SO the story goes, Jamico Jamlang visited an island off Misamis Occidental where dolphins used to race with pumpboats of fisherfolk going out to the island. But as time went by, the waters surrounding that island degraded into an environmental mess that the stories of the dolphins swimming with bancas became a thing of the past. 

A frequent traveler, Jamico was disturbed that if people didn’t take care of their environment, and kept on throwing away their trash that wouldn’t degrade in the water, the same tragedy that befell that island would be replicated elsewhere. And there would no longer be tales of gorgeous sunsets on placid seawaters, of dolphins, dugong (seacow) and whalesharks swimming alongside humans, or taking plunges into clear, cool beach waters.

He became an advocate of sustainable tourism, and sought to reduce plastic waste and the use of products that helped people adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle. His advocacy was further strengthened while working for a major food and beverage company in the country after graduating from the University of the Philippines, and realized it was producing a lot of single-use plastics.

SO, along with fellow 20-somethings with a purpose, Kenneth Tabafunda, Elaine Caneban, and a little help from his parents, Jamico set up The Bamboo Company, with a capital of P100,000. “[Jamico’s] conscience bothered him,” narrates company sales manager Justin Richmond Domingo. “So he started to look for partners to [set up a company] wherein the focus would be on sustainability and lessening the dependence on plastic-based products.” Kenneth, who owns 30 percent of the company, is an architecture student who had earlier partnered with another sustainable products group before joining The Bamboo Company.

Their first product was the bamboo toothbrush, which was launched in December 2017. “We’re the first company here in the Philippines to introduce the bamboo toothbrushes. It has a bamboo handle, and at first, they were trying to look for nonplastic bristles, they couldn’t find anything,” says Justin. “The closest thing to natural bristles was boar’s hair, [but this idea was scrapped because] it wouldn’t be appealing to vegan customers. So we use nylon bristles, but it’s degradable, meaning it decomposes in less than 100 years.”

Last June the company sold its most successful product to date, the bamboo tumbler. It has a metal canister but the bamboo is flattened and rolled around it. Justin explains that the metal tumbler can be “vacuum sealed, so you can put hot or cold beverages, and the temperature will keep.” The company is looking for ways to use the actual bamboo as the canister, but there are issues with non-uniformity of the bamboo’s diameter.

Still, the water tumbler “was an instant hit,” he asserts, with one real-estate firm ordering 500 pieces from them. That huge sale helped the firm recoup the owners’ initial capital and hire more personnel like Justin, Eve Soledad (brand development manager) and Rio Padrones (community development manager).

TAKING advantage of the success they had with the tumblers, the company immediately proceeded to expand its product line. It now sells bamboo watches, bamboo dining utensils and straws, coffee tumblers, tin lunchboxes with bamboo covers and personal shavers with bamboo handles, with more to come.

Most of their buyers are millennials like the company’s owners (22-23 years old), students and “environment-conscious people” who are in their 30s, says Justin. The products are sold retail primarily at Biblio, a crafts store; through bazaars; and online at the company’s web site, and BeautyMNL.

Unlike most start-ups, however, The Bamboo Company sells better in brick-and-mortar setups, instead of online. “We’re not so profitable selling online; we sell more through bazaars, and through Biblio. I think the problem with our online store is we have a shipping fee.” But he says they are considering pursuing online retail through other third-party shopping apps like Shoppee.

Justin, who is also product development manager with a chemical engineering background from UP, said by November, the company will be launching its charcoal toothpaste, and will soon enter the natural cosmetics market. They plan to produce hair sprays, facemasks, and other cosmetics using bamboo charcoal, as well as containers for the cosmetic products. 

TO be able to conceptualize their products, The Bamboo Company constantly does market research and surveys to see what the consumers want. It joins bazaars, aside from selling their products online, and realized that there was a huge demand for eco-friendly cosmetics. “They always ask us, ‘do you have lipsticks, lipstick containers, bamboo powder…’ over time we realized, what they wanted were beauty products, and eco-friendly cosmetics. The cosmetics industry produces a lot of products that aren’t recycled,” Justin notes. “After you use it, you just throw it. With our products, you can just compost it, or reuse it. We will just provide refillables.” 

It was also the consumers who dictated the creation of other products like the bamboo straw. “Before, we didn’t want to produce straws because we focused more on sustainable tourism, which means products that we can reuse. You see, bamboo straws aren’t really sustainable; it’s easily destroyed especially when left in a moist environment,” he explains. “But in every bazaar we joined, that was what the shoppers were looking for. They didn’t like metal straws. So I said, maybe we can create bamboo straws, but ‘cook’ them over flame, to carbonize it. This will prevent it from absorbing moisture and it won’t grow molds.”

Among all the product lines, the bamboo straw has the most impact on the local economy as it benefits some 30 bamboo farmers in a village in Bantayan Island, Cebu.

For the other products, however, the company uses bamboo grown in Taiwan, simply because the variety grown there is thicker and more durable, according to Justin.

“As much as we want to use the bamboo here in the Philippines, our bamboo is thin. In the process of making most of our products, we have to flatten the bamboo first. If we try to use Philippine bamboo, it will crack. The ones in Taiwan can handle the stress. We only use local bamboo for the straws because we need the thin variety,” he says.

But the company isn’t giving up on its goal of helping more local bamboo farmers. Justin says the reason the company hired a community development manager was to help identify the areas in the Philippines that have the right bamboo species they need, and tap the community to plan their production and supply to The Bamboo Company.

THE company is also looking at purchasing a bamboo flattening machine specifically made for the thin-variety Philippine bamboo, which the Department of Science and Technology has. It costs some P500,000 so “we’re looking for investors to be able to set up our own production plant in the Philippines, and reduce the cost of our products,” he asserts. Justin notes that aside from the cost of paying import duties, the cost of shipping the products and materials from Taiwan raises the prices of their products.

“So we’re constantly looking for investors not only to expand our line, but increase our production. Usually, if there are bulk orders, we aren’t able to customize them immediately; we need some lead time to produce them. But if we can have our own plant, with the bamboo flattening machine, we will be able to speed up our production,” Justin enthuses. For instance, at present, the company is able to produce about 1,000 toothbrushes in a month.

The company is also looking at pitching to hotels and resorts, which have also adopted a sustainable tourism advocacy. He narrates that a resort in Cebu recently bought 200 pieces of toothbrushes from the company, and now offer these as in-house bathroom amenities.

In five years, Justin says the goal of The Bamboo Company is to become sustainable, and profitable enough for the owners, including himself, to quit their day jobs. “We need to keep making new products to be able to keep the market interested and buying,” he stresses, as well as continue to craft new designs for the company’s staple products.

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