“When I was a kid, I used to say that when I grow up, I want to be a Filipino so I can eat mangoes every day,” Bryan Benitez McClelland, a Filipino-American citizen, gives a hearty laugh as he talks to ANCX in a phone interview. “So that dream has come true.”
The founder of Bambike, a social enterprise that build bamboo bikes with locals, has spent the past few months in quarantine in his family home in Batangas. Keeping him company are his extended family, friends, his dog Sombra, and his cat Pumpkin.
The hours spent outside of Metro Manila, where he also takes care of his other businesses—the Bambike Ecotours and Batala Bar, both in Intramuros—has given him an opportunity to reflect, and to build on another interest: agriculture. The latter is an extension of the causes he’s been fighting for since he decided to move to the Philippines from the United States in 2007. As someone with a degree in Environmental Studies, with concentration in Anthropology, and a master’s in Environmental Resource Management (both earned from the University of Pennsylvania), McClelland has always been devoted to nature and its preservation.
Since Metro Manila was placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) on March 16, McClelland has been planting one tree a day. That’s nearly 80 trees and counting.
But more about mangoes and trees later. While he’s busy with a newborn hobby, he can’t help but occupy his mind with the immediate and dire needs of reality. Now, more than ever, his Bambike has a pertinent place in a metro where a big part of the work force is obligated to go back to their offices without a properly functional public transportation system.
Cities around the world have turned to biking as a form of safe public transportation, especially when everyone is trying to live the “new normal,” where physical distancing is a must.
“Biking in Metro Manila has its challenges, though,” McClelland says with a sigh. “Proper infrastructure, i.e. bike lanes, bike parking, and facilities that help support cyclists in commuting are definitely lacking. But despite that, biking is still the most effective and efficient ways to get around.”
People, planet, progress
McClelland, born on August 31, 1983 in Conneticut, U.S.A, was around three years old when his father taught him how to ride a bike in a small hill in the park. Since then, biking gave him “freedom of mobility.”
He’d bike to school, hang out with his friends while they ride their bicycles together, and ride the back to wherever he needed to go.
In 2007, while working on his master’s degree thesis on creative a sustainable development plan, he came across Gawad Kalinga (GK), a nation-building and poverty alleviation movement in the Philippines. McClelland has been familiar with the Philippine setting, having visited the Philippines as a kid many times since his mother was raised in Quezon City and Batangas, before migrating to the United States.
Before he knew it, McClelland found himself moving to the Philippines. Around that time, a friend of his informed him about bamboo bikes that were used by Africans as a mode of transportation. After further researcher, Bambike was born in 2010, with the aim of mitigating two issues: climate change and poverty.
“Our bikes are handmade from bamboo, which is a local renewable resource,” he says. “And it creates local jobs for the poor in the rural workshop that we have. It serves as a sustainable livelihood tool.” Save for the bikes being aesthetically pleasing to the eye, bamboo is also a natural shock absorber, and it dampens vibrations, which makes for a smooth ride, says McClelland.
With better infrastructure, and safer passageways, it would be easier to persuade people to take up biking, he says. As of press time, a “Safe Pathways Act” has been filed. It aims to create pop-up bicycle lanes and emergency pathways so people can commute safely, while maintaining social distancing.
Fast forward to the pandemic in 2020, the bamboo bikes have served not only the cyclists and hobbyists, but more importantly the frontliners. Most of the bikes used for the Bambike Ecotours were distributed to the frontliners, and can now be found in such places as the University of the East-Ramon Magsasay Memorial Medical Center (UERM), Philippine General Hospital (PGH), The Medical City, and the University of the Philippines genetics lab, to name a few.
Before the pandemic, McClelland used his car only when he needed to transport large objects, or when people needed a ride. On most days, the Makati resident would go to meetings in Quezon City or Manila on his bike. “With bikes also, you are in control of your time and mobility,” he says. “I really value my time, more than I worry about the weather being too hot, or when it’s raining.”
Today, the word value takes a different, deeper meaning. Bambike thrives on three areas of focus: people, planet, progress. In the midst of the pandemic, it’s the people that come first, like the doctors and nurses, and specially his employees—there are 30 of them.
Bambike and its affiliates have been shut down since the ECQ. Fortunately, they haven’t laid off any of their employees. They’re holding out with the hope of bouncing back when they open again after the general community quarantine (GCQ) is lifted. “This whole crisis made me realize more the value of our people,” he says. “We make sure everybody’s safe, that they have enough resources for food and medicine. I’m just figuring out our resilience as a business. We are figuring out innovative strategies so we could come back and pivot. It’s a work in progress.”
On to the trees
Speaking of work in progress, McClelland explains his foray into the agrarian life as something of a natural evolution: “I find it very fulfilling to be able to grow things.”
In a place that can cultivate as many plants as the weather could endure, mangoes take the spotlight. Thus, the story of his new hobby began with mangoes. (We’re mentioning the word mangoes quite as often as he did during the interview. That’s how much he loves the fruit. He eats mangoes every day, too.)
One day, after eating mangoes with his family and throwing the seeds in the garbage can, he thought, “Why not just keep the seeds and plant them?” Like all hobbyists who are suddenly finding the space to embark on new projects, this adventurist scoured the Internet, Youtube videos, and Google to do research and educate himself.
“What if we could each plant a tree a day?” he says. “We’d have more food to eat. It’s not that outrageous an idea.”
Not all of them have survived, he admits, but he’s happy with the progress of his nursery. When he’s not paddle-boarding or surfing or snorkeling, he tends to his garden that now grows pepper, kalamansi, guava, basil, oregano, lemon grass, lemon, malunggay and, of course, mango. He has learned, too, to replicate, propagate, and sprout his plants.
Then, as he has been inclined to do, the farming activities have, at least in his mind, expanded to bigger things: planting for food and job security, and developing an ecotourism industry in Batangas. The latter, he says, could involve creating stand-up paddle boards, and maybe a boarding school, where guests can learn about preserving the marine environment, while paddling in the ocean.
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When he’s not planning his life, he’s buying fish from the local fishermen, cooking, making pizza dough from scratch, roasting chicken, grilling fish, or making shrimp scampi.
Life by the beach seems like a dream, and it’s hard to imagine leaving that for the chaotic city. But the social entrepreneur wants to start rebuilding his plans, and creating a stronger impact on the environment and the Filipino people. And he wants to start now.
A bigger project in the works is called the BIG IDEAS (Bamboo Innovation Group for Industry Development Ecosystems-based Adaptation and Sustainability). It’s a foundation that hopes to scale the bamboo industry, grow raw materials, create more jobs, and, in turn, feed more farmers.
“This quarantine has given me the chance to pause and realize things,” he says about going back to Manila soon. “I can survive with much less. I now appreciate more the simple life, and I give more value to communicating with people I care about. But with everything that’s happening, specially the riots in the U.S., it’s not okay to just sit idly and let the world unravel. We have to be active participants in fighting for causes we believe in, whether its equality or environmental justice. I feel like humanity has a chance to take a step back from the way they were living, and now recalibrate on how to move forward to our sustainable future.”
Photos from Bryan McClleland's FB Account