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Sohrab Cycle and Manufacturing in Pakistan

Posted on September 23, 2006
Filed Under >Bilal Zuberi, Economy & Development, Science and Technology, Society
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Bilal Zuberi

My first memory of a bike ride is from when I just started primary school. My school was only a few blocks away from our home in Karachi, and with my dad working in the Middle East, my parents had to find some help to take us kids to school and back.

A loving, frail, old man by the name of Ali Baba, real name Muhammad Ali, would come every single day to our house, have a cup of chai with the family, and then take us kids to our school on his Sohrab bicycle. I would sit in front, near the handle bar, and my brother would sit behind him, clutching tightly to hold on during the ride. We took the same ride every single day, twice a day, for many many years.

Well, I am reminded today once again of Ali Baba and his bicycle. He rode a trusted old Sohrab, much like most Pakistanis who ride bicycles even to this day. Years ago, when I wanted to buy my own bicycle, I thought I had a choice between an expensive hip-looking BMX or a cheaper not-so-sporty Sohrab. Despite my vehement protests to parents, I ended up with a Sohrab bicycle that cost only Rs1100/- in the mid 80′s (It is currently priced at ~Rs 3250/-). I remember being upset then because I thought I looked like a Doodhwala (In Karachi milk was often delivered by men who rode Sohrab bicycles). Today, I find myself longingly taking photographs of Sohrab cycles loaded with milk canisters to remind myself of yester years.

Sohrab bicycle (simply called cycle in Pakistan) probably deserves a spot in the national museums, along with the Tanga, Bael gaari, decorated busses, and the Rickshaw. Its name is synonymous with bicycle in Pakistan. This bicycle is built from a sturdy metal frame (sometimes too heavy for casual riding), is often painted black, and has a metal flat plate at the back that has been used over time for all kinds of purposes: from carrying children to giving a ride to your spouse, from lunch tiffin boxes to laundry and milk-containers, or a variety of other things. Oh yes, and Pakistan and India regularly compete in bicycle polo matches as well!

Sohrab is ubiquitous in both urban and rural centers in Pakistan. I have seen the Sohrab bicycles decorated with flowers, neon lights, loudspeakers, advertisements and all shapes and colors of reflectors. The ingenuity used by some Sohrab enthusiasts to oufit their vehicles easily shames the Harley Davidson owners in the USA. You only have to see the bicycle of the Chowkidar (night watchman) in our mohalla to believe it. He proudly rides it all night, blowing a shrill whistle to remind us that he is keeping a careful eye out.

Here is a little bit I could find about the history of bicycle industry in Pakistan. However, I would love to hear your stories of owning, decorating, riding, or simply watching others enjoy their Sohrabs:

  • At that time of Independence in 1947, there was no bicycle factory in Pakistan. Imported bikes were made available and Nila Gumbad market in Lahore became a hub for bicycle sales. (It is today the main tire and auto parts market).
  • Shortage of foreign exchange reserves in 1952 prompted a serious look into domestic production, and a remarkable idea was conceived: 22 shop owners of the Nila Gumbad area drafted a plan to establish a bicycle manufacturing factory within the country on cooperative basis.
  • On 8th September, 1953, the Pakistan Cycle Industrial Cooperative Society was formally registered under Section 9 of Cooperative Societies Act II of 1912. It has been controlled by an elected body ever since.
  • The Cycle Co-operative Society has seen significant growth since its inception. It now accounts for the production of 80+% of all bicycles sold in Pakistan, and provides spare parts across the country . The Co-operative Society now has over 225 members, a 25-acre Rustam and Sohrab cycle factory with 2100 workers and a capacity of producing nearly 2000 bicyles daily.
  • In addition to Sohrab, there are 6 other OEMs producing bicycles in Pakistan.
  • As with any OEM (original equipment manufacturing) business, the bicycle industry has created support industries which employ thousands of people.

According to different published sources, there are 300 bicycle vendors in Pakistan,employing 3000 workers. These vendors buy raw material worth Rs49 million and after value addition sell it on to the manufacturers for Rs98 million. The 300 vendors supply to 7 big Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and 20 unorganized OEMs (small firms). OEMs employ a total of 5000 workers. The OEMs supply a further of Rs1.32 billion worth of new bicycles and Rs100 million worth replacement parts of bicycles to the retail assemblers/dealers/puncture shops. The retailers are supplied spare parts (including tires and tubes) through some 175 component manufacturer, employing 4000 workers in a market worth Rs230 million as new parts and Rs1.62 billion as the replacement market bicycles. There are some 3000 retailers/assemblers, employing 9000 people and cater to the Rs1.71 billion new bicycles demand and Rs2.78 billion replacement bicycle market. (Source: GC University, Lahore)

  • The Co-operative society is now also producing several other bicycle models besides the good ‘ol Sohrab. From ladies’ bikes and three-wheelers to BMX Sohrab, multi-speed mountain bikes, street race bikes, and even motorized bikes with 4-stroke engines.
  • According to a recent study, a total 629,695 number of bicycles were produced in 2002-03 and 681,448 were produced in 2003-04 thus showing the growth rate of 8.22%.

Despite my nostalgia associated with the Sohrab, Pakistani bicycle industry is under serious threat from regional competition, and is surviving thanks to the protection provided by import duties on bicycles (~30% import tariff). India and China, for example, are exporters of high quality, cheap bikes whereas Pakistani industry is barely able to meet local demands. As free trade develops in the region, both the government and producers stand to lose, while it is expected that the consumers would gain significantly.

As I see the old-fashioned Sohrab bicycles around me, I wonder how this industry is preparing to meet the challenges of the 21st century. A Sohrab can still have the nostalgic shape and look, but has it evolved over the past few decades to incorporate the innovations in design, ergonomics, durability and efficiency? Will it be able to morph into the bicycle variety of Qingxi, a local innovation that is competing well with imported products?

Bicycling is becoming more than just a hobby or a simple mode of transport in many parts of the world. It has also become a serious sport that has seen rapid technological innovations. From the use of continuously variable transmissions in place of hub and spoke gear sets, to the use of ultra light weight materials, the bikes of today are remarkably improved over the last generation of bikes. It could even provide part of the answer to our traffic problems (here and here).
Is Sohrab going to be able to make the transition at a fast enough pace, or are we nearing the end of the golden era of Pakistani bicycles? Sohrab is not just a cultural icon, but livelihoods of many people depend on their access to it. In a country where income is low and pollution generated by automobiles is high, I for one would be ecstatic to see a rejuvenation of the bike culture in Pakistan.

23 Comments on “Sohrab Cycle and Manufacturing in Pakistan”

  1. Samdani says:
    September 23rd, 2006 11:00 pm

    Nice writeup. I like the way you have woven in personal memories with an important policy question. We do have some manufacturing industries that have done well — fans, for example. But they are fast losing their quality advantage to better and cheaper products from abroad. The question is whether they are innovating to the next level. In some cases they have. For example, fan manufacturers moving to sturdy local washing machines. Pakistani bicycles were, and I presume, very good quality. Sturdy and tough for Pakistan conditions. A large number of people still use them.

  2. five_thousand_rs_note says:
    September 24th, 2006 4:03 am

    A nice read no doubt,

    but sometimes i feel that we are wasting our time writing and reading such articles when people are starving, dying and being left without medical care. and when the education is in shambles, etc etc.

    Any comments?

  3. Haider says:
    September 24th, 2006 12:40 pm

    Manufacturing is an ignored sector in Pakistan today. The focus of govt. and public is on computers and call centers and things like that. That is OK but the backbone has to be things we MAKE and USE and SELL. Sialkot and Gujranwalla are still good centers of small manufacturing but we need much more if the development and poverty challenge is to met.

