Bamboo Becomes Transport Option for the South

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

The sturdy bamboo plant ( is enjoying a revival around the world as a building material. A strong, fast-growing and highly renewable woody plant, it is becoming increasingly popular as people seek out less environmentally wasteful alternatives to steel and other materials.

But who would have thought bamboo taxis would turn up on the scene?

A fleet of bamboo taxis is now plying the streets in Tabontabon, a municipality in The Philippines that is home to 10,000 people, most of them rice farmers.

Bamboo can sometimes grow more than 1 metre a day. While in Asia, it has long been a traditional construction material, people are now turning to it to make transportation vehicles. In The Philippines, there are 62 species of bamboo, up to 15 of which are suitable for industrial applications.

So-called habal-habal motorcycles, the most popular form of transportation in the town, are also the source of many accidents and are uncomfortable on sunny days or when it rains. A covered taxi service is both a safer and a more comfortable alternative.

The town’s mayor, Rustico Balderian, took the initiative to build a fleet of bamboo taxis. He set four criteria the new taxis had to meet: they should be low-cost, fuel efficient, safe and environmentally friendly. The bamboo has a higher tensile strength ( than steel, which also requires vast quantities of energy to produce.

The taxis are 90 percent made of bamboo and are built by unemployed youth. They are divided into Eco 1 (a model that seats 20 people and runs for eight hours on one gallon of coco-biodiesel from coconuts) (, and Eco 2, which seats eight people, has a stereo and sound system, and also runs for eight hours on a gallon of coco-biodiesel.

Both are made by the Tabontabon Organic Transport Industry [TOTI] (

Making vehicles out of bamboo is a serious endeavour that also has been under development in Japan. In 2008, Kyoto University’s Venture Business Laboratory (VBL) unveiled a unique single-seat electric vehicle equipped with a body made from bamboo. The vehicle was developed under the Kyoto Electric Car Development Project, which is one of the laboratory’s major initiatives. Nicknamed Bamgoo, this eco-car’s body is made of braided rods of bamboo, one of the local specialty products of the area.

Other bamboo modes of transport in the South include bamboo bicycles in Ghana. A partnership between an American bike designer and a Ghanaian government initiative is taking advantage of this local resource to manufacture bicycles for the local market – and as a source of export income.

Not only are the Ghanaian builders harvesting bamboo to make bikes for the domestic market, they are also offering a sophisticated online shopping service for the overseas market. People from around the world can now buy Ghanaian bikes using a website ( Customers can choose frame builders by their specialty – cargo bike, mountain bike or road bike – and then order it online. The completed bikes are quality checked and then distributed by Calfee Design in California, USA. This approach keeps the middlemen out of the transaction, and means more money gets back to the bike builder.

Meanwhile in Cambodia, the legendary bamboo railway is a people’s solution to the poor service offered by the established railway system. In the northwest of the country near the second city of Battambang, an entire railway system has been built using bamboo.

The bamboo trains, called ‘noris’ or ‘lorries’ by the locals, are driven by a electric generator engine. Passengers sit on a bamboo platform placed on two sets of wheels. The bamboo train reaches speeds of over 40 km/h.

“We’re very careful,” 18-year-old Sok Kimhor, a 10-year veteran of the bamboo trains, told the BBC. “We look out for children and animals running across the lines, and we have to slow down when other trains come along.”

There is just one track, so when two trains meet, one has to be taken off the track to pass.

The regular rail service runs only once a week to the capital, Phnom Penh. This makes the bamboo train the only alternative for many people to get around. While the main railway station is deserted, the bamboo service is a hive of activity.

“They’re very safe – a motorbike taxi is too fast, and if I use one of those I sometimes get dizzy and fall off,” said Sao Nao as she sat on the rails with a small group of people. “On a bamboo train I can sit down and go to sleep. You can’t do that on a motorbike.”

Design for Development ( is also turning to bamboo for a transport solution. The Canadian NGO is working in Kenya on making five emergency medical transportation devices (EMTD), or ambulances, to move local people to health clinics or hospitals. Bamboo is locally available and they hope to set up a workshop and make the ambulances using local labour.


1) A slideshow of the bamboo taxis. Website:

2) UNEP, the UN’s Environment Programme, has produced a report on bamboo biodiversity and how it can be preserved. Website:

3) The Asian Development Bank is using its Markets for Poor programme to link bamboo products to marketplaces, helping poor communities. Website:

4) A blog describing the use of coco-biodiesel in the Philippines. Website:

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