Entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win spent the first eight years of his life in Mandalay, Myanmar, walking to school every morning. After spending 18 years in Singapore, Than returned home to find that nothing had changed for students in rural villages.
“It’s a common sight to see lines and lines of students walking long distances from home to school in rural villages,” Than told TechCrunch. “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.”
Now 33 years old and the founder of Myanmar investment firm BOD Tech, Than is working to provide underprivileged students with free transportation so they no longer have to walk over a mile to attend school.
Earlier his year, Than founded the nonprofit Lesswalk, which buys bicycles from bike-sharing companies that were once successful but lacked funding and sustainable business models.
Collectively, Than has bought 10,000 bikes in Singapore and Malaysia so far, most of which have never been used, with the help of Singapore-based bike-sharing company Anywheel.
"Helping to bring the discarded bikes to people who needed them more was something we had wanted to do. We are glad that Lesswalk has taken the lead, and that is why we are helping it on a non-profit basis," Htay Aung, founder of Anywheel, told the Straits Times.
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Than plans to refurbish the bicycles to make them optimal for student and family use. The QR-coded locks will be replaced with a manual lock and key, and a small second seat will be added to each bike to accommodate an additional passenger. The bikes will also be repainted to remove the logos of the companies that previously owned them and instead advertise the Lesswalk movement.
Because the bikes were purchased from liquidators and warehouse operators, Than was able to acquire the bikes for a relatively small cost.
“Suddenly, there was an opportunity to buy [these bikes] at fraction of price,” he said. “The benefit it can develop is well beyond that cost.”
Than said the project has costaround $400,000 total so far, half of which was covered by Than himself and the rest contributed by donors and corporate sponsors.
He has already received around 4,000 bikes, currently stored in a warehouse in Myanmar, and expects to have the rest shipped into the country in the coming weeks. Than currently plans to give out the bikes in batches every two weeks for two to three months this year, starting in Mandalay and Sagaing, with the help of the government and volunteer groups.
Due to Myanmar’s population of more than 50 million individuals and 9 million students, Than has decided to first target students ages 13 to 16 from impoverished families in rural villages that lack any real means of transportation, significantly reducing their nearly two-hour commute.
“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.
In addition, UNESCO reported there were more than 1 million children and adolescents in Myanmar not enrolled in formal schooling.
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Than’s Lesswalk movement also helps solve another problem: waste. Cycles no longer used by these bike-share companies are often piled, sometimes in the tens of thousands, in scrapyards, parks, and public spaces in Singapore and China. One scrapyard he visited in China had 30,000-50,000 cycles, Than said, with many still in good condition.
“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,” Than said.
Wanting to make an impact in the long-term, Than has set his sights on expanding the reach of Lesswalk in the future, aiming to bring 100,000 bikes to the rest of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. He said he hopes that others around the world will follow suit and start similar movements and has already encountered interest from Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.
“Ten-thousand is just the tip of the iceberg. Globally, there are millions of these bikes, and I just have to connect them to the right people,” Than said.