Uplifting a village in Tarlac through bamboo bikes

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Bambike was born out of the integration of two simple ideas: utilizing the strength of bamboo to create an efficient form of transportation that’s good for the environment. Photos by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Some inward journeys need external manifestations. This was the case with Bambike founder Bryan Benitez McClelland, born and raised in the United States, who decided to set down his roots in the Philippines seven years ago to start a socio-ecological enterprise that creates fair trade bamboo bicycles with sustainable building practices.

“Seven years ago I had no idea what I was doing,” he says, while giving a tour of the Bambike factory in the Gawad Kalinga Village in Victoria, Tarlac. He recalls the nights spent sleeping on the floor of the first Bambike factory and having to navigate starting a business in the Philippines without knowing how to speak any Tagalog.

In the span of seven years, McClelland went from a Gawad Kalinga volunteer, to a founder of a bicycle brand being sold all over the world, and which have been gifted to various global leaders, including Barack Obama.

Bambike Bambike founder Bryan Benitez McClelland was born and raised in the United States, but decided to settle in the Philippines seven years ago. Photos by JL JAVIER

Bambike “As I came back and forth to the Philippines [from America] from such a young age, I saw such a discrepancy between those who have and those who don’t, and it never sat well with me,” says McClelland. Photos by JL JAVIER  

Bambike was born out of the integration of two simple ideas: utilizing the strength of bamboo to create an efficient form of transportation that’s good for the environment. Bambike doesn’t have a dedicated bamboo plantation of its own, but instead works with local farming communities around Tarlac.

“We only harvest the bamboo that we are going to use so the clump can stay healthy and continue to grow,” McClelland says. He goes the extra mile to create as much value per piece as possible. 

As we walked through the rice paddies, searching for bamboo plants that are ready for harvest, McClelland instructs his supply chain manager to make sure that the leaves, which are usually discarded and left to rot, are collected and treated so that they can be made into “bambanog.” 

Going the extra mile isn’t a new concept for McClelland who could have easily set up shop in a more accessible location, but instead asked the local Gawad Kalinga to put him in the community that needed the most help. That community happened to be Victoria, Tarlac, a little community made out of 30 houses surrounded with rice paddies as far as the eye can see. “They put me all the way to the other side, dito sa bukid, so I took that as a challenge.”

Bambike Adjong Danganan harvests bamboo to be used as raw material for Bambikes. Photos by JL JAVIER

Bambike "We only harvest the bamboo that we are going to use," says McClelland, "so the clump can stay healthy and continue to grow." Photos by JL JAVIER

Bambike On the way to the Gawad Kalinga Victoria Village, a local community in Tarlac involved in the production of Bambikes. Photo by JL JAVIER  

The Gawad Kalinga Victoria Village is located more than 30 minutes away from where the bamboo is harvested and over three hours from Manila where the bikes are finished. Despite the logistical implications of having different stages of production far away from one another, McClelland’s vision of creating a business that would provide a sustainable living for the community outweighed all the distance. 

The presence of the Bambike factory in the community has meant a great deal to the community which was once heavily dependent on seasonal farming work. Bambike now hires ten regular employees and about 20 part-time contractors with above minimum wage standards and benefits.

In a weird coincidence, it was the distance between McClelland’s two homes that helped create Bambike’s business values. “As I came back and forth to the Philippines [from America] from such a young age, I saw such a discrepancy between those who have and those who don’t, and it never sat well with me,” he says. By creating a business focused on sustainable livelihood development, and creating opportunities for people who need it the most, McClelland believes that he can create sustainable change and help break the cycle of poverty.

Bambike Bamboo leaves, which are usually discarded and left to rot, are collected and treated so that they can be made into “bambanog.” Photos by JL JAVIER

Bambike Bambike now hires ten regular employees and about 20 part-time contractors with above minimum wage standards and benefits. Photos by JL JAVIER

Not every kid grows up wanting to help save the environment, and help save the world, so it has to be asked: what brought McClelland here? He grew up wanting to be a sports doctor and was actually already taking up pre-med courses in university when it was time for him to declare his major.

“It made me think really deeply about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life and I thought back to the things that made me happy,” McClelland shares, “and it was being in the outdoors and appreciating the natural beauty of our planet.” As he stands in the middle of a vast rice field, exposed to the scorching afternoon sun, inspecting which bamboo stalks are ready for harvest, you get the sense that there is nowhere in the world he would rather be.