The Emerging Roar of Africa's Bamboo

Apart from the gentle whisper of the bamboo trees, silence enveloped the bamboo forest in Dawuro, a region in Southwest Ethiopia. These trees stood alert like a vast green army of soldiers. Their smooth green bark glistened in the soft sunrise hues that were painting the bamboo forest with shimmering colors. At that moment early in the day, this forest could only be described in the words of Bwak the Bantu poet as a ‘river flowing with a thousand dazzling stars.’ Indeed, the bamboo forest looked and felt like the very epicenter of serenity.

Thousands of floors across Europe will soon have a chance to partake in this serenity thanks to an Ethiopian Company known as African Bamboo.  Founded by the Duri family, this company uses bamboo to manufacturer top-notch decking, flooring and building materials. Bamboo is perfect for such material because its tensile strength is 28,000 per square inch, compared to steel’s 23,000 per square inch. Since tensile strength means the resistance of a material to breaking under tension, bamboo is in this regard stronger than steel! This almost impregnable tensile strength makes it a perfect material for increasing the resilience of buildings to earthquakes. Due to this one quality, bamboo should be a construction material with demand as high as or even higher than cement.

"Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion." Thomas Hardy

Thanks to such innate qualities in bamboo and to its high quality assurance, African Bamboo is poised to export these bamboo products to far-flung destinations in places like Europe. Such exports will enable the company to generate revenue of 24M Euros per year at full-scale. It has already been valued to be worth millions of Euros, which a vindication of bamboo’s immense potential.

bamboo 2Photo by Pexels

The journey of that trendy and glistening bamboo floor begins in places like. If you drive for 500 kilometres southwest of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, you will arrive in Dawuro, an area where bamboo covers 2,008 hectares of the region’s total forest cover of 32,000 hectares. Most of this bamboo is the Yushania Alpine highland bamboo. Known locally as Kerekeha, highland bamboo also grows in the rainy highlands of North-Western Ethiopia. It constitutes 30% of the country’s bamboo resources with lowland bamboo taking up the remaining 70%. Although there are only two bamboo species in Ethiopia, there are 43 across Africa and 1,250 in the world.

As far back as 2005, the global market for bamboo products stood at a staggering$7 billion. Twelve years later in 2017, this market has more than doubled, making bamboo products even more lucrative. African Bamboo has left no stone unturned in its quest to tap into this market. In order to ensure that local farmers will also feel the profitable warmth of the global market, African Bamboo has already organized 2,239 farmers into 31 cooperatives.

All the co-operatives are legally registered and licensed. A business model for the cooperatives has been developed. As part of this Model, African Bamboo has signed price agreements with the cooperatives. It has also trained them on plot management. The goal of this training is to ensure that farmers will reap maximum and sustainable benefits from their bamboo.

Most of those farmers have lived with bamboo all their lives just as their fathers and grandfathers before them did. But all through the ages, the bamboo trees were more like stars far above in the milky way – they look good but don’t put any food on the table. Similarly, the bamboo forests provided a scenic view but not a full stomach or a full wallet.

Thanks to the efforts of African Bamboo and other mushrooming bamboo companies, Ethiopia’s bamboo is transitioning into green gold that can enhance livelihoods in substantial and sustainable fashion.

African bamboo is turning the bamboo value chain from one that shackles farmers in poverty to one that frees them to derive an increasing amount of money from bamboo. Due to its emphasis on optimal benefits for farmers, African Bamboo’s interaction with local farmers is backed by a Social and Economic Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (SEMMP). This plan ensures that farmers receive 50% of the raw material price. That way, they can truly benefit from the green gold that is bamboo.

Currently, only 7 percent of global bamboo resources are from Africa. This is nine times less than the 65 percent that Asia produces and four times less than the 28 percent that America produces. For this scenario to change the natural bamboo forests like the ones found in Ethiopia must be expanded even as harvesting is done sustainably. In addition, bamboo plantations should be rolled out on a massive scale.

Indeed, Africa needs to borrow a leaf from China and treat bamboo as an integral solution for economic empowerment and environmental sustainability. A good place to start is for African governments to set aside large tracts of land for bamboo plantations. Since bamboo is like the camel of the plant kingdom given that it can survive in very hostile soil, this policy should require and enable bamboo to be planted on fifty percent of unused semi-arid and arid land. Considering that in a county like Kenya eighty per cent of the land is arid or semi-arid, bamboo may be the only singular thing that can change both the literal and economic landscape of this country in revolutionary fashion.

Ethiopia too has a lot of room for expanding its bamboo cover despite the fact that most of Africa’s bamboo already grows in this East African country. This is because Ethiopia moved from a country with 35 percent forest cover in the 1900s to just over 3 percent in 2000. One of the ways of reversing this dramatic and alarming deforestation is through large scale planting of bamboo forests.

These forests provide invaluable ecosystem services whose value goes deeper than manufacture of bamboo products. Studies have shown that a bamboo forest’s canopy can keep away 95 percent of solar radiation incident and in the process prevent the soil from drying, thus creating a favourable microclimate for soil organisms. Beneath it, bamboo’s roots are like fists that grab the soil and consequently reduce soil erosion by stabilizing riverbanks and steep slopes. In addition, the roots draw water close to the surface. In addition, bamboo absorbs more produces 35% more oxygen than equivalent trees. This makes it a true guardian of the earth.

Dr. Isaac Kalua is the Chairman of Kenya Water Towers Agency. It is a Government body that oversees management of the key forests that act as catchment areas of the water consumed in Kenya. He told Environmental Africa that “due its high growth rate and resilience, bamboo can play a pivotal role in increasing Kenya’s forest cover from the current 7 percent to well over ten percent within a couple of years. I hope we can walk towards this direction.”

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Friederich the Director-General of INBAR echoed these sentiments, “Bamboo can be harnessed to reverse land degradation, slow deforestation, combat climate change through carbon sequestration, and boost rural livelihoods through the creation of jobs and income.”

Those rural livelihoods that Dr. Friederich is talking about can only be boosted substantially and sustainably through the kind of value addition that African Bamboo company is focusing on. Value addition that looks far beyond the raw bamboo to the dozens of both high tech and low tech products that can be made from bamboo. These products include bamboo fabric which is highly sought after because it is highly absorbent, making it a perfect fit for towels and bathrobes. Bamboo fabric provides a foothold into the multi-billion dollar fashion industry.

In addition to the fashion industry, Ethiopia and Africa as a whole has the opportunity to venture into production of high-tech bamboo products like bamboo keyboards and bamboo speakers. The market for such products remains massive since electronics are a multi-million dollar industry.

Against this backdrop of a lucrative global bamboo market, it would not be dramatic to state unequivocally that ‘money does grow on trees, especially if those trees happen to be bamboo.’

A time has come for the loud whisper of Africa’s bamboo to evolve into powerful conversations in farms, streets, boardrooms and parliaments. Such conversations should result in radical changes the business, farming and policy arenas. Changes that will enable African farmers, businesses and governments to follow in the footsteps of companies like African bamboo and tap into the green gold that is bamboo. If this happens, then bamboo trees will play a major role in enhancing livelihoods across Africa and dealing poverty a knockout blow.

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Last modified on Sunday, 24 October 2021 16:31
Environmental Africa

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