Bamboo is billed as a wonder grass because of its many uses. Julius Sigei spoke to Kelvin Kaloki, the managing director at Africa Plantation Capital (APC), which partners with bamboo farmers on the crop’s management and markets.
Why all this craze about bamboo?
Bamboo is rightly regarded as a miracle plant. It is used in building, manufacturing, decoration, food and fuel. It used in place of steel within the construction industry, as well as for flooring, board mats, tiles and panels. It is also widely used in the textile industry.
Besides, bamboo makes excellent bikes, charcoal and fibre for different industrial uses. Moreover, bamboo shoots are a famous delicacy in parts of the world.
Environmentally, the grass is an excellent carbon sink and is also great in raising the water table, making it a valuable partner in combating climate change.
Bamboo also helps to prevent soil erosion. It quickly regenerates once fruitless soil. It also grows at an astonishing rate and it can be harvested without killing it.
This is the crop that the government needs to use to achieve the 10 per cent forest cover target.
What are the best conditions for growing bamboo?
It is vital to have qualified agronomists when it comes to the management of bamboo plantations. Knowing the lowest temperature possible in your region is an essential first step to choosing a bamboo species to grow.
Warm, temperate, tropical climates offer optimum conditions for most bamboo species though it is possible to grow bamboo in adverse conditions such as desert or mountain climates when the correct species is chosen.
When selecting the plantation site, check the quality of the soil. Bamboo is a very versatile plant and can grow in almost any soil type.
However, having the ideal soils will encourage healthier root systems, promote accelerated growth and grow more attractive plants.
Even though it can grow in almost any soil type, bamboo does best in soil that is aerated, light in structure and rich in organic nutrients.
Bamboo grows best with ample water but the roots must not become soggy and waterlogged. Planting should coincide with the start of the rainy season.
If available, organic fertiliser or manure should be placed into each hole and mixed with the topsoil. The plants should be planted vertically in an erect position and the hole should be properly covered and mulched. It is very important to control and arrest the growth of weeds around each bamboo thicket.
A healthy stand of bamboo is surprisingly resistant to pests and diseases. Even so, you may occasionally notice spots and discolourations that indicate problems.
It’s easier to prevent bamboo plant diseases than to cure them once they take hold. For the first two years, make sure that your plant is well watered and give it an all-purpose organic fertiliser.
During the first two years protect the young plants from competing with vegetation and pests. After the second year, maintenance activities are concentrated on cane management.
Harvesting should be done selectively according to the age and maturity of the canes. Systematic and selective cutting of mature culms assures the continuous production of young shoots. Our agronomists advise farmers on all these.
The bamboo market is not widely developed in Kenya. What are some of the openings for farmers?
Think of bamboo farming as a long-term investment; the same way you would buy a plot of land and leave it to gain market value before reselling it for a profit.
Bamboo plantlets normally take three to four years to mature. Each bamboo plantlet produces multiple shoots during its lifetime.
For example, a young plant may produce three shoots within two months’ time. Next season, those three shoots plus the mother plant may produce three shoots each and so on.
Fast-forward to four years and the single plant you grew will have produced sixty canes stretching up to 30 feet in height.
Opportunities for bamboo farmers are sprouting left, right and centre, with different players in the market offering different uses.
From industries like BIDCO, which are using bamboo biomass as a source for energy, to companies like us (Africa Plantation Capital Ltd) that have partnered with hundreds of farmers in sustainable plantations such as those in Kilifi County to offer alternative agroforestry products, the opportunities are unlimited.
For instance, beyond the traditional uses, we have invested in a tea production facility and we are soon obtaining the required licence to start producing tea made from bamboo leaves in Kenya for export.
All one needs in the bamboo business is dedication, a workable business plan, some resources and professional advice.