bamboo offers green gold for kenyan farmers

Bamboo, which has lifted tens of thousands of Asian families out of poverty in recent decades, is finally taking off in Kenya, where it’s ideally suited to the climate and terrain, cheap to plant, and a crop that can add 20 metres in just three months, all of it with strong earning power.

Bamboo is actually a grass, which is why it grows so fast. Ordinary bamboo can grow a metre in a week, to reach some 15 metres at full height, according to Dr Godfrey Netondo a botanist at Maseno University. Giant bamboo, now being farmed in Thika, can grow 20 metres in just two to three months in ideal conditions.

It’s a grass that is big business internationally, with 1.5 billion people now living off a global bamboo industry worth $11 billion a year, and a billion people depending on it for housing, according to the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR). China is the world’s largest bamboo producer, producing 80 per cent of world output, but consuming only 60 percent of it.

In Africa, Ethiopia, with its two species, accounts for two thirds of the bamboo resources, with over 1 million hectares of the plant, according to the International Union of Forest Research Organisation (IUFRO). Kenya, which from 1988 has had 22 new species introduced, in addition to the indigenous Yushania, now has 150,000 hectares of bamboo, according to the Kenya Forest Research Institute. But “only 5 percent of those bamboos are on land owned by farmers,” said Gordon Sigu, a Principal Researcher at Kenya Forest Institute and National Coordinator of the East Africa Bamboo Project. The other 95 per cent is within Kenyan forestry, where harvesting is banned.

By contrast, the bamboo sector in Ethiopia is one of the most industrialised in Africa with two factories producing flooring material, curtain blinders, tooth picks and chopsticks.

Yet despite the rudimentary state of Kenya’s bamboo sector, Sigu cites Githunguri, Molo Shinyalu, Kamai Kinale and Olenguruone as areas where farmers with 2 to 3 clumps of mature bamboo have seen their incomes rise. At Githunguri, a tea area, tea picking baskets are in constant demand. So farmers with 2 to 3 clumps of bamboo are weaving these baskets and selling each at Sh250 to Sh350. Each clump of mature bamboo with 50 poles can produce 25 baskets. “The good thing with bamboo plantations is that they don’t occupy a large piece of land,” said Sigu.

KEFRI through funding by a Netherlands-based body Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) and UNIDO has been training low-income Kenyans on the varied uses for bamboo beyond the weaving of baskets, to generate more income. “A farmer trained in making specialised ornamental chairs can sell each one for Sh1200,” said Sigu. KEFRI is also helping in marketing the products. Already some Chinese firms are exploring the possibility of commercializing here in Kenya.

In Vietnam, the Bamboo Industry between 2005 and 2007 lifted 20,000 Vietnamese out of poverty, according to a study done by Prosperity Initiative (PI). Part of what makes bamboo viable is that the final product is the raw material. That means for every $1 million worth of bamboo products crafted $600,000 goes directly to farmers, according to PI.

In Kenya, however, the 1986 government ban on commercial bamboo harvesting from the forests stagnated the industry, at a time when it was on upward trend. Prior to that, a factory based in Nakuru, Kapi Limited, used to export bamboo byproducts such as incense sticks. “Today, we are now importing such from India” said Sigu.

Historically, Kenya’s bamboo natural habitat has been in the cold areas around Mount Kenya, the Aberdares and Mount Elgon. However, there are new species being introduced that can survive in tropical or arid climates such as Kibwezi, Maseno, Homa Bay, Migori and parts of Coast. KEFRI has been running bamboo conservation and livelihood forums around Kenya since 2006.

Bamboo is also coming to the forefront in the global warming debate as it can mitigate the effects of climate change due to its ability to absorb large amounts of carbon. It is being touted as an agent to replace forest cover that has declined rapidly around the world. In addition, its extensive root network holds soil and prevents it from eroding, making it ideal in holding river banks, and preventing soil erosion and desertification. With papyrus it can additionally absorb minerals such as phosphorous and nitrogen from saline waters.

It also serves as a food, with its shoots making up part of many Asian dishes and broths in the Himalayas, Indonesia and China. The shoots are rich sources of potassium, and vitamins. In young children these shoots are said to be shortening agents for the measles cycle.

One can get bamboo cuttings for planting at the KEFRI offices in Kikuyu. Prior to planting them, they are raised in a nursery for 6 months.
Once grown, the uses now stretch far enough to take the crop far beyond its old tag of poor man’s timber, and towards green gold. Dell Computers is typical in now using some bamboo components for packaging some of its computers and accessories.

Written By James Karuga for African Laughter