David Meyers ’99, CEO, Madagascar Bamboo
The noise in the background wasn’t the rain. It was raining in Toamasina, the Madagascar port town where David Meyers ’99 was calling from, but the rhythmic pounding, not unlike the sound of a heavy downpour on a metal roof, was mechanical, not natural.
“That’s a bamboo trimming machine, cutting the bamboo up,” Meyers said through the din. “We cut it into strips and then those strips are then milled a little bit to take off the skin on the outside and the inside, which is a little softer. I’m just going to shut the window.”
He continued, his voice more audible now, explaining not only the process of how a 30-foot tall bamboo culm becomes a piece of flooring, but how someone who just a few years earlier was trying to make it with an internet start-up in New Haven happened to be running a 70-ton hydraulic press on a sliver of island off the east coast of Africa. The company, Madagascar Bamboo, which he said is the first industrial bamboo outfit in the country, has three aims: to make money, to aid the environment, and to provide the poor residents of the region with jobs and income. How Meyers ended up in this position is complicated, but after some explaining makes perfect sense. It all comes down to lemurs.
“I’m something of an expert on lemurs,” he confessed, explaining how he first traveled in 1985 to Madagascar, which is the only place these odd little primates are naturally found. “But the main objective was to do environmental conservation — nature conservation in protected areas — which I did after I finished with my PhD and before I went to SOM. I’ve been coming and going to Madagascar for over 20 years and lived probably about half that time here.”
When he wasn’t in Madagascar, where he met his wife Helen, a nature conservationist, Meyers was in New Haven. After SOM, he worked on a number of Internet start-ups, particularly a science portal called thescience.com, which like most such ventures, folded. Then he got a job at the Enterprise Center, a business incubator partially funded by Yale. He enjoyed this work, but soon heard the call of his first love.
“The real truth is that I wanted to study marine mammals,” he admitted. “But they spend so much time underwater that you can’t see their behavior except when they come up to breathe. So I decided to study primates, which stay up in the trees, or at least on the ground.”
Determined to do something that contributed to the social good, he returned with Helen and their two children in 2003, this time as an environmental consultant, where he met Jimmy Ramiandrison, a Madagascar national and businessman, who convinced Meyers to join him in launching a bamboo company. Then Ramiandrison promptly took a job as the head of Madagascar’s largest insurance company.
By that point, the two had assembled a group of backers of the $2 million company — including a venture capitalist, a former CFO of a Fortune 1000 company and the founder of a bamboo company based in China — to move the project forward. James Wilson, a founding partner with the venture capital firm Boston Ventures, heard about the project while on a sabbatical in Africa to study how the venture capital model could work in the developing world. He said he was attracted to the idea of Madagascar Bamboo for several reasons, including the fact that the factory will provide employment in a very poor region and will use a resource that can be sustainable and renewable. But he said he agreed to invest in the project to a great degree because of Meyers himself.
“What gave me the most confidence is really David’s personality,” Wilson said. “It’s not that he’s run a manufacturing firm before, which he has not. But his ability to get things done I think is absolutely first rate. And that’s a key component. A lot of it is because of the environmental consulting work he has been doing for a long time. In our view, he’s a leader.”
What Meyers is leading is an attempt to harness an abundant natural resource and carve out a niche in a market currently dominated by the Chinese. (Meyers gushes about the Chinese and bamboo: “They make everything out of bamboo there. They make fantastic cloth and they make paper and, obviously, flooring, charcoal, Odor Eaters, scaffolding. It’s incredible.”) He employs about 40 workers (with the hope of growing to 150 in a year or so) who make bamboo flooring using a technique knows as “strand woven.” It’s a relatively new process that differs significantly from traditional bamboo flooring, where the individual culms, along with the knots and nodes stand out. Strand woven, by contrast, seeks to make the flooring look like other hardwoods while being stronger and more insect resistant. After the initial processing, the strands of bamboo are fused into a solid plank with environmentally safe glue under extreme pressure. The company plans to sell the final product to importers around the world.
Part of the appeal of Madagascar Bamboo is expected to be its environmental claims. The rain forests of Madagascar, like in other developing tropical nations, are rapidly disappearing, to the point the government has imposed severe restrictions on hardwood harvesting, including a practical ban on logging for export. Bamboo, by contrast, grows quickly, reducing the time for a stand to regenerate to as little as three years. Meyers said his company is taking it one step further by not cutting the bamboo from the forest, but instead contracting for the wood from local farmers who have it growing on their property but until now saw no commercial value in it. The practice is expected to pump about $200,000 into the local economy each year, spread among up to 7,000 farmers.
“It’s not a whole lot of money per farmer,” he said, “but these are a really poor people, and any cash that they can receive for a product that is basically just growing on their land is a major help. This stuff was planted by their grandparents, in many cases, and currently there’s very little market for it. I can’t say it’s money for nothing, but it’s close.”
Then there is the bamboo plantation Meyers hopes to build. A quarter of the bamboo would be for harvest while the remainder would be left untouched, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The idea would be to pay for the whole thing by selling the carbon credits from it on the carbon futures market.
Meyers and his backers believe they’ve got the right plan and a market with untapped demand for their product. However, there are many variables even the best business plan can’t predict. A business-friendly government can become less friendly; consumer tastes can change; capital can dry up.
The only thing Meyers can count on for sure is the rain.
“They say there’s two seasons here: a rainy season and a season when it rains,” he said. “It rains all the time. It rains like crazy. And the bamboo just loves it. The bamboo grows like crazy. For us, the rain is a good thing.”