Bamboo Demystified – The Elegant Grass

Bamboo used to be commonly referred to as the poor man’s timber. However research on and demand for bamboo products is defying this tag in an era. As demand for wood surges, several bamboo species are now being used for different purposes ranging from furniture making to land reclamation.

A giant bamboo plant on the edge of the Njoro River in Nakuru, Kenya

A giant bamboo plant on the edge of the Njoro River in Nakuru, Kenya

Bamboo has been popular and in very high demand in Asia where it is common in rafting but now this grass is being used the world over.

Yellow bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) is mostly used for ornamental purposes while the giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus) is used in building, for food and furniture making. The edible bamboo shoots have become a delicacy in several fine-dining establishments especially those that cater to those with oriental preferences.

Bamboo in Kenya

In Kenya, the major uses are on river beds for soil conservation especially in areas where surface runoff threatens soil health.

The country has experienced a boom in the need for timber as the construction industry expands. This has left most lands denuded as forests are cleared for wood and cultivation.

The fast growing giant bamboo can be used as an alternative source of fuel and timber in the country. However, its production has been limited as it requires expansive swathes of land to be commercially viable.

The country has several bamboo types with the most common being Arundinaria alpina which is restricted to the highlands above 2,000 meters above sea level.

A now defunct project in Thika focused on the yellow and giant bamboo species. The project ostensibly failed because large tracts of land would be needed to commercially grow the giant bamboo. This is beside the fact that most forest land has been deforested and the rehabilitation of water towers like the Mau and Mt. Kenya forests have not incorporated the giant bamboo.

The Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) is growing several edible bamboo species shoots, as they are high in trace elements and vitamins but low in carbohydrates, fat and protein.

There is also a new venture in bamboo clothing as it is durable and the target is a self-sustaining clothes line with bamboo as the raw material and with products ranging from bags, shoes, curtains, carpets and many more to create job opportunities and self-sustenance for several families.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) has trained local artisans to make bamboo furniture. Among these was the Undugu Society which deals with accommodating and rehabilitating street children.

The products were made under the tutelage of Wayan Neka, an Indonesian, who taught artisans from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to make high quality bamboo products.

Margaret Oluoch, author of “Putting Science into Practice”, is one beneficiary who learned from Dr. Chin Ong who was in charge of the project at ICRAF. She founded Smejak, an organization dealing with conservation in agriculture.

Margaret has managed to apply the science and replicate it in her rural home in Kisumu to rehabilitate a river and also for fruit production on her farm in Kisumu. She says, “It came to me as a surprise that we can restore our land using resources we already have as we do not need to search for seeds. For instance, if I have to plant croton, I just need to collect the seeds and in due time they will germinate and be ready for transplanting.”

Margaret adds that science was so much in the books but is now implementing it to rehabilitate the Oroba River through the Friends of Oroba River initiative bringing the community together harnessing the resources and reclaiming them.

For the environment conservationists, advocating the use of Bamboo for its products will help not only in conserving nature but also addressing the emotive climate change issue.

Giant bamboo is one of the best sources of the demanded building materials that are sustainable. Unlike other trees, it grows at very high rate (three times faster than eucalyptus!) and matures in only three years. The towering plant can grow to a height of a hundred feet.

As a source of food, edible species of bamboo are being used extensively in Asia with the world consuming an estimated two million tonnes a year. Europe and North America are importing over a hundred and thirty tonnes a year!

Bamboo has several advantages, the major ones being self-replenishing, resilient and easy to maintain. Another reason why bamboo is preferred to other trees is that it creates a source of income generation which is manageable to many people especially those in low income groups who cannot afford a high capital to start their sources of livelihood.

Environmentally and most importantly, bamboo does not consume a lot of water. It can be grown in all areas from sea level to the highlands and it also has excellent hydrological properties in terms of high infiltration rates and low erosion rates compared to other types of land use.

Bamboo is very effective in soil erosion control as its rhizomes are very good in holding surface runoff thus it can be used to curb the problem of silting and sedimentation in rivers and lakes which is a problem on the headwaters, especially the Tana river which has as much as five litres of top soil per cubic meter of water flowing into the Indian ocean.

Bamboo is also very important in balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with some species sequestering up to twelve tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air per square hectare and is also the fastest growing canopy for the re-greening of degraded areas.

The bamboo plant is known to absorb heavy metals from water bodies thus can be very effective in sewage cleansing and can be planted along river banks for the same purposes.

Bamboo is also being used in the manufacture of parquets which is a direction away from the tradition of boards being made from other trees like the eucalyptus, mahogany and many more.

The market response in Europe and North America has been described as ‘very good’ where a square meter of the board is retailing at a range of between eighty and a hundred dollars.

Photo: A giant bamboo plant on the edge of River Njoro in Nakuru, Kenya

Blogpost and photo by Njenga Hakeenah (Nairobi, Kenya) – njenga.hakeenah(at)gmail.com

This post is entry Nr 15 in The World Congress for Agroforestry’s #WCA2014 blog competition. The five blogposts with the most and highest votes will receive a signed copy of the book “Trees for Life”. The most popular blogpost will get an iPad. To view this post in its original format, click here. To view other posts and vote for the one you like best, please visit the competition home page.

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