Howtogogreen’s Weblog

A giant solution to a giant problem


It absorbs water faster than most plants and is used in some parts of the world for cleaning sewage. Even more important, it soaks up heavy metals. It is a potential answer to polluted waters. It is nature’s fastest growing woody plant, with some species achieving the phenomenal growth rate of one metre a day! Its culms (poles) are the strongest, lightest natural material known to humankind. A square metre of flooring derived from this “wonder plant” will sell for as much as US$ 100, while in Southern Asia it is used for reinforcing concrete and for scaffolding on skyscrapers. No other woody plant matches bamboo’s versatility in environmental conservation and commerce. It is a viable replacement for both hardwoods and softwoods. Its growth rate is three times that of eucalyptus, and it matures in just three years. Thereafter harvests are possible every second year for up to one hundred and twenty years. India has some twenty million acres of commercial bamboo that account for 60% of the country’s massive paper requirements and much of its commercial timber needs. Over two million tons of edible bamboo shoots – rich in vitamins and low in carbohydrates, fats and proteins – are consumed around the world every year, mostly in Asia. However, bamboo remains an untapped resource in Africa, a state of affairs that the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) hopes to help remedy through a pilot project in Kenya and Tanzania, in collaboration with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. The project aims to create awareness on the environmental and economic benefits of bamboo in the Lake Victoria basin, and hopefully popularise it throughout the region. Lake Victoria is the world’s second-largest fresh water lake. Its shores are dotted with large urban centres that discharge domestic and industrial waste into its waters. Interestingly, this member of the grass family is not new in Kenya. “Kenya’s water catchments were once covered in bamboo,” says Prof Chin Ong, a hydrologist with ICRAF. “However, most of these forests have since been cleared”. ICRAF has taken a first step towards the revival of the plant by introducing the giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus) into selected pilot sites in Kenya (Nairobi, Western Kenya) and Tanzania (Musoma). This commercially attractive species can grow in areas traditionally used for sugar cane and coffee cultivation, thus providing an alternative or additional cash crop. Arundinaria alpina, a species of bamboo native to Kenya, will yield as many as 20,000 culms per hectare per year, with each culm growing to a height of 12 metres (40 feet). Most species in fact grow to over 30 metres (90 feet) at full maturity. Kenya has 


Giant bamboo at a farm in Thika, Kenya (about 40 km from Nairobi).

few privately owned commercial timber plantations. Most of the country’s timber comes from government forests managed by the Forest Department. However, these forests have been severely over-exploited with only limited replanting. Timber firms are now reportedly forced to import the product from the Congo and Tanzania to manufacture hard and soft board. The country’s leading paper manufacturer, PanPaper of Webuye, is also reportedly using plantation softwoods to fuel its boilers and make paper pulp. With its rapid growth and high woody fibre production, bamboo would supply both industrial needs. At the household level, bamboo would be a valuable source of firewood and charcoal. It yields more than 7,000 kilocalories per kilogram, equivalent to half the yield from an equivalent amount of petroleum. Some species of the plant have large thorns, making them ideal for security hedges. Others grow tall straight culms that form ideal windbreaks that can be sustainably harvested annually. And of course edible bamboo shoots would be a nutritious addition the family table. These shoots, mild and very crunchy, can be eaten raw or cooked. KEFRI already grows several high quality edible varieties. Bamboo rhizomes anchor topsoil along steep slopes and riverbanks, very effectively controlling erosion. Bamboo leaves, sheaves and old culms that die and fall to the ground decompose and create a thick humus layer that enriches the soil. Studies in South East Asia and Kenya have also shown that natural bamboo forests have excellent hydrological functions that promote soil health.  Some species of bamboo absorb as much 12 tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per hectare, a valuable asset to deploy against global warming. But bamboo is vulnerable to insects and fungi and its service life can be as low as one year when in direct contact with the ground. However, this can be remedied by appropriate design and cautious use of environmentally friendly preservatives such as boron, according to TRADA (Timber Research and Development Association). In April 2004, fears were also expressed that flowering bamboo would trigger famine in Northeast India, arising from an upsurge in rat populations. Bamboo can be propagated from seeds, though most species flower just once every fifteen to one hundred and twenty years. More viable mass propagation techniques include tissue culture, rhizome cuttings and vegetative cuttings.  


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“A man can sit in a bamboo house under a bamboo roof, on a bamboo chair at a bamboo table, with a bamboo hat on his head and bamboo sandals on his feet. He can at the same time hold in one hand a bamboo bowl, in the other hand bamboo chopsticks and eat bamboo sprouts. When through with his meal, which has been cooked over a bamboo fire, the table may be washed with a bamboo cloth, and he can fan himself with a bamboo fan, take a siesta on a bamboo bed, lying on a bamboo mat with his head resting on a bamboo pillow. His child might be lying in a bamboo cradle, playing with a bamboo toy. On rising he would smoke a bamboo pipe and taking a bamboo pen, write on a bamboo paper, or carry his articles in bamboo baskets suspended from a bamboo pole, with a bamboo umbrella over his head. He might then take a walk over a bamboo suspension bridge, drink water from a bamboo ladle, and scrape himself with a bamboo scraper (handkerchief)”.


Quoted from A Yankee on the Yangtze. William Edgar Geil. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1904. In Yangtze Patrol. Kemp Tolley. Annapollis: U.S. Naval Institute Press. 1971. Page 268.


Contributed by Stella Muasya