Wednesday May 28 2014

Bamboo is the answer to poverty in Luweero Triangle

By Andrew Ndawula Kalema

It took the people of Luweero Triangle five years to get rid of an unpopular government. But they have failed to kick poverty out of their lives. For 27 years, government has been trying too, with little success.
Chronic poverty is one of the reasons why people voted the way they did in the recent by elections for Woman Member of Parliament.

The district is the centre of the Luweero Triangle, where President Museveni waged the guerilla war that brought his government into power. Nakaseke, Kiboga, Mubende, Mityana, Wakiso, Mpigi and Mukono districts are part of this Triangle, which has since been expanded to include the Rwenzori region.

Most of the people are farmers, growing a variety of crops and keeping cattle. Since my farm is in Nakaseke District, I have been closely monitoring government’s efforts to “get us out of poverty”.

Getting the idea
There have been several government programmes to help farmers increase their production. Naads has also been giving technical and material support to farmers. But poverty persists.

Most of the farmers are so poor; they are forced to sell off their immature mangoes and coffee cheaply to brokers, in order to survive. Perhaps, we should try bamboo.

As a bamboo farmer, I know that bamboo can be the answer to poverty. I have seen bamboo transform the economic landscape of many regions in different parts of the world, which were in the same or worse situation.
Since Uganda imports many bamboo products from China, from tooth picks to furniture, we might as well “import” some ideas from the Chinese on how to set up a bamboo industry.

Anji and Linan counties, found in Zhejiang province can be described as epicentre of the bamboo industry, which employs millions of people and earns the country billions of dollars every year.

I have had the opportunity to visit this region. What I saw there can easily be replicated in Luwero Triangle. Most of the people in Anji and Linan are small-scale farmers, operating on one to two hectares (two and a half to five acres), where they grow bamboo and food crops, mainly vegetables.

Bamboo production accounts for more than 30 per cent of the farmers’ incomes in Anji. Every year, they harvest poles and shoots, which they sell to industries in the area to process into various products. The farmers are involved in the entire bamboo value chain, not just the primary production stage. Almost every home processes bamboo into different products.

During the day, they work in their farms, thinning, pruning and mulching just like you would look after bananas. In the evening, they turn to making a range of crafts and household items; some make it to our supermarket shelves.

Some work in the factories during the week and tend to their farms over the weekend.

In fact, most of the farmers’ income from bamboo comes from non-agricultural activities. Of the 50,000 households involved in the industry in Anji and Linen counties, for instance, 35,000–40,000 are in processing while 3,000–5,000 are involved in marketing. In addition, the sector employs more than 10,000 workers from outside the region
We need to transform Luweero Triangle into a “Bamboo Triangle” similar to Anji and Linen in China.

The starting point is to establish a resource base that can sustain an industry. We have to plant bamboo on a major scale. Currently, our main source of bamboo is the 3,000-hectare Echuya forest in western Uganda, which is shrinking very fast due to harassment from the surrounding communities.

Ethiopia has 1,000,000 hectares of bamboo and is planting more; they are already earning a lot of money from exporting processed products to Europe.

Different uses
Every home in Luweero Triangle should have at least a bamboo plant as entandikwa. It is a versatile plant that can thrive on marginal land such as rocky ground, steep slopes, sand and rock quarries, and on top of hills. It is advisable to grow bamboo on the marginal areas on your land, and use the prime areas to grow food crops. It also makes a very good boundary mark, which can protect the land from encroachers.

For the people in Rwenzori mountain ranges, bamboo can bind the soils and stop them from being eroded away by heavy rains and stem the mudslides that are common in the area.

There used to be bamboo on those mountain slopes, but it was cleared to create gardens, which explains the periodic flooding and mudslides in Kasese and Bundibugyo areas.

Also, while waiting for the resource base to get established (since it takes bamboo three to five years to mature), we can embark on the second stage, which is to build a skill base.

It is useless to have a resource when you lack the skill to exploit it. One of the reasons why farmers in Luweero Triangle are being paid little for their tomatoes, coffee, pineapples and other produce, is because they sell them in their raw form, without adding any value.

We should not make the same mistake with bamboo. There are thousands of products that can be made with bamboo, even at the farm level, using simple carpentry tools. Bamboo can be used to make different farm structures and tools, which can save and, in the long run, earn the farmer money.

Where to start from
Educational institutions should lead the campaign to impart the propagation and processing skills to the population in the area. Every school should have a bamboo stand to provide raw material for training. Students can use it to construct classrooms, make furniture and make a whole range of crafts that they can sell.

One pole can generate material to make up to 20 pairs of beautiful ear rings, which sell at Shs3,000 each. That is Shs60,000 from one pole.
As the resource base gets established, industries that process bamboo into high value products such as floor tiles will set up shop.

The people will then have the option of either growing bamboo to feed industries or to seek employment there. Meanwhile, farmers will have a constant source of feed for their livestock, which is a big problem in Luweero Triangle’s cattle corridor, as bamboo makes quality forage for ruminants.

For charcoal burners, bamboo makes high quality charcoal. It also makes very good fertilisers. Uganda Industrial Research Institute is about to start producing these bamboo fertilisers on a commercial scale.

Therefore, instead of waiting for government to get them out of poverty, the people of Luwero should consider transforming the region into a bamboo triangle. They can use bamboo to “cane” poverty and get it out of their lives.

The author is a farming journalist and a consultant.