When Kenya introduced 26 exotic bamboo varieties from Thailand, China, Japan and India in 1985, this was the beginning of new opportunities for creative entrepreneurs such as John Njogu.
Mr Njogu, 57, from Njabini in Nyandarua County, is earning a living from the bamboo plant by making a variety of furniture.
A visit to his workshop and home both located on the Njabini-Nyahururu road reveals how the man of wood and hammer is in love with bamboo.
At his workshop one is able to spot his artistic creativity. Every piece of Mr Njogu’s furniture has a remarkable touch of bamboo culms, leaving many marveling at his skillfulness.
The entrepreneur literally makes anything from bamboo- from door and window curtains, picture frames, mirror holders, lamp shades, to even a bamboo bed that costs Sh13,000.
“As an entrepreneur, I apply my carpentry and masonry skills and combine them with artistic creativity for product diversification,” he says, showing off a lamp stand valued at Sh1,000 and two picture frames embroidered with bamboo at Sh600.
Outside the workshop which is strategically on the busy road, he displays flower stands made out of bamboo which he sells at Sh3,000. He has potted indigenous ornamental plants and flowers to demonstrate to his potential customers the beauty of his work.
Njogu explains how he recently met a frustrated customer after her two glass coffee tables broke when she placed hot cups on exotic mats.
“I told her that I could sell her bamboo mats that protect the glass table from such damage. She bought enough pieces to last her coffee tables to the next generation,” he says.
He gets good cash comes from the construction of makuti gazebos for restaurants or entertainment joints. For such projects, he makes between Sh60,000 and Sh100,000 depending on the size of the makuti.
His business name, Ndurumbu Business Propagation and Products reveals his zeal for environmental conservation. After all, he notes, he would not be in business were it not for nature he says.
His home which doubles as his operating grounds faces the Aberdares’ peak, which is visible on a clear sky.
“That is the mountain that feeds us. We should take care of it,” he says.
Out of seeing the countless benefits hidden in bamboo plant, Njogu started the Njabini Tree Nursery Self Help Group in 2003, a local community self-help group to promote bamboo farming within the community.
Kefri taught him to how to propagate the scions and culms and Greenbelt Movement, for whom he gathered 100 local farmers for training on nurturing tree seedlings for planting and for sale.
Njogu has bamboo nurseries with a seedling taking three months to mature, selling for Ksh100 each. For his use, he starts harvesting the stems within one and a half years. One can get 200 bamboo culms from one seedling at mature harvesting.
Njogu wants to leave a legacy behind his art, hence the reason why he lets his three daughters Florence Njeri, Lilian Murugi and Isabel Wambui join him at the workshop on Saturdays.
“I want them to start learning early as teenagers so that they can become better creative artists than me,”
After missing out on several lucrative opportunities, Njogu now wants to go online and widely market his products more directly. Some of his target clients include motorists who stop by to enquire about his products.
He is planning to set up a workshop and a training centre which he believes will be given a boost by the current Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) education system.
He states that one entering the tree business will not go wrong. “As the population increases, so are socio-economic activities, with more people in need of a tree to cover their ‘heating heads’ from the looming global warming; the mankind sins of omission and commission for destroying Mother Earth,” Njogu wittily states.
Having sat his Certificate of Primary Education at Gathiru Primary School in 1982, he joined the local Kiganjo Village Polytechnic in Gatundu, Kiambu County where he studied masonry and carpentry before migrating to the neighbouring Nyandarua County in search of a job opportunity.
He was so good at his vocational skills that he completed his masonry course in one year instead of two, and was already training in carpentry as his colleagues completed masonry.
“Academically I was number one from Standard One to Standard Six. However, after sitting my CPE and scoring 27 points, the late Teacher Kiniaru and my mother Hannah Wairimu – whom I knew had no money to educate me in secondary – wanted me to repeat Class Seven. But I decided to join a vocation training school as I did not want to overburden mother who had other siblings behind me,” Njogu says without nostalgic regret.
Dr Joram Kagombe, Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) Deputy Director for Economic, policy and Governance, says that researchers wanted to introduce fast-maturing bamboo plants and adaptable ones in low-altitude areas such as lower Central highlands, Coast and the Lake region.
“Researchers in East Africa had the experience of countries such as Japan and India where bamboo had been expansively planted, substituting overreliance on woodland forestry,” explains Dr Kagombe.
“Within East Africa the common variety by then was the indigenous bamboo taking eight years to mature, only doing well only in the high altitude, mountainous and water catchments of between 2400 and 3400 above sea level.”
Peter Kung’u, senior technologist in charge of bamboo propagation at the KEFRI explains that, with exotic varieties that are ready from three and seven years, bamboo culms (stems) have entered the tree domain of cypress, cider, blue gum and several indigenous trees for timber and other wood products.
“Besides timber, bamboo uses include basketry, textile, furniture, tiles and as an ornamental plant in landscaping,” he says.
Mr Kung’u adds that some bamboo varieties can be bent and curled easily, giving an advantage to artists to make various products. Phyllostachys pubescens from Japan has bright stems and is suitable for tiles.
Dendrocalamus hamiltonii, a giant bamboo variety whose diameter can go up to 25cm and 27 metres high, is suitable for construction, roofing and timber-making.