Can bicycles help the Philippines reduce poverty and protect the environment at the same time?
A social entrepreneur there says yes... with his line of bicycles made of locally grown bamboo.
Bryan Benitez McClelland is passionate about bicycles.
He heads out of his apartment in Makati City and picks up a bike that’s leaning up against the garage wall.
But the 29- year old Filipino American’s bicycle is different from what you’d find in any sporting goods store.
Its made of bamboo and McClelland says it’s environmentally friendly.
“So bamboo is a pretty incredible material. In the plant kingdom it grows really rapidly and absorbs tons of carbon dioxide. From that perspective, it’s a very renewable resource. And then in the performance level, its got the characteristics, of naturally vibration dampening pole structures, which really absorb the road chatter and road buzz and makes for a super smooth ride.”
In 2010, McClellland founded Bambike, a company that turns locally sourced bamboo into bike frames.
He’s sold around 100 of these high-end bicycles since then.
“So we’re here in the Bambike garage, we’ve got a number of different working prototypes and finished products ready for sale. Each one has different characteristics. Personally, in the city, I use the road geometry on the single speeds. That does a good job bopping around here in the urban setting.”
Bambikes workshop is located out in the countryside, in the town of Victoria, Tarlac province, 130 kilometers from Metro Manila.
Here, bamboo is harvested from farms as well as directly from the wild.
Bambike’s workers cut, treat and turn the wood into the specialized bike frames.
The finished products aren’t cheap, starting from 12-hundred US dollars.
But McClelland says much of the profit goes back into this poor community.
“We can produce world class certified bamboo bicycles for the global market while keeping jobs at home in the rural provincial areas so that the workers can stay with their families and have gainful employment.”
One of the local men who Bambike employs is 46-year old Remigio Manaloto Jr.
“I’m very grateful for the job with Bambikes. We don’t need to travel far; we can stay here in the community. When I used to work in construction, I used to spend a lot of time in the sun. I’m thankful that these jobs were brought here.”
Finding long-term employment for Victoria’s residents is a challenge, say local officials.
Many of the municipality’s 60-thousand inhabitants work in rice farming, which doesn’t yield year round work.
Candido Guiam is Victoria’s Mayor. He says like in many other rural parts of the Philippines, poverty here is endemic.
“Farmers only have four months of work and the remaining eight months they do not have work. So that’s why the cycle of poverty goes on and on.”
Mayor Guiam and Bryan Benitez McClelland see the mutual benefits of working together.
Already, some of Victoria’s farmers are planting bamboo propagules or seedlings.
And Guiam says this easily renewable crop will in the long run increase their livelihoods.
“So this is an alternative program where we can provide people with work. They plant, they cut, they produce propagules of bamboo, and we pay them 15 pesos, that’s good enough for them. The good thing is after producing the propagules of bamboo, they bring them back to their own backyard. And hopefully in three years they can cut it up and make money out of it.”
After leaving the mayor’s office, Bambike’s McClelland brings me to one of the bamboo nurseries that the town supports. He shows me a potted, tall, but very thin bamboo tree.
“This is a bamboo species is about a year old. So once we plant it, it will be ready to be used in a year and a half, two years. Bamboo is arguably the greenest building material on Earth. Bamboo is as strong as steel if you use the right species. It’s very durable, very strong and can stand up to the demands needed by a bicycle frame.”
McClelland adds bamboo can be used to build a lot more than just bike frames.
He hopes Bambike is just the start of a bamboo revolution in the Philippines.