The company looks at the road ahead while it continues to provide one of the most interesting ways to explore Manila.
WORDS AND IMAGES BY ZEAN VILLONGCO
I t may have been raining that Saturday in the City of Manila but it wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the people around me.
I was at the headquarters of Bambike Ecotours. The company, known for touring people around the capital using handmade bamboo bikes, was celebrating its 5th anniversary with a number of activities. For a time, though, it seemed as if some of its plans would get canceled. For example, tours around Manila were prepared for the day but the weather—gloomy with strong, intermittent rainfall—seemed capable of putting them on hold.
When I got to the Bambike headquarters, however, I was greeted by a staff member who cheerily chirped to me that they were pushing through. A row of finely crafted bamboo bikes was lined up just outside the shop, a single square space at the ground floor of the old Casa Manila complex. Inside, the staff was going about in a flurry of activity, busily preparing for the evening celebration. From browsing over the various eco-ethical merchandise items on display in the shop—backpacks and utility bags upcycled from tire inner tubes and water canisters hand-crafted from bamboo—and from chatting with the office crew of beaming and enthusiastic millennials, I saw a progressive startup social enterprise brimming with entrepreneurial zeal grounded on social ideals.
This, however, is just one of the reasons why the company has been on the road for half a decade now.
A t the company’s headquarters, I met with the company’s founder, Bryan Benitez-McClelland, an affable Fil-Am chap with the disarming demeanor of a California surfer dude and the engaging articulateness of a corporate CEO. Bryan’s journey with Bambike started off when in 2007, while working on his Masters degree in Environmental Resource Management at the University of Pennsylvania, the Connecticut native hooked up with Gawad Kalinga (GK) and helped the latter spur its green building program. It was with this immersion into grassroots social work that Bryan found ardent purpose in social entrepreneurship.
“I thought that I’d come back to the Philippines and visit my roots,” Bryan said, expressing how he had wanted to learn more about his mother’s home country and how, in turn, he found his present calling. “I decided that there’s so much that I can do here in helping people out.”
But before starting out Bambike Ecotours, Bryan hardly knew much about bamboo, much less so with how to build bikes with this natural resource so commonly and ubiquitously found throughout the country. He was, however, already familiar with a bamboo bike building project in Ghana, and thought that a similar endeavor could translate well into a viable livelihood for communities in the bamboo-abundant Philippines. His plan then got a kick-start when he had a bamboo bike builder from Africa come to the Philippines to facilitate the transfer of know-how and technology. After perfecting his bike frame building methods, Bryan then finally launched his own business, employing community members of Gawad Kalinga village in Victoria, Tarlac who learned how to manipulate bamboo into various sizes and whom Bryan refers to as Bambuilders. Henceforth, Bryan forged ahead with an unexpected life path.
I t would be amiss of me to not admire the fine craftsmanship that went into the making of any of Bambike’s two-wheeled products as their bikes were indeed beautifully polished works. Inside its headquarters, accolades and recognition awards were displayed, while outside the shop, tourists passing by would take selfie shots with the bikes. I, later on, learned that in 2011, the enterprise got a huge boost when the Philippine ambassador to the US presented then US President Barack Obama with a Bambike as a gift.
In consideration for the amount of camera equipment that I was carrying, the Bambike Ecotours staff was kind enough to offer me for the tour their pedicab model, a bamboo bike fitted with a bamboo sidecar. There were nine of us in the tour group, including our guide and my pedicab driver, and we were all decked in rain ponchos when we headed out for our rainy exploration of Intramuros. Notwithstanding the sour weather, exploring the various quarters of Manila’s old walled city on a bike was a rather delightful treat. One could get around faster and cover more ground than if one were to tour on foot. And being able to easily move through narrow or crowded alleys and virtually park the bike anywhere very much outweighed the hassle of bringing a car. The novelty of riding a bamboo bike moreover gave a unique flavor to experiencing the history and nostalgia of Manila’s colonial past. For me, it was as if the bamboo bikes, fashioned from traditional building materials and fused with modern parts and wares, served as a fitting vehicle to traverse through the antiquity of modern-day Intramuros.
U pon my return to Bambike Ecotours’ headquarters, the office staff was already handing out bottles of local, crafted beer for guests who were coming in for the evening merrymaking. A band was setting up outside at the Casa Manila patio, while people lined up at the food tables to claim their evening fare of pork barbeque, lumpiang ubod, and sweet kakanin. It was a simple yet hearty celebration for Bambike Ecotours’ five years of social enterprise endeavor.
“What we plan is to further put up similar eco-tours in other parts of the country,” Bryan mentioned to me, explaining how he intends to replicate the bamboo bike tours in Intramuros to promote other places in the Philippines.
From that rainy afternoon tour, I could see that Bryan has a good team behind him—a team who shared in his entrepreneurial ideals and bright enthusiasm in life. I could see that, throughout all these five years, the good fortune and tokens of goodwill that Bambike Ecotours has gained and fostered has made Bryan’s ride worthwhile.