  4. franz says:
    September 24th, 2006 2:26 pm

    five_thousand,

    We might look at stories such as this as a part of–rather than apart from–the poverty picture, as useful in jogging memories that might connect the dots in poverty alleviation (practices specific to Pakistan).

    As Adil Najam and Tariq Banuri put it in Civic Entrepreneurship, “the purpose of a story is not to convert the listener. A story cannot be obeyed. The purpose, rather, is to invite rethinking on what we thought we knew: how things have changed, how they are changing and
    how they may change…”

    “The purpose is [...] to discover new eyes and see one’s own country as a foreign place; not to discover the unfamiliar but to recover the familiar and make it our ally; not to define sustainable development but to tell its story.”

    For instance, Pakistan EPA and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have pegged pollution levels at 30 to 44 times WHO Guidelines in urban areas*. In general, the poorest take the brunt of maladies in their environment (here in the U.S., and I would assume in Pakistan as well). Eye and respiratory diseases choke individuals’ and communities’ economic capacity, and bottle-neck development.

    What’s the first thing you notice when you disembark an airplane in the U.S. after a jaunt abroad (besides the convenient absense of stairs)?.. To put it bluntly, people are fat. Disturbingly so. Just immense.

    Maybe that’s a health issue Pakistanis would aspire to (since a full belly is better than an empty one).. but my insurance here costs over 300 dollars per month (and I’m 25 yrs old, have trained at the olympic training center for judo and was a ski instructor for a decade).

    Put another way, while Bilal’s post doesn’t dive head-long into poverty and economics, those subjects are imbeded, I think..

    *see Pakistaniat post:
    (http://72.14.207.104/search?q=cache:BZDlu7p7Jd0J:www.environment.gov.pk/PRO_PDF/AmbientAirQtyPakistan.pdf Zulifikar H. Lodhi pak-epa&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1) and ATP post here (http://pakistaniat.com/2006/08/06/guest-post-thinking-buses-pakistan-plus/)…sorry I haven’t figured out how to hyperlink with Safari..

    There are quite a few blogs that deal exclusively with poverty alleviation.. check out AlertNet.org, socialedge.org, nextbillion.net, psdblog.worldbank.org/

  5. 5000 says:
    September 24th, 2006 11:37 pm

    Thanks for the answer.I salute your concern for the poverty people.

    but sometimes i think we are going in the wrong dirction trying to import Harvard MBA case studies direct into pakistan trying to implement poverty reduction………we need something that is locally suited…..

    So firstly we need to decide that are we going in the right direction?

  6. Owais Mughal says:
    September 25th, 2006 1:38 pm

    Bilal. very informative. I also like the way you combined your personal experiences with cycle industry’s current state. I also want to point out that there used to be a few other popular brands in Pakistan before Sohrab took over the market. I believe there was a ‘Rustam’ brand also which we don’t see anymore. There was an ‘Eagle’ brand popular for its double ‘danda’ (rod) connection b/w steering and the seat. There was also a PECO brand which went down-hill after PECO’s nationalization in late 70s.

    Sohrab has now ventured into motorcycle business.

  7. September 25th, 2006 2:25 pm

    Bilal, I also had a trusted Sohrab bicycle… but no Ali Baba ;-)

    Went to school and then to college on it…. and made side-excursions on the way!

    I also heard about the move into motorcycles (or was it mopeds) by Sohrab but have not seen one. Does anyone have a sense of the quality.

    I head that Gujranwalla and Sialkot and small manufacturing has made some innovative upgrades…. Fan manufacturers using their knowledge of motors to go into washing machines… and bicycle manufacturers into motorcycles. Again, do not have first hand knowledge of whats happening on the ground on this, maybe someone amongst our readers does.

