Student triples earnings making bamboo umbrellas

An innovative mechanical engineering student has designed a unique bamboo umbrella, whose demand by corporates and individuals has hit sky high and is earning him more than triple what he would earn selling the raw bamboo, in a classic case of gains from value addition.

Samson Koros's light bulb moment came when his school, Rift Valley Institute for Science and Technology (RVIST) decided to give him seed capital of Sh300,000 for his project upon learning about his exceptional skills. He invested the money in the machinery that splits the bamboo into manageable pieces and aiding in the whole manufacturing process. But it is the price difference in a raw bamboo plant and a value added one that has sparked his interest to remain in the trade.  The cost of one 20 feet bamboo is Sh200 but the same bamboo can produce over 20 umbrellas and each umbrella retails at between Sh700-Sh1000. “This implies that one 20 feet bamboo can register returns of over Sh20,000,” he said. Initially, he used to source his bamboo from Mau forest through a communiqué between his institution and the forest authorities although he now prefers getting it from the farmers as this uplifts them economically and at the same time encourages them to grow the plant.

After harvesting, Koros cuts the tree into pieces of 60 centimeters along the capillaries using a panga, a process he terms as the most tedious and slow since it is manual but hopes to acquire a cutting machine to ease the process when he gets funding. The cut pieces are then rolled into round shapes using router machine. The router machine is attached to a hand drill machine which drills holes in the bamboo pieces. The handle, runner and the top cap are machined using a wood lithe machine. An engraving machine is used to engrave slots on the small tensioning bamboo pieces that are then stitched to the canopy to complete the process.   

The pricing of the bamboo umbrella is influenced by the intensity of labour, the durability of the commodity and the sourcing of the canopies which are still relatively expensive in the local market although he has plans to source cheaper technology from China to cut down on production expenditure which will see the price drop to about Sh400.

Although his bamboo umbrella is light in weight compared to the conventional ones in the market, Koros argues that the bamboo one is the strongest and can last for over five years. "I sold one of my first products to a client in Nakuru town in 2009 and she still has it to date. I have also tried to experiment the impact of strong wind on the umbrella when I rode on a Boda boda at a very high speed during the Nakuru Show and the results were impressive as the umbrella remained intact unlike the conventional ones," he said.

The production of these umbrellas is still at small scale as he can only manage to produce 10 pieces a day. He noted that due to the busy academic schedule he has, he can only manage to take the highest order of about 100 umbrellas. “Time constraint has hampered my production due to the fact that I dedicate most of my time to my studies but I hope to concentrate fully after the studies,” explained Koros. Despite that, the response from the market has been impressive as various corporate institutions are keen to acquire them and have already placed orders ranging from 20-100 pieces.

The bamboo umbrella initiative not only guarantees farmers gains but also promises creation of employment right from production to market stage. "I have already incorporated the tailoring students from RVIST and the number shall expand when we acquire an investor who will help us begin large scale commercial production. We also have the Creative designer students who help with the designing of various brands and logos on the canopy for the cooperate companies that give us orders. Therefore, when large scale commercial production begins, there will be so many jobs created in the cycle of producing this bamboo umbrella,” he noted.

Koros is not only concerned about the economic gains of the venture but rather to ensure the continuity of existence of the bamboo plants by encouraging the growth of the plant among the farmers in his area. “I also teach them the importance of only harvesting a mature bamboo as this triggers the regeneration or sprouting of over 18 plants from the harvested one," he explained. He also encourages the farmers to adapt bamboo farming because bamboo forests acts as water catchment areas while their roots hold the soil firmly mitigating the effects of soil erosion.

His bamboo umbrella innovation saw him clinch the first position under the category of mechanical engineering in the maiden National Commission for Science and Technology Exhibition which was organized in 2012 May.  

Bamboo is a grass that is big business internationally, with over 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 global bamboo, but consuming only 60 percent of it.

Kenya’s gains from bamboo has been stagnated by the 1986 government ban on commercial bamboo harvesting from the forests, at a time when the commercial gains from the plant was on upward trend. Prior to that, a factory based in Nakuru, Kapi Limited, used to export bamboo byproducts such as incense sticks. “I would like to appeal to the government to reconsider its’ position on bamboo so as to enable young people realise the commercial and environmental gains that the industry promises,”said Koros.