Nov 052014

Dustin Ugbike

Dustin Ugbike

By David Bristow at Buhoma Lodge, Uganda

It is true that the African Icons project has and is taking us to many amazing places, each one a bucket list mega tick. But for us, as for anyone who ventures beyond their comfort zone, travelling is greatly enhanced by the people you meet along the road, or path, or track.

I was in Zambia a year and a half ago, as a guest of @World Bicycle Relief, a very fine and big-hearted organization that rolls out virtually indestructible Buffalo Bikes for all manner of good causes there. Once there I learned of something called a Zambike ,  but information was thin on the ground.

Then at Buhoma Lodge at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see mountain gorillas, we met Dustin McBride, founder of Zambikes. Turns out his is a three- and sometimes four-person show of essentially do-gooders, who invented a tough-as-Africa bike in Zambia, and has since moved on to Uganda … but back to the beginning.

It was at “school” (what we call university) in Los Angeles that he and a friend Vaughan Spethmann, both business majors, undertook a trip to Zambia to see how the other half did things. This led to a project on Third World entrepreneurship, involving a bicycle. (If I get any details wrong I’m sure Dustin will forgive me, it was after dinner following a long day’s gorilla trekking.)

“This project kept coming back to us, and we kind of fell into the bike industry, which is funny sinc

since Vaughan and I were keen soccer players, not bikers,” says Dustin. They decided they wanted to do something that impacted on the people of Zambia in terms of business, socially and spiritually. Vaughan had bought what the people at World Bicycle Relief refer to as a BSO – bicycle shaped object – which did what all BSOs do: it fell apart.

In 2007 they pulled in US bike design fundi Darryl Funk (Funk Cycles)  to design their own quality but low-cost bike, which they named the Zambike. And by 2009 they were on the road. They also created a bamboo version, but that is a top-end machine, rather than a do-good rollout. One bike equals five jobs in Zambia, they say.

As is so often the case, one good thing follows another and in time they created a cargo trailer for the bike. Those are two things that can really turn around a person’s or a family’s fortunes in Africa.

In time the cargo trailer became an ambulance trailer – the Zambulance – mainly for rural areas, as so many things are today. Except that Zambikes was handed over to local partners after five years, as part of their start-up vision. The not-for-profit start-up was funded by family and friends, Dustin admits, but making a profitable business was always the overall goal.

From there they moved to Uganda. It’s a much more hilly place than Zambia, and there are cheap Chinese-made motorbikes everywhere. Light bulb moment: their ambulance trailer was perfectly suited to be towed by a motorbike. And thus was Pulse born, an ambulance trailer that was piloted in 2012 and up and running this year with partner Darryl. But in the meanwhile Dustin got married to Lauren and when we met them at Buhoma Lodge they were doing a kind of farewell tour of the region with one of their main sponsors and now friend, Dorothy Campbell of San Diego.

“We’re headed back home, to be closer to family and to start our own family.” Lauren agrees, but shows a long lip at thought of giving up “all this” for an undoubtedly less adventurous life back in the States.

It’s always illuminating meeting interesting people on the road: you meet them fleetingly but some leave a lasting impression on you. Like these youngish people who have created an amazing business from the spark of a vision to do something practical and good in a faraway place. Bless them and their kind.