By Shemei Ndawula.
Bamboo is largely known as an ancient Chinese crop, an aggressive grass identified by its long canes and synonymous with the Chinese pandas (which largely live on bamboo diets). However, in the wake of global warming and the shift to green energy, the plant has seen a rapid increase in value, grossing a global approximate trade of US$25 billion per year.
In the past two decades, Bamboo has spread to several countries across the world as a solution to environmental mismanagement. In Africa, it is used to address the rapidly declining forest cover and desire for a faster growing eco-friendly alternative to wood fuel. In 2012, a US based company developing commercial bamboo plantations – EcoPlanet Bamboo used Bamboo trees in a project restoring 480 hectares of land previously ruined by years of pineapple farming in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
In East Africa, Uganda has in recent years made tremendous strides in commercial farming with the aid of developing partners like China. In a country where bamboo has always been synonymous to the mountainous Elgon regions with the Bamasaaba (Bagisu) integrating bamboo shoots into their local delicacy malewa, it comes as no surprise that the crop has been embraced by the wider farming community. I recently had a chat with Mr. Andrew Kalema, a former newsroom journalist and editor of the agricultural magazine Harvest Money who is now fondly referred to as the Father of Bamboo in Uganda and in his view, this is one crop that if well managed can be the solution to most of the country’s energy needs. He explains that when he made his first trip to China in 2011, he was enthralled by what he refers to as Green Gold. “When in China you realize that bamboo is one of the most commercially viable and environmentally sustainable projects for the world to adopt in the wake of global warming because of its fast-growing properties and heightened ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen besides its anti-inflammatory abilities,” he says.
This year (2021) marks a whole decade since the trip and there’s been such rapid transformation in the bamboo industry of Uganda with generous contributions from the Peoples Republic of China going towards setting up and maintaining bamboo research units, plantations, technological transfer as well as various trainings done in China and on the continent. Currently, Uganda has an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 hectares of bamboo.
One such research units is the Bamboo project at Uganda Industrial Research institute in Nakawa which I have been fortunate enough to visit. This unit adds value to bamboo biproducts through small scale processing; making crafts, toothpicks, tablemats and furniture. Interestingly they also treat bamboo poles which are used in construction as an alternative to wood. These are elegant, sturdy, pest resistant (which comes in handy for rural projects) and relatively cheaper than most wood species. A casual walk around Kampala would reveal how comfortably this bamboo has been adopted by high-end popular night clubs which makes them look beautiful.
International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR)is the Dutch-Sino-East Africa Bamboo development programme once coordinated by Andrew Kalema as a multilateral effort in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, facilitated by Chinese and Dutch expertise in the areas of bamboo Value chain development, product design, marketing and standardization. This would help East African countries to unlock the vast potential of their indigenous bamboo resources in addition to contributing to green economic growth, investment and international trade between Europe, China and East Africa.
More farmers, environmentalists and research agencies within Uganda are investing considerably in bamboo agribusiness, research and value addition to bamboo products. With guidance and assistance from China National Bamboo Research Center (CBRC). Organisations like Uganda Forestry Authority, INBAR, Uganda Bamboo Association, Nature Uganda and even Uganda Prison Services (with an expansive bamboo nursery in Luzira) etc. are teaching farmers how to grow and multiply bamboo.
However, taking an objective look at the history of farming in Uganda, such ‘high potential’ crops have always let the farmers down with the outstanding examples being vanilla and cocoa. The long-awaited vanilla boom that was promised in the 2000s still haunts farmers who cleared large tracts of land to plant vanilla prophesized and championed by many prominent agriculturists; there was a gold rush into the business with hopes of earning lots of profits only for the price of vanilla to suffer a severe drop on the world market leaving them stranded. Could the renowned father of bamboo Mr. Andrew Kalema and his ilk be yet another outcrop of false prophets?
To contrast, bamboo is a fast-growing plant which multiplies fast and has potential to be turned into several byproducts that have large local and international markets. By adding value to the plants, using small scale manufacturing techniques, farmers can produce toothpicks, mats, fertilizers, bamboo vinegar and also treat their own construction poles (bamboo has been shown to have a higher compressive strength than wood, brick, or concrete). In fact, besides the processing ventures bamboo is also used for land demarcation and ornamental landscaping, so, the market for seedlings is currently booming.
However, the huge potential bamboo possesses could also pose a threat when natural forests are cleared to pave way for bamboo plantations. In a country losing an estimated 80,000 hectares of forest cover every year, this could prove disastrous. The solution to this can also be borrowed from the Peoples Republic of China which is the global leader in producing sustainable green energy where farmers practice selective harvesting of trees to maximize output of smaller tracts of land. Eastern Africa is currently on a healthy trajectory by building its capacity and transferring technology to local bamboo producers -including trainings funded by China’s Ministry of Commerce on craft creation, industrial use, furniture and also producing energy by making bamboo briquettes.
Currently, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia have got the largest reserves of natural bamboo forests accounting for some 3 to 4 per cent of the global known coverage and with the help of development partners like the Peoples Republic of China and Denmark, this could turn around the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in Africa while most importantly, flattening the curve of climate change.
The author is a research Fellow at Development Watch Centre, a Ugandan based Foreign Policy Think Tank