Shamakhokho is located some 350km north-west of Nairobi.
Tens of traders normally flock its market centre every day to buy and sell.
Anything goes. Vegetables, cows, chickens, tomatoes, onions and cereals grown in plenty in the district.
Victor Shiribwa is one farmer who frequents Shamakhokho market in Vihiga County. However, unlike others, he does not go to sell food items, but tree seedlings and furniture.
On his four-acre farm about 2km from the market, Shiribwa mainly grows bamboo, selling its seedlings and turning it into furniture.
The 42-year-old has about 200,000 bamboo seedlings, 500 bamboo trees and makes different kinds of furniture in a workshop he runs on the farm.
The bamboo species he grows include Bambusa vulgaris, Bambusa tulda, Dendrocalamus giganteus, Dentrocalamus asper and Oxtenanthera abyssinica.
“I started bamboo farming in 2007 after I bought this piece of land, which has a steep slope. The person who sold me thought it was useless because of the slope that made farming difficult. I planted bamboo to curb soil erosion,” he recounts.
The former Head of Transport and Logistics at SDV Transami in Nairobi, says together with his wife Flora, he planted 50 bamboo seedlings on the land.
And as the seedlings thrived, Shiribwa soon saw the benefits of the grass. The soil erosion stopped and the slope was filled with foliage that turned his farm green.
In 2010, inspired by the faster growth of bamboo, he cut down several eucalyptus trees to create space for the grass that he had learnt had created a bigger industry in Asia.
And as the bamboo grew, Shiribwa began to propagate the seedlings as he sought to profit from the much-loved plant.
Later in 2012 when he saw the business was viable, he quit his job and returned to the village to venture fully into commercial bamboo farming. His wife, who was working as a customer relations officer at a security company in Nairobi, too quit her job too as the couple joined hands to build the agribusiness.
By August 2013, they had propagated about 3,000 bamboo seedlings.
“Luckily, there was a World Bank-led environmental programme that involved planting trees in Serem, Hamisi, Cheptul and Shamakhokho. We reached to the officials and sought market for our seedlings and sold all of them at Sh320 each,” narrates Flora.
The couple propagated a further 16,000 bamboo seedlings that they sold to community-based organisation in the region as their business grew.
“We realised there was a lot of funding coming from different organisations for environmental concerns. We have so far sold the bamboo seedlings to at least 47 community based groups in Vihiga and neighbouring counties,” says the father of four.
From a single plant, a farmer can harvest bamboo for about 100 years.
“From each seedling, 50 to 100 culms or shoots sprout and grow at different stages. Out of every cluster, you harvest 10 mature stems per season. We have two harvesting seasons. A stem of bamboo costs Sh300. In a year, each cluster of bamboo can give you Sh6,000,” says Shiribwa, adding an acre of bamboo holds an average of 215 plants.
To diversify their income, the couple contacted Kenya Forest Research Institute (Kefri), which offered them an artisan who trained them on bamboo furniture production.
“The artisan came to our farm in 2013 and taught us bamboo furniture production for six months,” says Shiribwa, who has employed five people and further offers apprenticeship to nine.
Most of bamboo products are handmade with the couple using glue, specialised knives and shaves, among other tools to make them. “For the finishing, we use vanish, various type of sandpaper and sanding machine,” says Flora.
“We do not use nails in making bamboo furniture, thus, the joinery is a bit more complex because the furniture has to be strong.”
They have further invested in Sh60,000 electric sanding machine and hand drills.
In their workshop, they make chairs, couches, tables, pen and bill holders, kitchen tongs, spoons, jugs, chopping boards, tooth picks, serviette holders, baskets, TV stands and coat holders, among others, with prices starting from Sh75 to Sh45,000.
“A single bamboo pole can make 10 miniature dhows, which costs Sh1,000. When you do bamboo value addition, you make much money. It is the reason we are into it because a post only goes for Sh300,” says Flora, adding a farmer can cut a single post into 60 cups and sale each at Sh150.
The farmer makes about six sofa sets in a month, with each set going for between Sh30,000 to Sh45,000. The price depends on the design, size and number of stems used.
In a month, they make over Sh200,000 from different bamboo products, in addition to what they earn from about 1,000 seedlings they sell in a month.
Most of their customers come through referrals and they also run a social media page to market their products.
In recognition of his efforts, Shiribwa was sponsored in 2013 by the Vihiga County Government to travel to China and learn the opportunities in the bamboo industries and maximise them back home.
“I travelled to China to the Yunan Bamboo Nursery, where I learned many aspects of bamboo farming and value addition. I also bought 10kg of bamboo seeds for propagation,” says Shiribwa, adding farmers in the sector need to form a co-operative society.
James Maua, a research officer at Kefri in Kakamega says bamboo has over 1,000 uses, including as sources of food for animals and humans, as well as for environmental conservation.
“The bamboo from Asia was tested by Kefri in early 1990s and can grow in the highlands well. The ones indigenous to Kenya have a narrow ecological range and are only found on high grounds,” says Maua.
“We are working with various institutes to boost bamboo species that are certified and can grow faster. Bamboo is a lucrative business that one can engage in because you can make over 1,000 products that you sale locally or export,” says Maua.
Although bamboo furniture is light in weight, it is five times more durable than wood, according to Maua.