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African bamboo ready to boom

Professor Chin Ong is passionate about the potential of bamboo (WRENmedia)
Professor Chin Ong is passionate about the potential of bamboo

Bamboo - nicknamed the wonder plant - is the strongest and fastest growing woody plant on earth, and supplies a global trade worth an estimated US$2 billion per year. The lion's share is earned by Asian countries, whose bamboo-based industries span a vast range from paper making and scaffolding to luxury flooring and foods. But Africa is also witnessing a boom in bamboo, led by a Nairobi-based Malaysian. Indeed, Professor Chin Ong is so passionate about the potential for bamboo exploitation in Africa that he will not talk about this versatile plant anywhere other than beside a stand of the fast-growing grass. "There are lots of bamboo species in Africa," he says. "Our role here at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi is to prove it is useful and profitable for both urban people and smallholders in African villages."

In India, eight million hectares of commercial bamboo provide 60% of the country's paper requirement, and the plant is increasingly used as a replacement for both hard and soft woods. Growing three times faster than eucalyptus, it matures in just three years and can be harvested every second year for more than a century. Bamboo poles, or culms, are so strong that in South Asia they are used to reinforce concrete and as scaffolding on skyscrapers. A square metre of bamboo flooring can sell for as much as US$100 and each year, two million tonnes of edible, vitamin-rich bamboo shoots are consumed.

Environmental services

"Aside from bamboo products above ground, it's the bamboo roots that can be useful," explains Professor Ong. "The extensive root system stabilises slopes and riverbanks and can absorb surplus nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals found in sewage water, and lock them in the plant so they do not cause pollution in water courses downstream." Bamboo is already being used to filter wastewater from the United Nations complex where ICRAF is based, but Ong can envisage much greater potential: "We want to introduce bamboo to clean up the wastewater from a settlement like Kibera slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, which is home to more than a million people."

For bamboo this would be quite a comeback; photographs from the turn of the last century show huge parts of the area where Nairobi now sprawls covered in Arundinaria alpina, a species of bamboo native to Kenya. Use of bamboo in an urban context is gaining popularity elsewhere as well. Municipal authorities in the capitals of Uganda and Ethiopia, as well as Kenya, are joining discussions on how to incorporate bamboo into their urban planning for both environmental and fuelwood functions.

Fuel supply

In the Lake Victoria basin, the giant bamboo Dendrocalamus giganteus is now being cultivated, particularly on riverbanks, as an alternative or additional cash crop to sugarcane and coffee. Planting materials have been distributed to farmers in seven districts, where demand has been driven by deforestation and fuel shortage. Fish from the lake are preserved by wood smoke, and for every tonne of fish a tonne of firewood is burned. While foresters may feel sceptical of the efficiency of burning bamboo, Professor Ong is quick to jump to its defence. "Bamboo has proved to be one of the best plants for making charcoal," he says. "It burns very well and has an exceptionally high calorific content, yielding more than 7000 kilocalories per kilogram. That's equal to half the yield from an equivalent amount of petroleum." Back in the Kenyan capital, Kibera slum communities are developing bamboo woodlots as a sustainable source of domestic fuel.

Research focus

Bamboo - nicknamed the wonder plant - is the strongest and fastest growing woody plant on earth (WRENmedia)
Bamboo - nicknamed the wonder plant - is the strongest and fastest growing woody plant on earth

The World Agroforestry Centre, the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology are currently collaborating in efforts to lower the cost of bamboo seedlings and to increase their sprouting rate. Twenty local and exotic species are being tested to find the best varieties for different uses. Thorny bamboos, for example, make excellent security or stock-proof hedges whilst the taller, straight culms provide effective windbreaks. Some species of bamboo have earned a poor reputation because of their invasiveness, but there are many non-spreading varieties. Bamboo products can also be at risk, their high starch content attracting insects and fungi, so preservation techniques are another focus of research, with simple salt water treatment often an effective solution.

Professor Ong's enthusiasm for the 'wonder plant' is endless. Only after talking through its functions as a plant does he move on to added-value products. For that he returns to his office where, as you might expect, the furniture is bamboo and his desk and shelves are full of examples of bamboo products, mostly, of course, from Asia. "Wherever I see a new example I add it to my collection. Bamboo is the most versatile material. We just need to inspire ingenuity and business skills here in Africa to do what has been achieved with bamboo in Asia."

Date published: July 2007


Have your say

I think I am starting next week to transplant some Bamboo se... (posted by: Ronald Ddungu)

I would like to start farming bamboo in Gauteng South Africa... (posted by: Rani Govender)

Good Day, is there a bamboo species that can be grown in the... (posted by: Dennis Secusana)

I wld like to thank the pro 4 this info that led me 2 join t... (posted by: Ahmed lubembe)


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