It's off to school on recycled bikes from Singapore and Malaysia

Myanmar children on bicycles - donated under the Lesswalk scheme that aims to give them easier access to education - in the compound of a Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of Yangon on Tuesday. The bicycles were previously used by bike-sharing comp
Myanmar children on bicycles - donated under the Lesswalk scheme that aims to give them easier access to education - in the compound of a Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of Yangon on Tuesday. The bicycles were previously used by bike-sharing companies that have pulled out of Singapore and Malaysia. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Myanmar children on bicycles - donated under the Lesswalk scheme that aims to give them easier access to education - in the compound of a Buddhist monastery on the outskirts of Yangon on Tuesday. The bicycles were previously used by bike-sharing comp
Entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win riding with Myanmar children on recycled bicycles shipped from Singapore and Malaysia on the outskirts of Yangon on Tuesday.

YANGON • With the clangour of bells in the air, Myanmar children race home from school on recycled bicycles shipped from Singapore and Malaysia, donated to give them easier access to education in a country where more than half of the children live in poverty.

Thae Su Wai will no longer need to trudge 10km for two hours to and from lessons, she told Agence France-Presse (AFP), beaming.

"I will have more time to study and play with friends," she said as she excitedly wheeled away her new bicycle at the Nhaw Kone Village school near Yangon.

The 11-year-old was among the first 200 children to receive bicycles as part of Lesswalk, the brainchild of Mandalay entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win. He grew up and was educated in Singapore before returning home eight years ago with a business degree.

"I saw students walking for many hours to get to school, and I felt really sorry for them," the 33-year-old told AFP.

United Nations children's agency Unicef estimated that 55 per cent of the children in Myanmar live in poverty, while half of the 17-year-olds enter adulthood with little or no education.

So, when Mr Than Tun Win heard that bike-sharing companies oBike, ofo and Mobike had pulled out from Singapore and Malaysia, leaving thousands of bicycles in "graveyards", he grabbed his chance.

 
 

The technology investor bought 10,000 bicycles earlier this year and shipped them to Myanmar.

After exchanging the bike-share lock for a seat on the back, he is now starting to hand out the bright orange-and-yellow bicycles.

He hopes that they will help keep more children in school for longer, giving them an education so they can escape from poverty.

Each bicycle cost him just US$35 (S$47), including shipping and distribution, and he paid for half the bill, with the other half coming from sponsors.

Yangon is Lesswalk's first stop, before Mr Than Tun Win rolls out the scheme in the Mandalay and Sagaing regions later this month.

Children aged 13 to 16 living more than 2km from school will be at the front of the queue.

"Most parents here are poor," said 55-year-old Ni Ni Win, head teacher of Thae Su Wai's school. "Many children don't even have umbrellas - they just use pieces of plastic to cover themselves when it rains."

Mr Than Tun Win said this is just the start - the aim is to keep up the momentum and hand out 100,000 bicycles over five years.

"They might not be worth anything in Singapore, but they are valuable in a poorer country," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2019, with the headline 'It's off to school on recycled bikes from S'pore and Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe