NAJJERA – It is a “wonder plant” that is uniquely blessed. Agronomists in Uganda believe it can restore degraded landscapes while economists think it is a potential “green gold,” and a silver bullet for design and architecture that is already attracting a huge market.
Bamboo is documented as the strongest and fastest-growing woody plant on earth and supplies a global trade worth an estimated US$2 billion over UGX7.69 trillion per year.
The lion’s share is earned by Asian countries, whose bamboo-based industries span a vast range from papermaking and scaffolding to luxury flooring and foods. But Ugandan conservationists are closely witnessing a boom in bamboo.
Like in many African countries, affordable clean cooking fuels in Uganda are hard to access, but Bamboo is gaining popularity among agricultural entrepreneurs who are promoting it as a source of clean and cooking energy and an alternative to traditional timber.
The latest data show over 98% of Ugandans still fully depend on charcoal and firewood for their daily cooking needs. Energy poverty is extremely high with only 15% of the Ugandan population currently having access to electricity.
The most vulnerable groups affected are women and girls as long-term smoke inhalation leads to respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.
Divine Nabaweesi, the founder and CEO of Divine Bamboo Group Ltd, a Ugandan social enterprise whose mission is to stop deforestation through the production of clean cooking fuel in the form of bamboo briquettes says bamboo can help preserve Uganda’s fast-dwindling forests and limping biodiversity.
Nabaweesi, who operates one of Uganda’s largest bamboo seedling nurseries with an annual production of over 200,000 seedlings, says bamboo provides a clean cooking fuel in the form of high-quality charcoal briquettes produced from local bamboo, grown specifically for energy purposes on sustainable plantations in Uganda.
Her company, incorporated five years ago, is involved in the entire value chain of bamboo development right from the production of high-quality bamboo seedlings in the four-star certified nursery in Uganda to the establishment of bamboo plantations, training of farmers as out-growers, manufacturing, and distribution of bamboo briquettes.
To achieve scale, Divine Bamboo, trains rural women groups to plant and provide them with seedlings as well as access to the market so that they can produce bamboo briquettes providing additional income while saving the environment.
Divine Bamboo who uses bamboo raw materials to support the commercial production of bamboo charcoal briquettes as an alternative source of fuel has so far trained about 300 women in planting and briquette production.
Each kilogram of briquettes sells for UGX 1000 which is 30% cheaper than traditional charcoal and burns, slower, and cleaner with no smoke.
Divine who has entered into a partnership with Ugandan top universities including Makerere University and Ndejje University to further study and help her improve the product, says the reception from users has been good.
Bamboo has been recognized as an important asset in poverty eradication and environmental protection (INBAR, 2005). “Its strength, straightness, lightness, extraordinary hardness, range in size, abundance, ease of propagation, and the short growth period, makes it suitable for a variety of purposes and uses,” says Nabaweesi.
As a result of intensified interest, she adds, Bamboo has emerged as potentially the most important non-timber forest resource to replace wood.
“In addition, it is uniquely suited to agroforestry with many uses like intercropping, water filter; rehabilitation of wetlands, supply of construction materials and fodder”.
“Bamboo is a very fast-growing plant that can be harvested at three years only but also regenerates massively,” she says, adding that:
“It is highly versatile to the point it can grow in almost any kind of climate and thrive in the poorest of soils”.
Divine Bamboo, is now one of the largest producers of bamboo seedlings in Uganda with about 18 bamboo species in the nursery and has a 32-hectares plantation Luweero District employee 17 full-time employees and over 50 seasonal workers.
She has also supported the establishment of over 300 hectares of bamboo plantations with private foresters and farmers.
Divine whose inspiration derives from her love for nature and the desire to make a contribution to the fight against climate change, says her company that was incorporated in 2016.
She revealed that the National Forest Authority allocated 5 hectares of land to the company in Kalangalo forest reserve where a bamboo plantation has been established.
Challenges to the development of commercial bamboo planting include the slow pace of state uptake and support as the sector is still young and financial institutions are reluctant to grant credit facilities, including loans.
The micro-enterprises are still considered poorly organized, according to Ms. Nabaweesi, which makes receiving support from stakeholders difficult. The skills and technology gap is a challenge.
“It hasn’t been easy especially value addition on bamboo is still new and she still faces challenges related to sensitizing the public. It has been challenging but as the years go on, it is picking up. It has been a lot of research and development but we are getting there,” she notes, anticipating that bamboo will become popular across the country because of its economic incentives.
Locally bamboo is sought for handicrafts, residential fencing, flower farming, farm props for banana plantations, furniture, and other minor cottage industry products like basketry and toothpicks.
DFCD funding opportunity
The Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD) through World Wide Fund for Nature Uganda Country Office has funded Nabaweesi initiative with up to 25,000 euros about UGX.100million.
Nabaweesi says DFCD funding helped to establish the potential for restoration with Bamboo, Market, and financial projections of bamboo.
The funding further enabled Nabaweesi to study the supply chain, engage stakeholders, and the development of the much sought-after Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for the next funding stage.
With DFCD support, Devine Bamboo will be able to optimize the integration of bamboo in the very fragile Greater Virunga Landscape’s farm forestry ecosystem.
Her project will also help to maximize innovation in downstream sectors such as bamboo processing for domestic energy, expanding products matrix, and marketing of products.
In addition to integration on farms, Divine Bamboo and WWF Uganda will target planting 30m wide riparian buffers on either side of all riverbanks in the Greater Virunga landscape where bamboo will also help to improve water quality and quantity.
Project activities have commenced and a key highlight was stakeholder engagement where there was a very positive buy-in from different farmers and local leaders in Kisoro, Semuliki, and Kasese.
They believe that bamboo is a much-needed intervention to support riverbank restoration, provide income, and solve energy challenges in the area.
Nabaweesi urges other Ugandans with huge chunks of land to get in touch with her team to establish bamboo plantations.
WWF Forest markets Transformation Manager Harold Turinawe who also heads the Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD) in Uganda says WWF was implementing projects in the Greater Virunga Landscape aimed at achieving the long term objective of ensuring that Uganda is following a low carbon development pathway and has resilient forest landscapes, wildlife populations and freshwater ecosystems that support biodiversity and socio-economic transformation of communities.
Through WWF, he says DFCD seeks to establish a coalition of partners engaged in landscape and water development to set up a market-led bottom-up, people-centered holistic approach to conservation and development at the landscape level.
“We need to work with companies, financial institutions, and local stakeholders to develop Bankable Nature Solutions (BNS). This way, we can deliver impacts that reduce pressure on ecosystems, drive resilience and sustainability for both people and nature, while generating positive financial returns for communities and investors.
On protecting the environment, Innocent Ogwenrot, a nursery assistant at Divine Bamboo swears the bamboo plant is “magic” in mitigating the effects of climate change through rapid reforestation, slowing soil erosion, and repairing damaged ecosystems.
Ogwenrot says Bamboo also serves as an excellent large-scale carbon sink, each plant taking in almost double the carbon dioxide of a tree.