Q: Why build a different bicycle for the communities that we’re working in?
A: When World Bicycle Relief first started looking at how to best support communities across Africa, bicycles found across the continent weren’t built to carry heavy loads or stand up to the regions’ rugged conditions. Every bike out there was just a bike.
The bikes that were readily available reflected something called a roadster. It’s a very old, traditional type of bike with antiquated technologies. The frames didn’t necessarily offer a universal fit, and bikes handled poorly in extreme environments or under any significant loading conditions.
Components on these bikes were typically half-hearted replicas of designs developed decades earlier for use in a completely different environment. Sort of like knowing what the job really needs is a fork, but being handed a spoon and saying, “Eh sure, close enough!”
The real opportunity lies in capturing the unique needs of this particular market and applying solutions with conscious intent to meet those specific needs. The distinct value World Bicycle Relief’s Product Development team brings to this challenge is a vast connection to the modern bike industry and the associated evolution in technologies and supply chain resources.
Connecting the dots between our market need and today’s capability of the (bike) industry is where the magic hides. This perspective is innovative in that no one else is doing it today – but it’s not that complex. There is just so much potential for radical improvement by simply adjusting the problem statement.
Our team has a tagline: 'More distance in less time, more load with less effort.'
Q: How do you determine what to develop and change on the bicycle?
A: All decisions are driven by user needs. Now, that’s kind of a broad statement because users have a lot of different needs, and bikes have many uses. Essentially, we aim to offer something robust that more people can use in more places.
Our team has a tagline: “More distance in less time, more load with less effort.”
One place we mine for fertile development ideas is our testing program. We have an incredible team of test riders that provide priceless insights to build upon. Some of these riders have been working with us for over a decade – like Jackton.
Our test riders really put products to the test by exposing components to environments we can’t recreate in a lab setting. Their usage of the bike is different enough from the mass market that standard industry tests often don’t identify the “real-world” problems our markets face. The loads, distances, and conditions the test riders tackle daily allow us to accelerate the life cycle and help clarify where to prioritize our product development efforts.
Q: What are some of the major changes that have been made since the original Buffalo Bicycle?
Gosh, that’s hard to answer. I’d have to say it is the myriad small improvements and attention to detail that differentiate the Buffalo from other bikes available in its market. One major change, like frame geometry, may stand out as visually obvious, but it’s not necessarily more important than some of the less conspicuous improvements.
Take the saddle, for example. Bikes spend hours outside in the harsh African sun, and most saddles eventually disintegrate. After careful material development and testing, the current Buffalo saddle far outperforms the competition; it not only maintains function – it’s also quite comfortable.
Some might not consider that a “major” improvement, but if you’ve ever tried to ride a bike any distance with a deficient saddle … you’d probably disagree!
Q: Are the Buffalo’s components off-the-shelf or custom-designed?
A: The original Buffalo was born when FK Day drafted a spec of existing bike components with conscious intent to fill a need that wasn’t being met. Once established, the supply chain began working with suppliers of those components to make incremental quality improvements – a great example of how sharing industry experience can influence products that previously received little-to-no attention.
With strengthened supplier relationships came the opportunity for further improvements and custom modifications. That evolution has built both a bike and brand that is now recognized as a gold standard for utility.
Now we’ve set our sights on the next logical step – further leveraging industry knowledge and relationships to generate truly new products and proprietary designs to fulfill user needs.
Q: What are the craziest ideas you’ve considered?
A: Here’s the thing. Any “crazy” idea has probably been done before.
Bikes have been around since the early 19th century. So when you think you’ve got a new idea, it’s probably something that’s already been done before.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: We can’t spill all of our secrets. But let’s just say that we’ve got some exciting things coming your way soon.
Q: How does Product Development learn from the communities in which we work?
A: World Bicycle Relief operates more than 80 Buffalo Bicycle retail shops across six countries. This structure offers a line of communication directly from our end-user into the development team in a way I hadn’t experienced working in the bike industry before now.
Our unique reality is that there is less “noise” in the signal coming from the rider because there is less opportunity for loss or misdirection of critical info. In some cases, a mechanic running a shop can share immediate (and candid!) feedback to a product development member that lives and works in-country. In other cases, PD may collaborate with strategic shops to experiment with a new configuration and study impact on one particular geographic location.
To be honest, we have just begun scratching the surface on all the ways our network of Buffalo shops can contribute directly to product development efforts – but given the value we have already captured, it is clear that shops offer a strong advantage when it comes to understanding true user wants and needs.
Another valuable asset is World Bicycle Relief’s SII team. We invest a bundle of energy studying the effectiveness of our philanthropic programs in the communities we serve. And while those efforts have been critical to the evolution of programming strategy over the years, they have also collected a wealth of information about the bike itself.
Detailed information about how the bike is used, shared, and serviced is available over what has now become a very meaningful period of time. And these studies are no joke. They are thorough, scientifically rigorous, thoughtful studies that have been painstakingly executed through professional partnerships.
