Bamboo is one of the world’s fastest growing and most versatile plants. It offers excellent prospects for processing into materials for construction, furniture, musical instruments, biofuels - and even odour-free socks!

In a rural area of Tanzania’s south-western Mbeya region, young women are being steered towards a brighter future thanks to a plentiful but often overlooked resource - bamboo. Convinced of this versatile plant’s potential to earn steady revenues, Pauline Samata launched the Mbeya Bamboo Women’s Group, aimed at keeping women from falling prey to prostitution and HIV/AIDS. “So far I’ve trained 60 women on how to work with bamboo”, says Samata. “I want to teach them a trade so that they can have a better life.” Samata has set up a workshop that makes a variety of products, including baskets, chairs, tables and even scarves. The association has created a catalogue and the women have managed to secure a fixed revenue by selling their products to Shoprite in Dar es Salaam.

Grown extensively in Africa, but also in the Caribbean and Pacific regions, bamboo offers excellent possibilities for income generation, with potential for processing into a huge range of products. As a renewable resource, the plant has few peers. Well-managed plantations can be selectively harvested annually without the destruction of the grove or stand. Bamboo is a grass which belongs to that same Poaceae family as staple cereal crops. Its woody stems, called culms, can reach a height of up to 36 m and diameters of as much as 30 cm. Some species can grow up to 1 m/day. Bamboo will thrive just about anywhere. Limiting factors include the need for adequate supplies of water, though certain bamboo varieties such as Dendrocalamus strictus, Bambusa vulgaris and B. ventricosa will tolerate extremes of drought. Once established, the plant generally requires little or no attention beyond occasional thinning to keep the clumps in vigorous condition.

Strong and light

With a tensile strength even greater than that of steel, coupled with an extremely light weight, bamboo is well-suited to a vast range of purposes. New technologies have developed bamboo as a strong and attractive construction material for entire buildings. Bamboo houses in Rarotonga, South Pacific stood up to hurricanes with winds up to 275 kph. Bamboo flooring can be made of pieces that have been steamed, flattened, glued together, finished, and cut. In the Caribbean, especially Suriname and Guyana, it is widely used for furniture production. More recently, bamboo has gained popularity as a product for making textiles. Bamboo fibre makes clothes with excellent wicking qualities, UV protection and odour absorption, making it ideal for the booming fitness sector. Tests show the fibre kills 98% of bacteria, so the fibre is especially suitable for socks.

A growing awareness of its potential as a source of cash income for the rural poor is fueling a drive to increase bamboo production in some ACP countries. The labour-intensive nature of processing bamboo means it has good prospects for creating jobs. Many of the initiatives are based on exchanges with Asian countries where bamboo has been used for centuries for building, agricultural and fishing tools, food, fodder and fuelwood. A training course held in Indonesia helped 14 unemployed young men from Taievu, Fiji, to learn how to make trays, sofas, beds, chairs, tables and lampshades. The furniture products are now being sold at local and tourist markets. Stephen Lartey Tekpetey, from Ghana, spent 2 months with the International Centre for Bamboo and Rattan in China, with a view to addressing the problem of under-utilisation of bamboo resources in his and other African countries. The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan has developed a bamboo-based development project for the province of Benishangul-Gumuz, Ethiopia. Benishangul-Gumuz is well-endowed with 440,000 ha of Oxytenanthera abyssinica bamboo (locally called shimal). It is currently used for housing, fencing, kitchen utensils, agricultural implements and edible shoots, but training and investment support is extending the range to include furniture, roofing sheets and other industrial products for the domestic and export markets.

Sustainable charcoal

But bamboo’s potential does not end there. Its fast-growing properties, woody nature and good carbon sequestration rates make it an ideal sustainable biomass fuel. Since April 2009 it has been used as an alternative for firewood and charcoal production in Ethiopia and Ghana. A similar initiative has already helped women produce charcoal from bamboo in Mozambique. In Madagascar, a joint Malagasy-US venture has begun farming it on an industrial scale for conversion into fuel.

The prize for the most original use, however, must surely go to the designer of the bamboo bike. US cycle-maker Craig Calfee, and a group of scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York have designed a frame that is light yet strong, and ideal for carrying goods. As a bonus it has excellent vibration-dampening properties, making it comfortable for riding on poor roads. Production has begun in Ghana, with material drawn from bamboo forests in the surrounding Ashanti region. In Zambia, meanwhile, two Californians and two Zambians have set up a company called Zambikes aimed at creating job openings for local people. The venture has so far produced a sturdy cargo bamboo bike, perfect for transporting agricultural goods, a bike trailer and a bike-drawn ‘zambulance’, now in use at 10 clinics around Lusaka.

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