Can bamboo help Africa shift to a green economy?

By Dr. Hans Friederich, Director General, International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).

Amazon - Brazil, 2011. ©Neil Palmer/CIAT

Often overlooked by development planners, bamboo offers Africa a strategic resource to generate rural income. It also restores degraded landscapes and combats the effects of climate change – helping countries to meet their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and shift to a greener economy.

Many African countries have witnessed solid economic growth over the past decade, raising millions out of poverty and helping nations to make significant strides in the provision of education and health. Much of this growth, however, came with an environmental cost – not least the reduction of the continent’s forests, which according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),decreased by 10% between 1990 and 2010.

If this level of exploitation continues we risk jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions who rely on forests for income. With the continent’s population expected to reach 2.4 billion by 2050 – one quarter of the world’s population – there is a pressing need for a shift towards a green economy based on new kinds of goods, services, and energy.

However, as African planners search for more sustainable economic strategies, there is one resource that many have overlooked – bamboo. Africa has huge reserves of largely untapped indigenous bamboo, and excellent conditions for growing cultivated species. With careful management, both natural and cultivated bamboo can prove to be valuable resources.

Global bamboo trade is worth an estimated 60 Billion USD every year, providing African producers with access to lucrative export markets. It is also a unique development tool. Bamboo provides a practical and rapid solution for a number of natural resource and poverty challenges: the plant has proven its effectiveness for restoring damaged land and ecosystems, for combating climate change through carbon sequestration and avoiding deforestation, and boosting rural livelihoods.

Ahead of the upcoming summit on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be held at the UN General Assembly meeting later this month, bamboo has the potential to help countries in Africa, and elsewhere, to meet their SDGs and transition to the post-2015 development agenda.

To realize this potential, practical policies are needed at local, national, and global level, helping to scale-up bamboo for economic and environmental development, and encourage private sector action and investment for business growth and job creation.

To make the case for bamboo as a strategic resource for Africa’s development, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) have published a new report – ‘Bamboo for Africa: A strategic resource to drive the continent’s Green Economy – to provide countries with strategies, practices and policies that can inform bamboo development plans.

These include meeting product and material quality standards for the import of bamboo products into European and North American markets; policies that address the management and development of bamboo forest resources, and issues such as land rights and leasing; and defining how bamboo forest maintenance is different from current forestry and agro-forestry practices and legislation. More also needs to be done to raise the profile of bamboo on the international stage.

The report builds on the experiences of African bamboo ‘pioneers,’ such as Ethiopia, which has around one million hectares of indigenous bamboo. Benefiting from Chinese expertise, the east African country is including bamboo in its development and land restoration plans. The President, Mulatu Teshome, is taking the lead and has said that his government believes bamboo can contribute to environment-friendly accelerated development and play a significant role in poverty alleviation, biodiversity, and job creation.

Private sector involvement is also spurring sustainable economic growth. Enterprises, such as Bamboo Star Agro-Forestry Company, supply pulp and paper to clients in countries as far afield as Saudi Arabia and China, employing over 1000 people in a remote corner of western Ethiopia.

Although bamboo is not proposed as a ‘silver bullet’ solution to solve the problems of environmental degradation in Africa, it is an excellent complement to the mix of environmental and ecosystems services being promoted for green economy development.

Tapping its many benefits offers a strategic solution to degradation and a proven means of helping Africa shift to a more sustainable economic model that will protect the continent’s environment while continuing to serve its growing population.

This Opinion article is based on the report – Bamboo for Africa: A strategic resource to drive the continent’s Green Economy, published by the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).