  8. Owais Mughal says:
    September 25th, 2006 2:42 pm

    After I passed my grade II, I was given a medium-size Sohrab bicylce as my gift. In 1978 it cost a princely sum of Rupees 650. ‘Light House’ area was and is the central cycle market for Karachi (as Neela gumbad is for Lahore). I remember we bargained for 30 minutes to bring the price of that cycle down from Rs 675 to Rs 650. I guess nobody would even care for Rs 25 today b/c of rupees’ devaluation/inflation etc.

    I used to take that cycle to school. We had no proper cycle stand so everyone parked their cycles in parallel. Every day some school bully would come and push the corner cycle on others and all of them would tumble down one over another. Thus my cycle’s paint got damaged badly.

    In 1986 it was sold for Rs 50 to a street corner ‘rent-a-cycle’ business.

  9. March 3rd, 2007 2:14 pm

    [...] For cycle enthusisasts in Pakistan, a wonderful international event is just around the corner. The 13th Tour de Pakistan International Cycling Race, organized by Pakistan Cycling Federation, will be held on March 4-18. The race will start from Quaid’s tomb in Karachi on March 4 and end in Peshawar on March 18, taking the participants through a various cities of Sindh, Punjab and NWPF on the famous Grand Trunk (GT) Road. [...]

  10. March 3rd, 2007 2:18 pm

    [...] Tour de Pakistan Cycle Race For cycle enthusisasts in Pakistan, a wonderful international event is just around the corner. The 13th Tour de Pakistan International Cycling Race, organized by Pakistan Cycling Federation, will be held on March 4-18. The race will start from Quaid’s tomb in Karachi on March 4 and end in Peshawar on March 18, taking the participants through a various cities of Sindh, Punjab and NWPF on the famous Grand Trunk (GT) Road.This will be among the largest of such events in Asia, covering a distance of 1,648 km in eleven stages with four days of rest en route. This event is being promoted as a part of the Visit Pakistan Year (2007), and is planned to draw an international crowd of cycling enthusiasts to promote a better understanding of the country and to promote tourism. [...]

  11. Lew Thean Meng says:
    July 9th, 2007 5:00 am

    I want to import Sohrab/Rustam bicycles into Malaysia but can’t seem to Google contact of the manufacturer. Can you help?

  12. August 24th, 2007 6:07 am

    Hi this is Saad Gandapore , Head of Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

    I beg to say that I love Mr. A. Sohrab’s sports cycles in red color. I love u all.,

    Please fill gas in the tyres.

    TC

  13. Faris Khalil says:
    January 12th, 2008 6:44 am

    Assalam-o-alaikum i want a bicycle i am 12 years old so show me pictures of bicycle of my age please!

    Thank You

  14. Zafar Ali Malik says:
    February 6th, 2008 11:40 pm

    I am a small exporter.I want rates for export of your bicyles.
    Can you please provide me the best rates you can offer me?
    Initially I want to export 100 units on your product.
    The simple Sohrab bicylce.
    Please reply me soon as possible .
    Thanks and regards
    Zafar Ali Malik

  15. FatimaShah says:
    February 7th, 2008 12:02 am

    Sohrab bicycles really does sound familiar.Quite like the bicycle that is the Symbol of PML Q-League.
    Gari to ab chal nahin rahi, ab cycle hi chalai gi na.

  16. March 28th, 2008 3:04 am

    Wow ! great ! Thanks for a lovely article!

    I ride a Sohrab! Apart from commuting to one of the places I teach [in Karachi], I use it for shopping etc. Its great to take to places like Saddar & Bunder Road, Khori Garden etc., places you can never find car parking….

    I’ve had the same singlespeed sohrab mountain bike for 11 years, it’s a fantastic bike. I bought it with my second paycheck as a teacher in 1997.

    I’d like to say, Sohrab Zindabad! I certainly encourage all to buy one & start riding today.

