Building Bamboo Bikes in Burma

By Mark Inkey 6 October 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A young American couple have heeded Aung San Suu Kyi’s calls for ethical investment in Burma with their plans to set up a community-led company building ecologically sound bamboo bicycle frames in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State.

Jeff and Kristen Parker, volunteers who originally went to Myitkyina to teach English, want to train locals to build bamboo bicycle frames and help give them the necessary leadership skills to be able to run the company and train others in the future. They plan to return to the United States after eight months, leaving the locals to their own devices while they help market the frames around the world.

The Parkers said that 60 to 80 percent of 18-30-year-olds in Myitkyina are unemployed and many have turned to readily available illicit drugs.

“We learned about the problems with unemployment and drug addiction and thought we could provide something. We can partner up with them, creating a local movement that is connected with the outside world so that they can be self-sustaining,” Jeff Parker told The Irrawaddy.

Jeff, who is a keen cyclist and is interested in the technical aspect of bicycles, came up with the idea of building bamboo bicycle frames after having read about them on the Internet. The couple then researched the feasibility of the idea and devised a plan to sell made-to-measure bamboo frames abroad for US$1,000 each, a competitive price for a bespoke frame. They calculated that they would need to sell 35 frames a year to make the operation self-sustaining.

Each $1,000 frame sold pays to employ one person for 38 days; build one more frame for export; and build three complete bamboo framed bicycles for sale to locals at an affordable price. These will be assembled with cheap locally available parts, mainly acquired from rickshaws.

Kristen said that building subsidized bicycles would generate local job opportunities, improve workers’ frame building skills, and provide cheap bicycles far better in quality than those available at present.

Many people in Myitkyina have had their vehicles confiscated during recent crackdowns on illegal vehicles, so the bicycles could also provide an appealing alternative mode of transport.

“Eventually we would love to have some sort of cycling team,” said Jeff. “There are cycling competitions in Southeast Asia and it would be a cool way to get the Kachin building international connections and getting to know people outside their own community.”

The Parkers are predominately self-funding the project through money given to them as wedding gifts last May, but they are also using the fundraising website Kickstarter to raise project capital.

The first 29 frames ordered through the website will be sold at discounted prices ranging from $300 to $900, depending on how early the order is. Those who obtain the first 20 cheap frames will be asked to provide feedback once a month for one year to help the company tweak the design.

The money from the first 20 sales will help fund the full training of five frame builders, including designing the bespoke frames with AutoCAD software and using Jeff’s custom built jig to assemble them.

It will take one month to fully train each worker.

The Parkers already have premises in Myitkyina and have been talking to people there about their plans. Many locals have asked when they will start selecting trainees, but the Parkers said they would not employ anyone until they have enough orders to cover all their initial training costs.

They also do not want to disrupt the local economy by paying too much, so they will pay a locally competitive wage and set aside an extra 42 percent that each worker can use for personal development and training. They will also try to employ people representative of the ethnic mix in Myitkyina.
“We just bring this knowledge and new training [and] we then make that so internalized in the community that it will become theirs,” said Jeff. “It’s not about Jeff and Kristen being in charge of this. We’re only here as a vehicle for sharing the knowledge.”

The locals will bring their unique skills and knowledge to the project. Without local knowledge about bamboo, Jeff said, “I don’t think it would be worth it. This project would not get anywhere without local knowledge.”

The Parkers’ plans are admirable, but they will only work if bamboo makes for good quality bicycle frames. On this point, Kristen has little doubt. “Bamboo is extremely resilient,” she said. “It is stronger than carbon fiber and absorbs road vibrations way more than other materials.”

To be suitable for frames, bamboo must be between two and three years old (locals can tell the age of bamboo just by looking at it) and picked, when it is green, in the dry season. It is then left to dry in the sun for three weeks before being dried with a blowtorch. This turns the bamboo brown and caramelizes the sugar resin around the fibers, turning it into a solid similar to epoxy, which effectively petrifies the bamboo.

The frame tubes are then held together with natural joints of hemp twine covered in epoxy and the whole frame is then sealed with lacquer and sanded by hand until a shiny finish is achieved.

According to Jeff, metal frames suffer from fatigue and weakness over time, which does not occur with bamboo. He said that research has shown that bamboo frames will last over 20 years if they are built with natural joints—longer than any other kind of frame material.

After the Parkers built their first bamboo frame, they refined their technique with further study in Chiang Mai, Thailand, under the instruction of Oat, a Thai bamboo frame maker who has been making his Brown Bike brand of bamboo frames for several years.

Now that the Parkers have all the necessary knowledge and tools to start producing bamboo frames in Myitkyina, they just need the first orders to filter in.

To order one of the first discounted bamboo frames, make a donation or obtain further information about the project, visit Jeff and Kristen’s Kickstarter page at Burma Bike Partnership.