Farming of bamboo as an industrial crop and an alternative to traditional timber has risen sharply in Kenya, following a global trend.
The tall plant has also become dependable in protection of water catchments, amid logging pressure on the traditional source of timber.
“Bamboo can directly contribute to economic and social pillar and flagship programmes by focusing on small and medium-scale enterprise development to promote manufacturing, rehabilitation of degraded land and landscapes,” says Joram Kagombe, regional director, Central Highlands Eco-Region Programmes at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri).
He says it also ensures equity and poverty-eradication while supporting provision of affordable ecologically friendly housing,
Despite the potential, production of the plant has remained lacklustre in Kenya over the years, with data by Kefri showing that the land area under the crop had actually shrunk from 300,000 hectares initially to about 133,273 hectares today.
Production of the plant is concentrated around the Aberdares range, Mau forest, Mount Kenya, Mount Elgon and Cherangany hills which have 50,038 ha, 30,196 ha, 35,966 ha 14,341 and 8,180 ha of land under the crop, respectively.
Bamboo is also grown, albeit in small scale in Migori, Vihiga, Busia, Homa Bay, Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Kirinyaga, Kitui, Laikipia, Nyandarua, Embu and Tharaka Nithi counties.
During the 2009-2013 window, Kenya imported bamboo and rattan products worth $0.8 million and exported products valued at $0.27 million.
The major products imported were bamboo flooring tiles, plywood and furniture.
“If we improve bamboo output and its manufactured products, Kenya will improve on its balance of trade with other countries which are currently exporting bamboo products into Kenya.,” Dr Kagombe says.
Globally, about 1.5 billion people depend on bamboo, with an annual production and consumption of 20 million tonnes.
There are over 10,000 documented bamboo products cutting across subsistence use products, timber substitutes, fibre and textile, plastic composites, food and beverage, energy, health and cosmetic industry products.
In 2016, global bamboo total production and consumption were valued at $60 billion, with an international trade of about $2.5 billion per annum.
Buoyed by the big potential of bamboo farming, Kenya has developed a new policy aimed at harnessing the crop.
The goal of the “Bamboo Policy 2019” is to develop a vibrant bamboo industry benefiting the present and future generations through sustainable management, enabling commercialisation and value-addition, production of quality planting material and increasing acreage in government plantations, public spaces and private land.
Bamboo- growing on private farms has been sporadic and not optimally managed due to lack of sustained market for poles, lack of technical capacity of growers, as well as lack of comprehensive enabling framework to promote private involvement in its value chain.
The government will develop standards and certification mechanisms for products by bamboo-producing SMEs and industries.
Further, the policy explains that the national government will coordinate with Kenya Investment Commission (KIC) to include bamboo as a preferential sector so as to develop attractive investment package for industries and investors.
The policy wants to root for a legislation to have 30 procurement opportunities for wood- related items being in favour of bamboo.
It will also establish a fiscal and tax incentives mechanism to support more investments in bamboo value-chains and co-ordinate with banks and financial institution to give loans for investment in bamboo sector at subsidised rates of interest.
The Bamboo Development and Commercialisation Department that will coordinate the plant’s development at county level will be established under the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources.
The government will also create an inter-agency steering committee incorporating the line ministries of agriculture, energy, industry and trade, education, donors and private sector. The policy document has gone through the final stages of preparation and is awaiting launching.
Bamboo (poaceae bambusoideae) is classified as a grass and among the fastest growing “woody plants” in the world with a proven potential for soil erosion control, water recharge, climate change mitigation and adaptation.
The policy cites key impediments to the development of the bamboo sector such as inadequate supply of quality planting materials including the high price of bamboo seedlings, lack of co-ordinated development and allocation of resources, inadequate research emanating from low funding, low level of technology adoption, weak marketing systems and limited information and decision making tools at the national and county governments.
A resource assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Network on Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) in 2005 showed that countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have a combined bamboo coverage of 37 million hectares. This accounts for about one per cent of the global forest area.
Data from five countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania) indicate a combined bamboo coverage of 2.8 million hectares, representing 4.1 per cent of the forest area in the countries.
According to the policy, in 1986, former president, Daniel arap Moi, made a verbal proclamation “banning” harvesting of bamboo from natural forests.
This resulted in non-availability of its resources for value addition and processing, and contributed to under-development of the bamboo sector in Kenya.
The “ban” was intended to protect bamboo resources from exploitation.
But since the “Nyayo ban” bamboo in gazetted forests are unmanaged without harvesting and most of the standing culms are dead and deteriorating, making them susceptible to fires and infestation by pests and diseases.