Dreams Coming True l The Manila Bulletin Newspaper Online

Dreams Coming True

By Cecile Jusi Baltasar
January 30, 2011, 3:26pm

It’s been described as many things—from “astig” to “kulit”, to even “the product for a renewed manufacturing future for the Philippines.”

“It” is bamboo bikes, made by Kawayan Tech, a unique company whose objectives are, according to its mission-vision statement, to “design, develop and market bamboo products, technologies and services; and to develop indigenous forms of bikes and other alternative means of transport—such as…bamboo skateboards—as social entrepreneurship initiatives with expansion and replication goals.”

Kawayan Tech is composed of dive instructor and resort operator Boy Siojo, visual artist Eng Chan, U.S.-based educator John Climaco, and Eric Cadiz, an electrical engineer who also runs a motorcycle dealership. The most outspoken among them was urban anthropologist and environmental consultant Hecky Villanueva, a bright, passionate man who passed away last November 2010. “We were ‘triathletes,’” he said in an old interview about him and his friends, who were all members of the U.P. Mountaineers. “We’d ‘try this, try that.’”

Hecky Villanueva was an urban anthropologist who, in 2006, was looking for a dissertation topic and stumbled on Gawad Kalinga (GK). He adopted it as his own—he organized GK walks in Tucson, where he was then based with his wife Tammy; he also spearheaded two GK villages. In 2008, Hecky heard about bamboo bikes and became fascinated with the idea. He delved in deeper until he realized that bamboo bikes would be a good business opportunity—for himself, GK, and, hopefully, countless other Filipinos. Hecky then tapped his UP Mountaineer friends to help put up Kawayan Tech and realize his dream.

In July 2009, with a couple other groups, Kawayan Tech invited over bike builder and designer Craig Calfee, through his Bamboosero program, to give a bamboo frame-building workshop. Calfee’s SBamboosero program gives training and other support for bamboo bike building in countries that need it. After a week-long workshop under Calfee, the Kawayan Tech partners finally had the proper technical know-how to build their own frames.

For their initial bamboo supply, they relied on Hecky’s network of bamboo lovers. Boy also visited provinces where they had friends—and friends of friends—with farms, and the contacts grew from there. Currently, Kawayan Tech has bamboo suppliers in Dumaguete, Antipolo, Rizal, Laguna, Batangas, Tarlac and Pampanga.

After tweaking some kinks in the production process, and training two workers from the Sitio Pajo (in Baesa, Quezon City) Gawad Kalinga village, Kawayan Tech was able to churn out an average of four frames a month last year. These finished masterpieces are marketed through and sold to friends of the partners. Their reputation spreads by word of mouth from aneurysm.

Since Hecky’s passing from an aneurysm, Tammy has now taken over his role in the company.

Beyond bikes

Apart from the obvious—that Kawayan Tech’s bike frames are made of bamboo—what sets these bikes apart is the fact that each one is handmade. The only power tool used in production is an electric drill, which runs for a maximum of three minutes per frame. Still, Kawayan Tech is fine-tuning its production process so that, eventually, even the use of the drill can be scrapped—they want to build their bikes with pure elbow grease.

“People will usually think metal bikes are better because they’ve been tried and tested,” says Tammy. “But here are bamboo bikes that are easier on the environment. So why not [try them out]?”

These bamboo bikes are also an easier ride. Because of the nature of this specie of grass, bike frames built from bamboo absorb much vibration from the road. This means less chatter, less discomfort on the bottom.

So far, Kawayan Tech has built frames from different species of bamboo for mountain bikes, road bikes and fixies. The frame’s base price retails at P20,000, which may go up depending on the artwork used to decorate it. “One plan is to have Mindanao artists handpaint the frames, or put capiz inlays,” Hecky shared in a prior interview.

Clients are usually from Europe—Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland—and the U.S.

They’ve also come up with a push-bike for toddlers and bigger children learning how to ride a bike. (The push-bike has no pedals and no training wheels. It runs when the child pushes down on the ground with his feet—developing coordination and balance—and doing away with unnecessary dependence on training wheels.) Kawayan Tech also produced, last year, the Philippines’ first electric bamboo bike, the Electric Eric, designed and built by—who else?—Eric.

Beyond these, Kawayan Tech plans to build bamboo skateboards and wheelchairs. But they won’t stop there. After all, Hecky envisioned Kawayan Tech to be “all things bamboo.” And so they aim to produce as many products they can make out of bamboo, even, perhaps, down to the humble toothpick.

Aside from your usual chairs, benches, and tables, “there are 1000 to 1500 products that can be made from bamboo,” a perfect opportunity to promote creativity and manufacturing unique to the Philippines, and arrest the current direction of the country’s relying on imports.

Like abaca, another sturdy native plant that can be worn, eaten, and used as building material, “everyone should consider investing and exploring planting bamboo,” Hecky once said. It takes three to five years for it to mature, “but after that, you’ll be growing and harvesting every year. You just have to know what to do with it. Everyone should get into planting bamboo, especially OFWs—they should see how they can invest their savings, and explore (the future of) bamboo…Our country could represent regional excellence in bamboo if (likeminded) people get together.”

A Social Conscience

Hecky left behind, among a host of other things, a dream that was just taking off. However, Hecky’s partners are pushing forward with the grand plan Hecky thought up for Kawayan Tech and, ultimately perhaps, the Philippines.

“Eventually,” says Eng, “we want to act as distributors of Kawayan Tech’s products. We will continue to partner with Filipino communities and they, in turn, will become our suppliers.”

“Ultimately, we’re building partners,” adds Boy. “We want people to farm and harvest bamboo for us, another community to measure and cut up the bamboo, and another to build the frames for us. And then we’ll buy the frames from them for distribution. We will expand not by hiring employees but by creating business partners.”

Gawad Kalinga is the first community that Kawayan Tech has partnered with. But there are others these cyclists plan to tap in the near future. Presently, they are in talks with the Aeta community, trying to convince this indigenous people to farm bamboo for Kawayan Tech.

With its social responsibility written into its business plan, Kawayan Tech, through Hecky’s efforts, landed as a finalist in last year’s BiD (Business in Development) Challenge. The BiD Challenge, where final judging is held in Amsterdam, is an annual international competition among entrepreneurs who can present a business plan that balances profit with a social responsibility. —With reports from Gina Abuyuan

Kawayan Tech is online at www.kawayantech.wordpress.com and in Facebook (Kawayan Tech Bamboo Bikes). For orders and inquiries, e-mail kawayantech@yahoo.com.

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