Over the past two decades, the construction of bicycle frames has undergone radical changes, from incorporating aircraft-grade titanium to the carbon fiber preferred by many professional riders. Yet those expensive materials, while incredibly strong and light, remain out of reach for many cyclists in developing nations.
But what if bike frames could be constructed using a fast-growing organic material that exhibits greater tensile strength than steel and withstands compression better than concrete, while also providing employment opportunities for those looking to escape poverty? For the Philippines’ BamBike, the answer lay in an abundant local material—bamboo—and a workforce eager for new opportunities.
It all began little more than a decade ago, when Filipino-American BamBike founder Bryan Benitez McClelland partnered with local non-profit Gawad Kalinga on a sustainable community development program for Victoria, a municipality located on the southern edge of Laguna de Bey, a large freshwater lake south of Manila. After researching methods for using bamboo (a similar program had shown success in Africa), Bambike began training workers to build frames for all-terrain, road, and even children’s bikes.
Those bikes, which range in price from $171 USD for the Bambino to $1,050 for the Luntian 2.0, are built and tested by nine workers who handcraft between 15–25 frames per month, says Joshua Gan, supply chain head for Bambike. “Prior to Bambike, they were farmers or tricycle drivers,” Gan says. “One of the first Bambuilders, who just finished college, is now working with us in Manila as shop manager in training. We focus on quality work rather than mass production.”
While Bambike focuses on training its full-time workers to build quality frames, it also invests in the workers’ lives by training and paying for the community's preschool teacher, and the company is building a bamboo nursery as well as developing the area to accommodate Bambike Ecotours for even greater employment opportunities.
“Apart from selling Bambikes, our main revenue generator is Bambike Ecotours, where we provide guided tours on bamboo bikes,” Gan says. “Zendesk Manila has engaged our services to provide their employees with monthly Bambike Ecotours around their workplace. Zendesk, together with our other corporate partners, is helping us fund Bambike's scholarship fund where we will provide for the college needs of the children of the Bambuilders.”
For Zendesk employee Lila Marie Uy, the Bambike Ecotours provide her with an opportunity to reduce stress, learn local history, and support an organization that’s helping impoverished communities grow both financially and socially. “BamBike is not just about riding the bamboo bike, but it is also a fun way to learn the history of the city,” says Uy. “And what's more exciting is that we were riding a bamboo-frame bike.”
While Bambike plans for future expansion of its Ecotours, its popular Manila route provides an intimate view of the historic walled city of Manila, Intramuros, much of which has been rebuilt since incurring devastating damage during the Battle of Manila in early 1945. Meanwhile, Bambike has begun planning to create more jobs for local workers by expanding into other product lines such as furniture and construction material, which the company believes would also benefit the local bamboo industry, Gan says.