Turning bamboo into bicycles

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Bamboo bike
Building and selling bicycles would give financially struggling Thai people a viable income, Webb believes.

While riding his bike through the countryside of Northern Thailand, Phil Webb asked the Lord to show him a way to help the struggling people of Thailand.

As he continued riding, Webb couldn’t help but notice the abundant amount of wild bamboo flourishing along the roadsides. That’s when he says he felt the Holy Spirit telling him to turn that bamboo into bicycles for Thailand’s poor.

“By teaching and training the people in need how to build these bikes themselves, the funding gained by selling them can meet (their) needs,” Webb explains.

Webb, a member of Greenville First Church of the Nazarene in Greenville, South Carolina, has been serving as a missionary in Thailand since 2005. He coordinates Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM) for Southeast Asia.

After he came up with the idea for a bamboo bike, Webb wondered whether it was actually possible to make one. With some research, he discovered that several organizations had already begun manufacturing them.

Bamboo bike enterprises are becoming increasingly popular ways of generating revenue for low-income families in some African and Asian countries. Encouraged by their success, Webb decided to launch his own venture in Thailand. Currently he is seeking partners to provide capital enabling the new business to become a viable means of securing financial independence for the impoverished families he ministers among.

“Working with a Thai friend who builds bamboo furniture, I gleaned many facts about types of bamboo and which would be best to use,” Webb says.

After learning all he could about the bike-making craft, Webb started focusing on operational issues. Although bamboo is in plentiful supply in Thailand and neighboring countries, other necessary materials machined from metal would need to be shipped in from Western countries.

“It was a little more time-consuming and tougher process than in Western civilization,” Webb admits.

This past summer, Webb and his family (including son Micah, a student at Trevecca Nazarene University) returned to the United States. He had learned that bamboo bikes have a market not only in developing countries, but also in America. They appeal to environmentally-friendly consumers since bamboo is a natural resource. But it’s not just green – it works. Bamboo is actually stronger and more sustainable than steel.

Webb met with bicycle enthusiasts and bicycle shops throughout South Carolina. His bamboo bicycle—only the second one he and his sons had produced–was taken through some serious road tests. The bike functioned well.
The testing marked the first phase of Webb’s dream.

Phase two of the process involves setting up a modest production facility in Thailand. Webb’s bamboo furniture-making friend, Khun Sayam, is his on-site partner. Together, they hope to teach poor Thai citizens to produce bikes so that they will eventually use them as their personal means of income.

So far, their enterprise has designed two models–the Thai Silk and the Thai Hilltribe. They called their product line “Thai” because the word means “freedom.” Webb intends his bamboo bikes to provide freedom from poverty by providing people with a new means of income generation and a new form of transportation. The plan is to sell the bikes online through the company’s website and guide the locals to begin their own bamboo bicycle businesses.

“The Bible tells us to feed, clothe, visit, and give water to those in need.  This project is one way, I feel, that I can do just that,” Webb said.

-- Reprinted with permission from The Micah Mandate, a student journal sponsored by the J.V. Morsch Center for Social Justice at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. Read more at micahmandate.com. Photos by Phil Webb.