Tobacco to bamboo project heralds low cost housing

A project aimed at encouraging farmers to move from the volative tobacco farming and embrace bamboo farming in Nyanza and Western regions is proving successful with more farmers embracing the practice that is not only earning them a decent income but assisting bridge the biting decent housing short fall in the area.

Out of the many wonders of the bamboo tree, it has been hailed as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the expensive conventional housing in Kenya. Kenya’s rural population is particularly most affected by the housing crisis with 60 percent of the population living in poorly constructed houses according to studies.

“These poor houses have been breeding grounds for diseases like Malaria and dysentery  which have been responsible for many deaths,” said Jacob Kibwange, project director of an initiative at Maseno University that aims to encourage bamboo exploitation.

The project, Tobacco to Bamboo, is pioneering the construction of cheap bamboo houses in the Mau and Kakamega areas of Western Kenya.

According to a 2007 study by the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, nearly 60 percent of Kenya’s 37 million people are rural farmers who live on less than US$2 a day and live in inadequate homes that are often made of mud and poorly ventilated.

In the cities, the housing demand has reached 150,000 units per year against an annual production of about 50,000 units. According to the UN Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, the shortfall in the cities has led to overcrowding, slums and sub-standard housing.

The tobacco to bamboo project was launched by Maseno University’s School of Environment and Earth Studies in 2006. It began as a research activity to encourage the cultivation and utilization of bamboo as an alternative livelihood to tobacco farming in South Nyanza and Western Kenya and later set up nurseries in Migori, Kuria, Homa Bay and Suba districts.

Maseno launched housing projects in Kisumu town and trained 240 bamboo small-scale farmers and set up 120 field experimentation sites. The aim is to train 20,000 farmers to exploit bamboo in the next 15 years.

After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, about 4,000 bamboo houses provided shelter to thousands made homeless by the disaster, particularly in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was also found that bamboo could resist heat of up to 55 degrees and unlike steel, was not vulnerable to rust and salty humidity.

In Kenya, however, an existing ban on harvesting bamboo could affect plans for its use. A Kenyan Forestry Services source, who requested anonymity, said the ban restricts harvesting to some selected users and government institutions. Experts are lobbying for it to be lifted.