The idea of having statistically meaningful data to inform a product decision is an engineer’s dream, but it is not as common as you’d think! The opportunity to partner with a function like SII is another huge advantage I’ve never had before.
Q: Is there an example of something specific you’ve learned from a Buffalo shop or program study?
A: Like many organizations, World Bicycle Relief has a monthly global meeting to review overall status. One metric that gets shared is a tally of how bikes and components are flowing through shops in different countries. Things like: Where are the new shops? Which shops are busy? What components are in demand?
In particular, there is a detailed breakdown of spare component sales by volume. I remember one month, I was alarmed to see the number of tires being sold across all of our shops. The first thing that came to mind was, “Why are people replacing so many tires? Is this an improvement that we need to tackle with our supplier?”
Turns out, World Bicycle Relief had already partnered with a supplier to create a custom construction to address the harsh riding conditions seen by riders. That spike in sales volume I was seeing? It was actually evidence that people were going out of their way to purchase Buffalo tires, even if they didn’t own a Buffalo Bicycle!
The tire had earned a very positive reputation, and the reputation was spreading quickly. Great news!
On the other hand, a few of those “high volume” components don’t reflect such a positive story. In fact, there are prototypes heading to testing this week to address one of those problematic components…so shop data can be great for both guiding priorities and validating improvements.
Q: Other ‘aha moments’ that have come from this process?
A: For context, be aware that whatever components or features we introduce, our goal is to maintain backward compatibility so a user can update or upgrade performance of their existing bike wherever possible.
One ‘aha’ that comes to mind is what we call a “Culture of Small Purchases.” Particularly in the African market, we found it can be more manageable to invest in multiple small purchases rather than a single large one.
As a result, the idea of stepping into upgrades became a lens for exploring concepts. Say you bought one part that allowed you to keep riding your bike as you do today, then added another part a bit later as cash flow allowed, then after a few such purchases you end up with a major improvement. That’s an interesting approach, right?
I’m not saying that this turned into a viable solution, but the paradigm definitely altered the way we evaluate and develop new ideas. Affordability is a key challenge in our markets, and this insight gave us an innovative way to continue evolving a concept rather than quickly abandoning it due to cost.
Coming from the high-end component world, it was not at all intuitive to me. So the insight opened a door to creative possibilities that had previously been closed – and that’s all good.
The Power of Bicycles is a real thing.
Q: What about bicycle culture in Colombia? Are there any learnings from the expansion to another continent?
A: On the whole, I’d say a Colombian’s relationship with a bicycle seems just a little different. Maybe that’s due to exposure in that the British roadster dominated the African market for so many years, I don’t know. In contrast, people in Colombia are more familiar with more modern road and mountain bikes. And even if you’d never seen a bike race before, I think you’d be more likely to recognize it as a professional sport in Colombia than you might in most African countries. Consequently, we’re finding that our current bike has a different reception in Colombia than it does in Africa.
Naturally, this leads to the goal of addressing those differences. But to achieve success, we need to do our homework. We have vast experience with the environment and cultures that shape the communities we serve in sub-Saharan Africa – but, both literally and figuratively, one size does not fit all.
It will take time to develop the same deep relationship with the communities around our facility in Barranquilla, but we are well on our way. Early in 2023, we invited a local resident, Pedro Hernandez de Alba, to join our PD efforts.
While Pedro has been great with material experiments to address stubborn corrosion from Colombian coastal air, where he has truly excelled is bridging the less tangible gaps in team understanding. Pedro’s focused research and experience with local cycling culture have been instrumental in shaping something we call a “build to learn” project.
Right now, technical changes based largely on Pedro’s insights are working their way through our supply chain. A small lot of 20-30 bikes is expected to arrive in Q1 of 2024 for field ride evaluation. There’s no telling how many of these changes will advance onto full-production bikes, but there’s no question that we will learn a lot!
Q: What brings you back to work on the Buffalo Bicycle every day?
A: When it comes right down to it, it’s the potential for a positive impact in people’s lives that personally brings me back each day. That, together with a sincere belief that World Bicycle Relief is uniquely positioned to move the needle toward that positive impact.
The Power of Bicycles is a real thing. As a simple, sustainable, accessible approach to practical mobility, I’d argue it’s hard to find a viable challenger to a bike.
Couple that with all the things that make World Bicycle Relief special: an established organization, a strategic vision, global networks, an innovative business model, a commitment to continuous improvement, talented colleagues, generous donors, a supportive industry, unique partnerships, etc. it’s virtually impossible to not feel inspired.
The opportunity to translate 20+ years of product development experience to such a meaningful mission is not something that falls into everyone’s lap, and it’s a fact I don’t take for granted. To play even a minor role in World Bicycle Relief’s impact has truly been an honor. Seriously, how lucky am I? 🙂