Posted on September 8, 2013
Bryan Benitez McClelland, PHILIPPINES
Social Entrepreneur and Founder, BAMBIKE
“If there’s a wheel, there’s a way,” as some like to use the pun. In the case of Bryan Benitez-McClelland, he took the wheel, as well as one of the most resilient trees on the planet, and started a revolution. His socio-ecological enterprise, Bambike, produces bicycles made from bamboo, and its mission goes beyond the retail business of selling specialised, custom-built bicycles to an elite market. The brand is built on a set of core values (people, planet, progress) with the earnest intention of providing solutions to some of the Philippines’ biggest problems: environmental degradation, transportation and mobility, poverty and under-utilised manpower. Using the bicycle, bamboo technology, and business, Bambike reorients how we look at consumerism and entrepreneurship in relation to the community. This is not the first time bamboo was used for lifestyle products or for innovative sustainable solutions in the country, but it’s definitely speeding things up on the road to change.
What was the idea behind Bambike?
I moved back to the Philippines in 2007, after completing my Masters in Environmental Resource Management focused on Sustainable Community Development at the University of Pensilvania. My attention was drawn to Gawad Kalinga, a community development program in the Philippines. I was interested in a project that would make a positive impact in the country. It all started as a volutourism type of project to help Gawad Kalinga create a green building program. Back in the states, I was a whitewater kayak instructor, and I didn’t see much of that here, so I seized the opportunity and started Rapid Stream Ecotours, my first business endeavour in ecotourism development. My interest wasn’t merely in starting a business to make money.
For my undergraduate degree, I studied Environmental Science with a concentration in Anthropology, so I was always interested and passionate about understanding how people and the environment interacted. I wanted to befriend the community, figure out what they needed, what resources were available to optimise (both human capital and natural), and utilising my experience and knowledge, create a solution and create a sustainable socio-ecological enterprise.
What propelled you to build bamboo bicycles?
I had heard about bamboo bikes being built in Africa as a community development project. While I was doing my studies, a lightbulb went on in my head. The bicycle is arguably the most efficient machine man ever created and absolutely the greenest transportation vehicle. I was never really a racer biker, I was more of a lifestyle biker. I’d use it to get from point A to B, my bikes being the everyday commuter-type. Upon learning that it could be made of bamboo, it all just connected and made sense in my head: it was the perfect trifecta of green product, green building material, and sustainable livelihood development. The Philippines is abundant with bamboo; there is a rampant transportation and mobility issue, as well as a poverty problem, yet there is so much under-utilised talent and manpower with a large percentage of the population in need of jobs.
How did you get Bambike off the ground and running?
I pursued Craig Calfee for about 2 1/2 years to train me and my 2-person team in building bicycles made from bamboo. As I formed Bambike, I realised it was a lot of R&D. I had some knowledge of bamboo, but I really had to dive into the research and study about the variety of species (about 70 endemic species in the Philippines) and how to identify which among these varieties were structural and ideally resilient for building vehicles. It was a bit of a slow start. I had to learn everything about bicycles (design and construction), bamboo (species, harvesting, treatment, processing, construction, maintenance), the community (the people, their needs), the language (I barely spoke Tagalog), and running a business. I guess it helps that I had my prior educational background in forestry, environmental business, and green engineering, so even if i didn’t initially know all the specifics about bamboo, I had the components and background necessary to be able to look at the industry here and figure out how to go about it.
I must say there were times, while sleeping on the bare concrete floor of my workshop, that I questioned what I got myself into. I really had to do a gut check. The first few years were really challenging: the language barrier, the trials and errors, commuting back and forth. But I committed to the community. I know that there were much easier ways to make money: I had employment opportunities in the states, but I felt I wouldn’t be making much of an impact if I were just working for someone else, in the developed world. I guess some people phrase it as, paying it forward. It’s exciting because I can see the path forward; it’s challenging because theres still so much to handle to get to where I want to be.
From Tree to Bike: A low impact process
The process from harvesting, takes about 4 months. I had just prepared barely enough bamboo for the training. After that, it wouldn’t be for another 4-5 months before I could build again. So you can see that the process in the beginning was very very slow. So I immersed myself in learning everything I could about bamboo: where to source, how to harvest, what type of species, what time of year, how to dry, how to process, how to treat it so it doesn’t get fall apart. I was just calling random people, asking all these questions, how to do this, where to get it, anyone who would give me the time of day. The process has since then been slightly modified from the one I was taught, which was a North American perspective and used certain techniques and materials that were not exactly the most economical nor the most ecological. And I wanted, as much as possible, to have a locally available, low environmental impact treatment process.
Presently, I continue to keep refining my processes. we no longer use imported chemicals, we only use local bamboo, local abacca fibre, we developed a system wherein we use a solar powered drying box, we have UV exposure during daylight, we have a labour-intensive treatment process, like using carbon dioxide to treat the bamboo so it isn’t infested by termites, but we don’t use colour stain/dyes, we smoke it instead to caramelise the bamboo, we only harvest during the dry season, we also have a nursery project so we can reforest and replant.We really try to have a very low ecological impact and aim for a carbon negative building process, so that we are really better for the environment. as opposed to steel, where you would have a steel pool and requires a high body of energy, so typically you have diesel machinery, harvesting iron, steel oar, which then gets shipped to a processing plant and the steel is forged and heat treated and is processed into these tubes, and is shipped again to a store where it will be welded and by the time you have your steel back, it is effectively doused in fossil fuels. Whereas, in comparison to bamboo pole, it absorbs sunlight and carbon dioxide and water, and then it grows into a perfect cylinder for a bicycle.
