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Burma Bike Foundation offers bamboo frames

A bamboo bicycle frame hanging in MonkeyBoy Bicycles displays the genesis of what two Whitworth University graduates envision as a product that’s custom-made in Myanmar.

Jeff and Kristen Parker noticed a dire need for jobs in the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, where they teach at a small college. The Parkers are based in the city of Myitkyina and recently founded the Burma Bike Partnership. Last week, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund training and employment for five Myanmar workers to build custom bamboo bicycle frames for worldwide sales.

The couple hope to raise nearly $22,000 overall from pledges, starting as low as $1, and from orders for an initial 20 limited-edition bike frames. In the early hours of the Kickstarter campaign, which ends Oct. 24, it edged past 50 percent of an early phase funding goal, the Parkers said.

“The first seven frames sold like hotcakes,” said Jeff Parker, who this past May graduated from Whitworth with a bachelor’s degree in theology. “Most of the pledges came from frame orders, and it was thrilling to watch them be claimed by cyclists all over the world.”

Kickstarter is a website on which people can promote special projects and find donors to make them a reality.

The pledges also will help subsidize the building of some frames for Myanmar residents. After initial Kickstarter orders are filled, the Parkers plan to export the frames on a wider scale, mainly in the Northwest market. The retail price for each frame is expected to be around $1,000.

Kristen Parker, a 2012 Whitworth graduate in international business and Spanish, said the partnership’s eventual goal is to create a self-sustaining business operated by the Myanmar workers.

“Jeff and I are not in this for profit, but rather because this community is our family,” she said. The couple were married in May.

The overall funding is expected to support 750 training hours for workers in a region where the ethnic minority Christian Kachin population struggles with high rates of unemployment, drug use and HIV infection.

“Sixty percent of young adults in this community lack future employment prospects, and unfortunately many of these young adults turn to illegal drug use,” Jeff Parker said.

In the aftermath of a 2011 presidential election that followed five decades of military rule, Myanmar has opened up more politically and economically. However, the northern region has felt the fallout from recent years of armed clashes between some ethnic Kachin fighters and government forces.

Jeff Parker first learned about difficulties in northern Myanmar as a student attending a Thai and Southeast Asian Studies program at Payap University, Thailand. He attended a seminar at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, where he befriended ethnic minorities.

Early last year, he also stumbled upon bamboo bicycles while overseas. He later learned of their growing popularity among cyclists because of their lightweight durability and natural shock absorption. Parker began studying them to build one for himself.

“That quickly changed once I realized that a workshop in Myanmar, equipped with copious amounts of native bamboo and craftsmen who have generations of experience, could provide a tremendously positive impact on their community,” he said.

While in Spokane this summer, Parker gave a prototype he’d built to Donald Gibson, a MonkeyBoy Bicycles co-owner, who agreed to display the frame in the Garland District store. The shop will move to Kendall Yards in November, and the owners plan by early next year to help clients here custom-order the Myanmar partnership’s frames, Gibson said.

Gibson plans to add components to the frames such as the carbon forks, stem and handle bars, cranks, pedals, the seat post, saddle and wheels.

“It’s kind of an emerging technology,” Gibson said about bamboo bicycles. “The strength-to-weight ratio is favorable, and it’s quite strong material.”

The Myanmar partnership’s clients provide body measurements, so craftsmen can design a custom fit. People ordering the first frames also are asked to give monthly feedback during a year of use to improve future models.

Each frame requires around 30 to 40 hours of craftsmanship, Jeff Parker said.

“They ride in a more lively manner due to the unique characteristics of bamboo,” he said.