Bamboo growing: Earn top dollar, save the environment

 Dr Moreen Uwimbabazi stands in the bamboo forest at NaFORRI-Kifu in Mukono District. Photos/George Katongole

What you need to know:

  • Meeting fuel demands has pushed scientists to explore the possibility of using bamboo as a substitute. Researchers at the National Forestry Resources Research Institute (NaFORRI) at Kifu in Mukono District have resorted to bamboo as a source of fuel.
  • Dr Moreen Uwimbabazi, is the project lead for the Forest Product and Services Programmes with three scientists and five technicians, who are looking into sustainable wood fuel extraction using fuel wood by tapping into the potential of bamboo.

The programme, which is funded by the government and at one time in 2014 by the World Bank, looks at an alternative source of conserving forests. The possibilities are limitless with the bamboo, which is looked at in the country as ornamental.
Bamboo is a fast-growing fibrous plant that is grown by some people for ornamental reasons. Yet scientists believe that its attributes can get the pressure off the forests.

According to Dr Moreen Uwimbabazi, the project lead for the Forest Product and Services Programmes at the National Forestry Resources Research Institute in Mukono, they have successfully carried out trials to prove that bamboo can produce charcoal.
In comparison to woody species, bamboo is inferior, but Dr Uwimbabazi is confident of its attributes.
“We are promoting it because within three years one has a harvestable pole that can be used for various activities,” she says.

In Uganda, most of the fuel wood is extracted from the indigenous hardwoods, which she says take a long time to mature yet their seedlings can hardly be found.
Bamboo is a versatile crop that can easily adapt to any ecological system of the country. In Uganda, there are 13 naturalised species growing in the forests compared to the world’s 1,200 species.
There are five commercially valuable bamboo species planted by NaFORRI in Kifu Forest on five hectares. The forest reserve, which initially had 452-hectare is faced with encroachment and tree stumps all over the place show that a natural forest once existed.

The planted bamboo species at the reserve include; Dendrocalamus giganteus (Giant bamboo), Dendrocalamus strictus (Solid Bamboo), Dendrocalamus asper (another giant bamboo), Bambusa vulgaris (common bamboo) and Phyllostachys aurea (evergreen bamboo), which is an ornamental variety.
The potential of bamboo in Uganda is largely under tapped. Although bamboo is generally unpopular, it is used as food locally known as malewa, in Bugisu. The local people harvest shoots which they dry for preservation and use as sauce.
In Echuya Bamboo Forest in Kisoro District, local artisans get simple art crafts. Other people use it for construction while others in farming use it as beanstalks. 
“Because of its versatility and ability to grow fast as well as potential for industrialisation, the forestry experts decided to promote it,” Dr Uwimbabazi says.
She explains that the number one push factor is to help in forest restoration. From 2001 to 2020, Uganda lost 918kha of tree cover, equivalent to a 12 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000.

“As a country, deforestation rates are the highest in East Africa and the fact that our population is growing so fast, this puts a lot of pressure on forests to provide fuel sources,” she says.
Making progress
Fuel wood extraction in Uganda is the second driver of deforestation after agriculture.
National Forestry Resources Research Institute (NaFORRI) and National Forestry Authority (NFA) is promoting the fast-growing species. Initial efforts looked at eucalyptus and pine trees which can be harvested between five to nine years.

Dr Uwimbabazi says that using bamboo as a wood substitute is important because the demand for wood products is increasing yet reforestation is not in tandem with the population growth.

Samples of charcoal produced by Naro scientists. PHOTO/RACHEL MABALA

“Bamboo is mechanically comparable to wood if well moulded. It does not have the calorific attributes of woody species such as acacia, but it is higher than other soft woods. It has multiple benefits. One can get furniture, paper, kitchenware and construction materials such as tiles and roofing materials. At least there is scientific evidence to prove that it can produce fuel. We still have enough wood in the country but for the future, bamboo is an ideal substitute,” she says.

For fuel quality in regards to charcoal production, scientists at NaFORRI have so far tested solid bamboo and common bamboo. The results show that the fuel value of these bamboos is in the range of the fuel value of woody charcoal.
Private companies are producing bamboo briquettes. Currently, the charcoal is delicate and breakable and cannot be carried normally on trucks.
“If it is transported such as normal charcoal, someone may end up with char. We want to promote industrial research and encourage people producing their own charcoal,” she says.
Research on bamboo started in 2014 when NaFORRI started looking at options of providing planting materials.

“We wanted to close the gap for the unpopularity of bamboo. We wanted people to find propagation materials and set up demonstration sites across the country,” Dr Uwimbabazi says.
Afterwards, the scientists extended into bamboo product diversification and the first idea was to look at the possibility of providing fuel wood, furniture, paper making, vinegar extraction and construction materials among others.
Dr Uwimbabazi explains that bamboo can be used for direct combustion, charcoal and briquettes.
She noted that commercial agroforestry requires a lot of land which many people do not have yet bamboo can be planted even on the hedges.

Bamboo seedlings are available from Namanve Seed Centre, Naro research institutions and some local nursery bed operators.
Dr Uwimbabazi explains that bamboo flowers are irregular which makes obtaining seeds difficult.
Bamboo specialists sell established plants after hardening them off.
You should then start by digging a good sized hole, maybe twice the size of the rootball and covered with top soil.
Dr Uwimbabazi says that bamboo does not need any special care apart from weeding inside the first year. When it forms a canopy, it will suppress the weeds.

Bamboo has biodiversity attributes because of a heavier biomass which attracts monkeys, birds, insects and snakes. This therefore requires scattered spacing five metres apart for most varieties. It also requires regular thinning.
“Thinning also helps in harvesting because plants clamp so closely,” she says, explaining that those who grow it near their homes must routinely thin some that are bending.
“There are trade-offs. Bamboo will attract birds, snakes and primates, which can be pests. But for commercial farmers, it is advisable to keep them away from homes,” she adds.
After three years, bamboo is ready for harvesting. The farmers should harvest straight handsome poles that can be used for building or decor purposes. The canes should be cut at least two inches above the ground taking special care of the shoots.

But harvesting bamboo is a hard task to which Dr Uwimbabazi advises the use of power saws.
Bamboo could be a hard to sell fuel product for now as most people use it for ornamental purposes. But Dr Uwimbabazi says that they need to avail seedlings to as many people as possible.
“When people plant it, we can confidently talk about the products it can produce. People should not look at bamboo for simple products but its potential for industrialisation,” she says.

Reaping the benefits
Commercially, the possibilities are immense. Dr Uwimbabazi says that since there are numerous options at the moment, many farmers are not giving bamboo its due attention.
“We cannot wait to get to the low percentages of deforestation to plant bamboo. As a country, we need to invest in alternative fuel sources. We are hoping that if we have the right machinery in the country to convert bamboo into furniture or construction materials and conversion into bamboo charcoal, it will be commercially viable,” she says.
In one hectare of bamboo plantation, 4,000 plants can be grown. If a plant is struggling to grow, it will have about six stems that would amount to 24,000 poles. Currently a giant bamboo seedling costs about Shs10,000.

 “You don’t need to treat bamboo poles. You harvest them in their raw form and earn money. At the end of the day, someone with a giant bamboo plantation will earn five-fold more than one with a pine plantation by just selling raw materials,” she says.
Dr Uwimbabazi, a forest conservation advocate, is a forest ecologist, a primate nutritional ecologist and passionate birder. She says the plant is a good choice for women and youth which can contribute to household income.
“It is a good plant to contribute to the household incomes of smallholder farmers,” she says.