Fields of bamboo can often be breath taking in appearance. Reality, however, is difficult and people living in bamboo rich countries like Ethiopia are fighting for their daily food. With the help of this tough plant, though, farmers in the Sidama region are hoping that their living conditions can improve.
The only sound you hear is the sighing of the wind in the bamboo. The swaying, tropical tree-like plants produce a magical environment with myriad beams of light. The air is clear and the hollow stems vary slightly in colour, from musty yellow to dark green. Abdunaser Bedri, stands in front of the camera and explains the benefits of bamboo.
– The plant is strong and durable. Here you can see some that are over four years old. It is most advantageous to harvest the bamboo at this stage; from now up until seven years it is at its best, he says, and points out the variations in the colour and thickness of the stems.
We are in Ethiopia, in the Sidama region, just outside the village of Arbegona. Bamboo plants dominate the rolling countryside, next to "false banana" and eucalyptus.
– Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and historically it has mostly been used for crafts and furniture. Now it can be more broadly used which should increase local income, says Abdunaser.
Bamboo can grow between three to five centimetres per hour in the first four months of its life. When it is harvested, the stems are cut without taking up the roots. This makes the plant grow up quickly again, and it actually improves the soil since it has high water holding capacity and don’t require much irrigation. The bamboo fields stay green since the younger culms are left when the mature ones are being harvested. For these reasons it is sustainable in the long term to cultivate bamboo for industrial use.
Abdunaser is responsible for the value chain in a project led by the Ethiopian family company African Bamboo. Our guide leads the work of engaging farmers to grow bamboo and sell it to the company. With the help of African Bamboo, the farmers have organised a total of 32 cooperatives and will contribute to the business with through various aspects of sustainable development, gender and environment. Through the company's plant nursery, they are given training as well as plants of the variety Yushania Alpina.
– Around two thousand farmers are now involved and can start growing, selling and delivering the raw product, says Abdunaser.
The company has already built up a network of customers that are ready to buy mainly bamboo floorboards. At the head office in Addis Ababa, the director of African Bamboo, Khalid Duri, explains that it is time to start exporting on a large scale.
– Through earlier savings, loans and some aid funds to support the value chain, we have made a lot of progress with our business plan. Later in the autumn we will start a factory in Awasa, closer to the cooperatives, he says.
The company previously invested in traditional wood refinement, but after studying industrial bamboo production in China for six months, Khalid started to form a new vision together with some other family members; to become the first, and leading, bamboo-based floor producer in Africa. After years of tests and checks, the company was renamed African Bamboo and started to produce samples of durable wooden floorboards, made by crushing the bamboo info fibres in an environmentally-friendly and innovative way.
– Despite the fact that our country is rich in bamboo, there is no export of industrially-processed bamboo from Africa. We are the first company on the continent that is now able to show a good example of how bamboo can be cultivated and contribute to economic development. But we must do it in a way that is sustainable in the long-term, says Khalid.
He explains that they received support from engineers in Germany, who encouraged their ambitions alongside Ethiopian experts. Aid from the challenge fund Powering Agriculture has been important in the initial value chain. The work also includes women's interests. So where are all the women? Khalid Duri’s sister, Rania Duri, is the deputy general manager for Corporate Services and in the field among the bamboo, we find Arfaso Iwiru. She is a member of one of the cooperatives and very actively working for the environment in Sidama.
– Things have changed since I was a child. Women take part in caring for the bamboo, they work more in the fields and they also put forward their own views more. In many families I also see that the men are starting to take care of the households and children. But it takes time to achieve equality, she says.
Abdunaser Bedri nods in agreement. For him, the farmers are very important in the road to a successful business. If the company cares about them, they will stay involved. Perhaps the bamboo itself brings the various actors together. That is the feeling we get when Arfaso Iwiru wants to be photographed. Slowly, she takes a few steps away from the men during a discussion and allows herself to be photographed among the bamboo leaves.
– Bamboo is life; bamboo has always been in my life. Bamboo is the future, she says.