Omaruru hand made bicycles make grand entrance in London – Onguza bicycles now officially on sale
Retired two-time Olympic road cyclist and Namibia’s only professional cyclist to ride a Grand Tour, Dan Craven, was in London last weekend for a different kind of competition.
Bespoked, the largest hand-made bicycle show was happening at the Lee Valley Velopark in the former 2012 Olympic Velodrome, and Craven’s brand, Onguza, presented four steel-framed bicycles built entirely by hand in Omaruru and officially launched sales for its first bikes.
An Onguza frameset alone will cost upwards of US$4000 (N$72,000) and a complete bike is close to double that.
One of the most popular brands to show its work, Onguza has already made international headlines across the cycling and sports industry with features on CyclingTips, BikeRadar, UK Sport, Cyclist.co.uk, GearPatrol, and many others.
Dubbed “the most interesting bike in the world” by Bicycling Magazine’s Editor in Chief Bill Strickland, Onguza was originally set to launch with the Tokyo Olympic Games where Craven would ride a racing bike built by hand in Omaruru by master builders Sakaria Nkolo and Petrus Mufenge.
The day before he was due to fly to Japan, Craven returned a positive COVID test, and “all our plans had to change. But I think it had a massive silver lining in the end,” said Craven. “We had to go back to the drawing board because we could no longer depend on a moment of worldwide media attention to launch. We had to do things differently.”
Craven and his partner (and wife) Collyn Ahart, set about a new launch plan. In May 2022, the couple moved their family and two small children back to Omaruru from Girona, Spain where they had been based off and on since 2014.
“The move was nothing to take lightly. Omaruru is, by all measures, a very different place to live compared to Girona, San Francisco, or London where the family has previously spent time, and my family has made an enormous sacrifice to make this dream come true. But we couldn’t make Onguza happen anywhere else in the world. Not even from Windhoek,” said Craven.
Onguza began as an idea in 2010 and since 2017 Craven has been working with award-winning frame builders and frame-building instructors from the UK and Spain to train Nkolo and Mufenge to build truly world-class bicycle frames.
“What we’re doing is not just assembly. We get specialist steel tubing and machined parts from Italy and California specifically for this kind of bicycle, but then the work starts. Designing geometry, further bending of tubes, hand mitering, and hand filing all parts for a perfect fit before brazing the parts using brass and silver and working temperatures of up to 900 degrees. Before continuing with the very tricky task of attaining perfect alignment and beautifully clean welds. It takes a full week to build every single frame, even with four sets of hands in the workshop. All to create bicycle frames good enough for racing at the highest level – or to ride across the continent.”
Even though the company has now been building bikes for over 5 years, it was only in 2022 that Onguza started to come to life as a brand.
Ahart herself is a creative branding specialist and has worked on some of the most famous brands in the world including Rapha and Nike, and numerous startups in the USA and UK.
“Design, storytelling, and community are the most powerful tools any brand can use, but few do it well. Most brands don’t have a story, let alone know what it is. For Onguza it was clear our story was about celebrating Namibian people and culture. The easy thing would have been to talk about nature and wildlife the way most people think about Namibia, but it’s far more important and interesting to find our inspiration right on the side of the road: we have many beautiful fashion traditions in Namibia, the food, the cows and goats and chickens, the general stores and even the design of shebeens that are truly the lifeblood of so many small communities here- but also for cyclists passing through.”
Onguza’s branding was designed by award-winning graphic designer Daniel Ting-Chong with photography by the award-winning Ross Garrett, both South African.
“We’ve invested heavily in our brand because, at the end of the day, everything people see and touch and talk about is brand. Everything we do is our brand so it had better be awesome,” said Ahart.
“We would love to work with Namibian creatives in the future, and have tried finding the right partners but we knew that to do justice to the beautiful work of these bikes and our builders, we had to launch with the absolute best we could afford.”
Just last week, the brand’s launch video won a Bronze Loerie in the Film – Brand Content category. The film features Namibia cyclists and locals around parts of Omaruru, Omatjete, the Brandberg, Dune 7 outside Walvis Bay, and Katutura.
“Our objective was to catch the spirit of the bliss it feels like riding in Namibia, to sell our vision of Namibia – not a place to feel sorry for, but a place people might aspire to be,” said Craven. “If you’re going to sell bicycles made in Namibia, you first need to sell Namibia to people who have probably never heard of it.”
For Onguza, they see their biggest challenge is the outdated stereotype that “nothing world-class is made in Africa – and especially not in Namibia,” said Craven.
“Even many Namibians question what we’re doing and assume our bikes must be cheap or like Buffalo – or charity – bikes. I’ve had people ask about buying them for farm laborers to ride until I tell them what the bikes cost,” he added.
“We’ve already had orders from customers as diverse as from New York City to Malawi. These people are advanced cyclists who know the craftsmanship that goes into these bikes and what a joy they are to ride, but they are also people who want their bikes to say something powerful about their values and how they spend their money,” said Craven. “Our story is just so important.”
But it’s not all story. The business is putting its money where its mouth is and has made Nkolo and Mufenge shareholders in the company.
“As part-owners, the success of the business means the people who work for us are successful too. I want our company to become a model for other small businesses in Namibia and across the continent demonstrating how things can be done differently. We need to show that it’s not only possible, but it’s profitable,” said Craven.
“The thing that gets me up in the morning is making sure we’re bringing business into Omaruru, into Namibia, and bringing more people with us as we go. Namibia is a country of talented makers working in jobs where their salaries don’t match their skills. We’re simply creating a trade that matches the high value of their expertise and workmanship,” he concluded.
Onguza bicycles launched in April 2022 and began sales on 14 October 2022. www.onguza.com
Namibia’s only professional cyclist, Dan Craven, racing the horse. Photo by Collyn Ahart.