SINGAPORE, June 5 — When bicycle-sharing company oBike pulled out of Singapore abruptly last year, leaving the city with unattended bicycles rusting away in parks and public spaces, Myanmar entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win saw the perfect opportunity to turn trash into treasure.
“What if these bicycles could be distributed to poor students in villages so they can cycle to school?” he thought.
Than, 33, grew up in Mandalay, a city in Myanmar, and he used to walk to school as a student.
While travelling through rural areas in the last few years in Myanmar, things have not changed. He saw “long lines” of children in rural villages walking 30 minutes to an hour just to get to school, he told TODAY.
“I thought if we could just reduce the time they take, they could spend more time studying, gain more knowledge and increase their chances of getting out of poverty,” he said.
With that, he started a movement called Lesswalk in March with the intention of buying bicycles from bike-sharing firms oBike and Ofo — which have stopped operations in Singapore — and shipping the bicycles to Yangon.
He would refurbish the bicycles before distributing them to teenagers and families living in rural villages in Myanmar, beginning with villages in the Mandalay and Sagaing regions. Than received most of his education in Singapore from the age of eight.
A former Victoria School and Temasek Junior College student, he graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a business degree before moving back to Myanmar in 2011 to start several businesses including trading firms.
He started BOD Tech Ventures in Myanmar in 2016, and the firm now invests in various technology companies from online travel to food delivery and e-commerce.
Bought up to 10,000 bicycles
Over the last three months, the entrepreneur has bought 10,000 bicycles in Singapore and Malaysia.
Of these, 4,000 were bought from warehouse sales and auctions in Singapore, and they were mostly unused bicycles from Ofo and oBike.
Than declined to reveal exactly how much he paid for these, only that they cost him “on average, about S$20 (RM60) each.”
He paid for 5,000 of the bicycles out of his own pocket, with corporate sponsors such as motor oil production company GS–Kixx Oil, lending start-up Daung Capital and business conglomerate IME Group sponsoring the other 5,000 bicycles.
Than told TODAY that he was prepared to cover all costs himself, but some of his close friends chipped in as corporate sponsors after hearing about the movement he started.
“Most of the corporate sponsors are my close friends and they really believed in the cause,” he said.
Travelled to China
At the time when oBike suddenly pulled out of Singapore and Australia and went into liquidation, Mr Than had also read about the notorious bicycle “graveyards” in China, where millions of shared bicycles were left abandoned due to massive oversupply and competition among bicycle-sharing companies.
“Seeing the graveyards in China was really the tipping point for me,” he recalled.
He then travelled to China in March with the hopes of buying bicycles from some of the bicycle graveyards in the country.
“I was stunned when I saw so many bicycles, 30,000 to 50,000 of them just piled up. It’s astonishing, because some bicycles were in good condition, their brake pads were brand new, some were hardly used.
“To think that these bicycles would be dismantled, and sold for around 60 to 70 yuan (RM36-42) to the recycling companies, I just thought it was quite wasteful, as the bicycle originally costs so much more to make,” he said.
“Many people are engrossed in the problems of bike-sharing, but most people who are privileged to have a bicycle don’t treasure it — you read of bicycles being left in graveyards, and thrown into drains.”
However, he did not get any of the bicycles there.
In March, some of Than’s friends and contacts in Singapore — which included Htay Aung, a fellow Burmese and founder of bike-sharing company AnyWheel — told him about warehouse sales and auctions of bicycles from oBikes and Ofo in Singapore.
Than found that the quality and condition of these bicycles were a lot better compared with those in China.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was an oversupply of bicycles and it was more costly to send them to recycling facilities, so the companies were willing to offload their problem (the bicycles) to me,” he said with a laugh, noting that bicycles that were “in good condition” were being sold for cheap.
More money spent
Still, he faced several challenges in procuring and shipping the bicycles.
“Initially when I tried to buy (the bicycles), there were many legal challenges. Some suppliers required me to remove the logo and pay legal fees.
“On the other side, when importing into Yangon, many officials also questioned my intention to donate the bicycles, and because the bicycles looked new, they questioned the purchase value and slapped heavy custom duties,” he said.
Than paid “tens of thousands” out of his own pocket to settle the duties.
He finally received the first batch of 3,300 of bicycles from oBike over the first weekend of June. They were shipped to Yangon from Malaysia.
He is expecting a shipment of around 1,000 bicycles from Singapore today.
Than plans to modify the bicycles so that they can better suit the needs of the children in villages.
“For people living in villages, most of the time they ride around with their little brother and sister. I’m planning to add an extra seat at the back, so that they can go to school together,” he said.
He also plans to remove the solar panels and digital locks attached to some of the bicycles, and give each beneficiary a manual lock which “works better in the villages.”
Including the cost of shipping, modification and distribution, Than estimates each bicycle to cost him around US$35 to US$40 (RM146-167).
“I might have to spend more money, but it is better that these bicycles are going to help some people rather than going to waste.”
He is expecting to receive the rest of the 6,700 bicycles by the end of this month, so that he may start distributing the bicycles to families. — TODAY