What do you picture when you hear “African bikes”? There’s a good chance you’re not thinking of a luxury, world-class bike. And you’re not alone. We need to change the way people think about goods made in Namibia – and from Africa as a whole. Name a luxury brand from the African continent…? Yeah, we have our work cut out for us. Onguza is making handbuilt steel frames in Omaruru and helping to put Namibia on the map of international frame builders. Continue reading below as Dan Craven gives us a look into starting the brand and his motivations.
As a two-time Olympian from Namibia, I’ve become accustomed to explaining where Namibia is (bottom left of Africa, right above South Africa) and what kind of a place it is (remote, wild, usually dry, and absolutely marvelous). But what I’ll never get used to are the misguided preconceptions about where I’m from. And what we are capable of.
Most people I tell we’re making bikes in Africa initially assume we’re making charity bikes, at best. This comes from an outdated stereotype that nothing world-class comes out of Africa, and being Namibian, this is something I can’t help but take a bit personally.
I started dreaming of ONGUZA over 10 years ago when I began facing the inevitable waning of my professional cycling career. A couple of gentlemen, who’d been working for my family for nearly 25 years as trail builders and general handymen, had an extraordinary talent for making and building things, and I knew if they just had the right training they would have a craft, and a trade, to finally match their skill. Like so many people here, they had the raw talent and attention to detail, but never the chance to do anything with it.
Africa, Namibia, and my hometown of Omaruru are full of makers. These are people who have a rich depth of experience and skill, but they need opportunities, training, and committed businesses to bring them to life.
We’ve been building bikes and honing our skills for five years with some of the world’s best frame builders and instructors: Robin Mather, Andres Arregui Velazquez, Matthew Sowter, Tomi Mulle, The Bicycle Academy, and more. And now, our town is making bikes. Not just any bikes, but world-class, hand-built steel-framed bikes.
Everything was on track to launch ONGUZA with the Tokyo Olympics where I would use a bicycle, built by Namibians in Omaruru, to compete on the world stage, but COVID had other plans for me. On my last training race for the games, I contracted COVID and returned a positive test the day before I was due to fly to Japan. It was a massive blow. But it came with an incredible silver lining. I would be lying if I said we hadn’t rushed things. We were depending on a single moment of global media coverage to launch the business. And our brand just wasn’t there yet, even if the bike was. So we went back to the drawing board.
Nearly seven months later I returned to Namibia to bring our story to life. Working with my wife and partner Collyn Ahart to be creative director and build our strategy, award-winning photographer Ross Garrett and graphic designer Daniel Ting-Chong, we realized we were onto something extraordinary. No one had ever told this kind of story about Namibia before. Namibia is typically portrayed through its nature and wildlife, but for us, ONGUZA was all about culture, and people. It is only our people and our culture that can make bikes for land like ours. And it is our people and our culture that cyclists depend on when they are out in the middle of nowhere here.
We don’t look like most other cycling brands because we’re the only ones with our story. No one else is making world-class bikes on a dusty farm in Namibia – or even Africa. The obvious thing to do initially was to draw brand inspiration from wildlife and wilderness: zebras, oryx and elephants, sand dunes and vast shrublands (we call them ‘velds’), but instead, our aesthetic comes from roadside general stores, traditional Namibian fashions, the farm animals who live by the side of the road. These are all far more honest representations of our complex nation. And man they are beautiful.
When we started working on the brand, we knew it was about pride, but our master builders, Petrus Mufenge and Sakaria Nkolo, and Namibians as a whole, are used to thinking of ‘Namibian made’ as less than. A horrific hangover from colonial days, so many talented, hard-working people here genuinely believe people like them are incapable of great things. This had to change.
Pride is magical. It transforms and surprises people. A couple of years ago, Petrus was on his bike outside one of the shops in town and a tourist stopped him. The tourist recognized a beautiful bike when he saw one, but the story of its origin from Petrus did not make sense to the man, so he walked off shaking his head thinking he’d just been told a tall tale. Petrus smiles and laughs when he tells this story now because he’s proud of it.
Surprise people. Shock them. Do the thing they least expect in the place they least expect it. We make our bikes bright and colorful because they deserve to be seen. Namibia deserves to be seen. Our people deserve to be seen, to be heard, to be championed, to be proud, and to be successful.
I’ve always known ONGUZA was just a start. We cannot measure our success just on our own profitability. So we measure it in a few ways: how many African businesses follow our lead, and how many people in our own community can we put to work? We need people to see that our business model is not just possible, but also profitable. So Petrus and Sakaria are also part-owners in our company. If a startup in California can do it, why can’t we? We are dependent on them for their craftsmanship and expertise, so why shouldn’t they share in the success?
Our town is making bikes now. I hope you’ll come and visit us.