People. Planet. Progress.
The community is my biggest asset; without their skills, knowledge, keenness, perseverance, the company wouldn’t be what it is now. Everything is handmade, hand tools, hand wrapped, hand packaged, hand built. The company is run by hands, we don’t use big machinery to build things. So I’m a firm believer that by investing in the community we are ensuring a sustainable enterprise. I use the triple bottom-line: people, planet, progress (in lieu of profit.)
People. Making sure that they get fare wages, that they don’t have to worry where or when they’ll get their next meal. Because a hungry workforce isn’t a productive workforce. They shouldn’t have to worry if they can send their kids to school, or other basic things that many people take for granted. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself knowing that their minds (the Bambuilders’) aren’t focused on the work, they’re worrying if they’re families are getting by, if they can buy uniforms or schoolbooks or pay tuition.
The planet. I couldn’t justify making money on a product that is detrimental to the environment, I just can’t. So it’s really all about sustainable manufacturing, green products.
Progress. Because we want to push the envelope in how business is run, ensuring that the socioecological components are satisfied. and that will ensure longevity as a profitable company. so, progressing towards a better way of doing business. Our main tagline for Bambike is revolution cycles. Revolution, as in physics, meaning the motion and direction of the tires. But also changing the way things are run. Having a better business model that ensures sustainable growth and protecting our assets. Our assets being the employees, our partners, the environment, our raw materials. Without those, we can’t do anything. The cycles, being the bicycles. But also, metaphorically, the cycles of nature: the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, the natural processes of material flow.
We don’t really own anything. We just borrow bits and pieces from the earth, and that eventually, they all have to be regenerated, recycled, up cycled. So we want to continually re-evaluate our existing model, improve, adapt, grow. It’s a living system, it’s not a static corporate enterprise that’s solely built on the intention of making money.
Who are the Bambuilders?
The Bambike Builders (aka Bambuilders) are the skilled craftsmen responsible for every single Bambike built. They live in the rural town of Victoria, Tarlac in Central Philippines. Prior to building bamboo bicycles, they had intermittent sources of livelihood by working a number of part-time jobs (driving pedi-cabs, welding, farming, and other odd jobs as day laborers), without any social security or health care. They are all members of a community development program called Gawad Kalinga (GK). Gawad Kalinga’s mission is to build communities to end poverty. Bambike shares GK’s vision of a poverty-free Philippines and contributes to the cause by hiring GK villagers, and providing them with sustainable livelihoods.
The Bambuilders now work full-time at the Bambike workshop, inside the community where they live, close to their families. Bambike also supports educational and teaching programs in the community and directly funding teacher salaries. By ploughing funds to support the community, Bambike is inching closer toward its goal to broaden opportunities and livelihood, such as offering technical degree scholarships and more jobs for future generations of Bambuilders. The aim is to concentrate on building industries and providing sustainable jobs within the rural and suburban areas and help cease the urban rush, or the increasing migration and congestion of the urban cities.
Describe the experience after you finally came out with your first prototype.
It was like being a kid again. For the first time ever, I built a sturdy machine out of a natural material that could serve as a functional transportation. Riding it around, it wasn’t the prettiest thing, nor was it the lightest, but it was handmade, with blood, sweat, and tears. I felt really happy and really proud of the team. It just made me more inspired to continue. Like, okay we built one, what’s the next step? How do we improve? How do we refine this? I still feel this every time we build a new bike, I observe it with the same kind of eye. So, okay, I’m happy with it, but how do we make it better?
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring or starting out in social entrepreneurship?
1. Be on the lookout for opportunities in the industry.
2. That said, do some research.
3. Be passionate. Being an entrepreneur isn’t the easiest nor simplest way to go about things. It means long hours, a lot of trial and errors, frustrations, and it’s passion and dedication that will get you through the tough times and keep you going. Statistically speaking, most businesses fail. And it’s really people with vision and firm with core values that really persevere. Being in a socio-ecological business, it’s great and encouraging to find that there is an increasing support for this kind of enterprise, that there are more groups that want to support social enterprise to help eradicate poverty. There is a lot of support out there, it helps to stay focused and stay passionate enough to be on the look out.
4. Stay excited. I think that going into something and not being really excited about something is quite sad. Because for me work isn’t really “work”, it’s more of lifestyle. I don’t have set office hours per say. My work is a lifestyle, it’s a commitment to a greater cause. When I wake up and before I sleep, it’s what’s on my mind, I’m thinking how to move forward. For some that’s not great, that there should be a separation. Maybe it’s a little crazy, maybe I’m a little crazy, but I wouldn’t have it other way. There’s a lot of work to be done in the country. I feel that social entrepreneurship here in Asia is ripe, it’s a right time. The country needs a lot of help. There’s more than 30 million people below the poverty line and a market place of over 100 million people. And in the Philippines alone, there’s just so much world-class innovation.
At present, Bambike runs its retail and product operations online through its website. Stay posted for updates and appearances in expos and trade-shows through their Facebook page. If you’re keen on owning your very own custom-built Bambike, get in touch to learn more.∗