Inside their little workshop in Dagoretti, near the Nairobi showground, Felix Akoko and Bosco Muthiani scrub, saw, join, and polish pieces of bamboo every day to earn a living.
The sizable room with white-washed stone walls and a corrugated iron sheet roof is filled with bamboo furniture, the product of the duo’s artistry.
“Welcome to Kenya Bamboo Centre,” invites Akoko with a smile as his colleague who is busy designing an armchair waves.
“We make furniture that include tables, beds, vases and wine-holders.”
Akoko says they started the venture in 2011 with Sh200,000 from their saving and soft loans from friends after two years of apprentice at a friend’s workshop in Industrial Area.
“The money was not even enough because some of the carpentry machines needed are costly, but we have received support from organisations like Waterstone Resource Fibre who deal in bamboo,” explains the 26-year-old, adding that their bamboo products are durable and classy just as others made from timber.
Unlike trees, the giant grass can be harvested as a perennial crop three to five years, according to International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (Inbar).
They sell an armchair at Sh4,500 each, with prices of other items varying from Sh8,000 to Sh48,000 for a king size bed, products they mainly make on order.
IN A GOOD MONTH
In a good month, they make over Sh50,000. Besides its use in carpentry, bamboo also can be used to protect water catchment areas, controlling soil erosion, and serve as a domestic fuel source.
The grass is flexible and resilient, thrives in poor soils, requires no inputs and is less prone to disease or pest attacks.
“We get our culms from Sirare, on the border of Kenya and Tanzania and transport them to Nairobi at Sh20,000 a truck three times a year,” says Akoko, who is the production manager.
They buy a bamboo pole at Sh150 but they do not just pick any. “We check the moisture before buying just to make sure the content is below 10 per cent,” he notes, adding that sodden poles result to poor quality products with short shelf-life.
To make furniture, explains Muthiani, who is in-charge of technical production, a bamboo pole is cut into desired pieces, then a knife is used to scrub its surface to remove the rough coats.
The pieces are smoothened using sand paper and later, the furniture is polished or left natural depending on a client’s taste. Akoko, who hails from Kibera slums, says his first encounter with bamboo was in 2008, a year after completing secondary school.
“I met Muthiani at a workshop in Industrial Area where a friend took me. Our carpentry skills caught the attention of Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) officials who had toured the facility. They picked us for a two-week training on designing bamboo furniture at their centre in Nairobi. We later partnered and started this workshop,” says Akoko, who has also been trained in China. The two also grow bamboo seedlings in Kibera, which they sell each for Sh500.
Most of the bamboo resources in Kenya comprise of the Yushania Alpine species.
Kefri director, Dr Ben Chikamae, notes that the government takes bamboo seriously and has already prepared a strategic plant on the use of the grass.