durable and high-quality products that will attract many customers in the long term.

He said another challenge they faced when setting up the business was obtaining a business licence.

“The business registration materials sat on an officer’s desk for weeks until we were told they had mixed up the forms and started the process afresh,” said the Professor of Mechanical Engineering who is in charge of growing the business, enlisting capital, distribution agreements, and new product development.

The Milele Tube business started in Kitale in 2010 with few employees, but has grown over the years, creating jobs for a number of residents. To fix the tubes, one can get user guides from the company’s website.