What is the world to do with the graveyards of dockless bicycles left over after China’s bike sharing startups retreated from global markets?
One man has come up with the best idea to date: donate them to students who need them.
Entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win has bought 10,000 bikes from bike-sharing companies which he plans to provide to school children across Myanmar, many of who walk miles to school and, more broadly, lack transportation for their families.
“It’s a common sight to see lines and lines of students walking long distances from home to school in rural villages,” Than explained. “Some students can walk up to one hour from home to school and the families can hardly afford a simple form of transport like bicycle or motorcycle… a school bus is almost unheard of to the students in rural villages.”
To bridge the gap, Than — whose companies include tech entrepreneurship project 8bod.com and travel startup flymya.com — created a non-profit organization called LessWalk which is buying up the bikes and making them suitable for students.
That means fitting them with a second seat, switching the QR code-scan lock for a regular key lock and then shipping them to Myanmar. Many of the bikes have been bought from liquidators — who took control of oBike’s shuttered business in Singapore and inherited Ofo’s abandoned fleets — which makes their acquisition cheaper than regular bikes. But still, the fixes and shipping costs are estimated at around $35-$40 per bike.
FreeWalk is modifying bikes to make them suitable for underprivileged students who walk to school in Myanmar
Than described those prices as “a rare once in a lifetime opportunity” to make a positive impact, but there’s still a significant cost attached to the project.
Than told TechCrunch that the project is funded with around $400,000 in capital, half of which has come from donations and sponsors with Than himself providing the rest.
“Suddenly, there was an opportunity to buy [these bikes] at fraction of price,” he said in an interview. “The benefit it can develop is well beyond that cost.”
Right now, Than said that he has received around 4,000 bikes, which are currently warehoused in Myanmar. Rather than sad, well-used or damaged cycles, LessWalk has bought itself unused, new-generation products that hadn’t been deployed to the streets. Once sitting in a warehouse awaiting a rollout with startups, the adapted bikes will be distributed to students this year.
LessWalk has around 4,000 former bike sharing cycles in its warehouse in Myanmar
But giving out thousands of bicycles is no easy feat given that Myanmar has a population of over 50 million people and more than nine million students.
Than said he’s currently in contact with government organizations and civic groups in Myanmar to identify potential beneficiaries. The primary focus is students aged 13-16 who walk 2km or more to school each day and part of families without transport. He envisages that bikes will be given out in batches every two weeks for two or three months with support from volunteer groups and the government, but a lot of the operational approach is still to be defined.
“I’m only halfway through the journey. The remaining 50 percent is making sure we have an impact,” Than told TechCrunch.
Volunteers from LessWalk move former Ofo bikes into storage ahead of their distribution to students in Myanmar
Further down the line, he is hopeful that he can inspire “global friends” to follow his lead and set up similar donation programs that will put the hundreds of thousands of abandoned bikes to work, instead of creating yet more urban trash. Already, Than said he is fielding interest from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
Donations aren’t the only sustainable future for fleets of former Mobike and Ofo bikes, in some cases the people who ran the services are taking control. Indeed, a number of Mobike executives got together to buy out the company’s European business from Meituan — the on-demand giant that owns Mobike — for $20 million. That deal is scheduled to close this month.