  17. muhammad nadeem says:
    May 13th, 2008 8:59 am

    i m nadeem from faisalabad i purchase a motor cycle from latif autoes(railbazar faisalabad) want to tell u services provide by dealers is not good. i see 1 customer there he is also complain. plz arrange ur own service service center.

  18. January 26th, 2009 4:24 am

    I do hope the govt. (federal and national) take this seriously as cycle is a major mode of transport in the country –especially for our lower income and hard-working citizens who rely on them to get from point A to point B. We must find ways to balance innovation with competitiveness (lowest possible costs).

    While I subscribe to free markets and capitalism, we must ensure that our local producers enjoy a healthy market share in local and export market. Sohrab always has been a success story. I used to have a red one as a kid (still have it in the storage space).

    This does not apply to just cycle industry. We must work hard to boost and promote our other industries as well. In these difficult/interesting times our nation is facing we must do more to alleviate poverty and promote (regardless of scale) strong industry. We have the labour and the hard-working population, therefore we (and the govt) must do more to promote stronger markets inside and outside Pakistan (while letting the markets work).

    God bless all Pakistanis.
    Pakistan Zindabad.

  19. hammad says:
    May 11th, 2010 2:44 pm

    Assalam-u-alikum
    i ws riding a bicycle when i ws in 5th standrd ,,but during colge time i quit ..now i hve done MBA and doing white clor job in islamabad last 3 years ,i work for embasy ,i hve learn so many good things from foreigner in pakistan ,speasly abut bicycles .i was geting fat day by day cuz siting all day in my ofce, now after many years i start riding a bicycle, i m alon in hol islamabad who is riding a cyle .home to ofice and office to home (ofice guy riding a bicycle ), now after a one month i feel soo strong and confedence in me ,
    but now i thing if every one ride bicycle in pakistan ,, just emang kya ho sktaa ha ,,health ,fuel excersize etc ,, thing abut it ,, now i hve a plan in next month to ride a cylce isb to mure ,,i can doo it ,,
    my adve to pakistan , plz plz buy a bicycle just try yarrr , we hve to take som steps ,, i thing this is my first step .. now i m trying to convice my offce frinds abut abt this ,, yarrr develop countris bicycle per zooor da rha hain tu hum tu abe un ka kareeb be nahe hian ,,
    plz yarr is mian koi sharam ke baat nahe ha ,,
    belive me i save 3 to 4 thousand rs in last month just cuz of riding a bicycle , hain sirf ya hotaa ha ke subha thoraa jaldee jgna perhtaa ha ,, or yarr dressing per koi firk nahe perhtaa ,, but u must hve good shows :)…
    specially colge or unisty guys or girls must use bicycles ,,
    i m 25 years ,, abe young he hou ,, :)…let see
    Pakistan zindabad

  20. Ali Raza says:
    June 23rd, 2010 10:58 am

    assalam o alaikum

    i m Ali of Sialkot.
    we have 4 sohrab motorbikes but no sohrab workshop in all Sialkot….
    why???????????????????????

  21. Hamza Javed says:
    July 1st, 2010 6:00 am

    we have 2 cycle and 1 motorcyle of sohrab these items are most reliable i suggest you if you purchase a riding you must purchase sohrab items ok take care

  22. Faisal says:
    April 27th, 2011 12:44 am

    Yes. Only hardworkers can choose a bicycle. It is great. A human powered vehicle!
    Jaib halki, no pollution, sehat hi sehat.

  23. July 8th, 2011 7:33 pm

    aoa, nice article. I think we should promote about cycling and should follow the developed countries.bcz they use cycle so frequently. In pakistan now a days everyone going for motorcycle this culture is not good. Young or old everybody should use cycle good for health. I am from a small town near lahore known as sharaqpur sharif here natha patha using motorcycle.
    Our electronic media should promote cycling on agressive basis and cycle producing company also make some program or sporting event. for govt i would say they are useless so no msg for govt.
    Good luck and long live pakistan.

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