By Shamim Saad
As Uganda fights to curb deforestation and the effects of climate change, bamboo has been identified as a strategic agro-ecological plant to redeem forest coverage and support sustainable use of trees for wood fuel construction and crafts in Uganda.
Already, the country’s forests watchdog, the National Forestry Authority (NFA), has mapped regions for growing at least 25 of the 150 exotic species, that are believed to do exceptionally well on the African continent.
The crop is believed to be one of the most sustainable ways of reversing the worrying climate change trends, while at the same time creating jobs and growing the economy.
Currently, according to NFA, cutting down trees for timber and fuel is among the largest drivers of forest loss, although bamboo has now been identified as having the potential to relieve forests of this pressure.
According to NFA, the switch to bamboo was suggested after a site-species matching study conducted by the watchdog, in collaboration with the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) and the National Forestry Resources Research Institute (NaFORRI) in 2022.
INBAR’s regional manager Selim Razar says the move will help restore the country’s forest cover, which has been reducing over the years, having fallen from 24% cover in 1990 to approximately 12.5% presently.
He says since the grass is easy to grow, stronger than wood and sprouts quickly after harvesting, it will most likely catch the attention of loggers if given due attention.
He says bamboo grows on marginal land and only takes about three years to mature, in addition to being good at absorbing carbon dioxide – one of the greenhouse gases warming the planet.
“The plant can be harvested over one’s lifetime if handled well and a good income generator, that can ably supplement the country’s efforts to reduce household poverty,” he says.
It should be noted that over the last 30 to 40 years, Uganda’s forest cover has faced increasing threats from the growing human population, demand for forest products for domestic and industrial use, expansion of agricultural land, illegal settlements and weak forest management capacity.
But in 2020, the country developed a national Bamboo Strategy and Action Plan, in which government aims to use bamboo in rehabilitating 375,000 hectares of degraded land by 2029 to protect the environment and provide income to rural communities.
According to the plan, emphasis has been put on areas with fragile ecosystems, such as mountain slopes, lakeshores, riverbanks and wetlands because bamboo is highly effective at controlling soil erosion.
Currently, bamboo covers more than 55,000 hectares of land nationwide and about 50,000 bamboo seedlings are distributed by Uganda’s NFA each year.
In the short run to 2024, government’s target is to plant 70,000ha of bamboo and restore 15,000ha of natural bamboo. Between 2025 and 2040, the strategy envisions an additional 230,000ha of planted and 60,000ha of regenerated natural bamboo.
Razar says it is important for communities to know, which of the approved species is good for planting in their area, for the sake of maximising yields.
“Such knowledge is vital in prioritising and promoting bamboo farming for environmental, social and economic transformation” Razar explains.
According to the INBAR study, the African bamboo sector contributes 7% of the global bamboo resource in the African region, with a total area coverage of over 2.8 million ha in six countries.
Site-species mapping approach
Through the Dutch-Sino-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme, covering Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, INBAR has since 2017 assisted initiatives geared towards making the bamboo economy more beneficial to the respective countries and their communities.
The national project coordinator of the Dutch Sino-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme, Michael Malinga, says their main objective is to empower communities to realise the untapped potential of bamboo as a source of income and livelihood to create green jobs and upgrade the value chain.
“It is in this light that five Agro-Ecological Zones (AEZs) in Uganda were mapped. They include the Lake Victoria crescent, southern Drylands, West Nile, southern Highlands and eastern Highlands. These are out of the nine AEZs, where bamboo grows in forests and on private land,” Malinga says.
While addressing participants drawn from all AEZs, the executive director, NFA, Tom Okello, noted that the watchdog has launched the technical paper on bamboo species site matching, which looks at the soils, topography, slopes, soil characteristics, pH and salinity suited for the different bamboo species.
Okello says Uganda’s population continues to grow and so does the demand for fuel-wood and wood products. Agriculture is also expanding into natural woodlands and forests.
“The resulting deforestation exacerbates climate change effects and its impacts. Further, forest plantations are failing to keep pace with the demand for wood and wood products. One promising option to arrest this challenge is to grow bamboo.
Bamboo is fast-growing and can be selectively harvested over a long period,” he alluded, adding: “Bamboo is not new to Uganda and although most of the bamboo resource is in protected areas, adjacent communities have already explored its use for food, construction, craft materials, fuelwood and other utilisations.”
According to the report, allowing the private sector, both smallholder farmers and industrial plantation companies, to play a major role is a great step towards realising the untapped potential of bamboo.
However, with the introduction of exotic bamboo species to diversify the genetic pool, guidance on which species to select for specific agro-climatic conditions and commercial utilisation is limited.
The report further states that knowledge and information on the growth performance of the different bamboo species introduced across the different agroecological zones (AEZs) in Uganda are insufficient.
This knowledge is vital in prioritising and promoting bamboo farming for environmental, social and economic transformation.
Species for environmental protection
According to the study based on the three growth parameters in three years, Bamboo vulgaris has been approved for growth in the Lake Victoria crescent, West Nile and southern Highlands.
The species should, therefore, be promoted in all the three AEZs for land restoration, river bank protection and commercial utilisation as fuel. On the other hand, O. abyssinica can grow well in both West Nile and the southern drylands, while D. asper does well in both the Lake Victoria crescent and West Nile. B. polymorpha performs significantly better in the Lake Victoria crescent than in the West Nile and should, therefore, be promoted in the Lake Victoria crescent.
The growth performance of two-year-old D. asper in both the Lake Victoria crescent and West Nile was compared to its known growth performance in literature and, therefore, should be promoted in both AEZs.
The chief executive officer of Green Cane Innovations, Kisoro Herbert Mugisha, says bamboo is the only tree that you have to cut for it to survive.
“Bamboo should get out of the clamp so that we create space for shooting. Bamboo above three years cannot shoot. It has to get out of the clamp for utilisation so this translates into sustainability and keeps regenerating. The future of the world is in bamboo so we should go into bamboo production,” he said.
Mugisha pointed out that with a huge reliance on indigenous skills, bamboo artisans in Kisoro and Kabale make baskets, trays and beehives.
Social, enterprise interests
The executive director of the National Forestry Authority, Tom Okello, says there is increased interest among farmers, and public and private entities to cultivate bamboo for environmental and socio-economic benefits.
He added that the development of the National Bamboo Strategy for Uganda is, therefore, a useful guide to building the bamboo economy. “Due to improved awareness, small-scale bamboo farming and commercial plantations have emerged in the country. We have one company which is now exporting bamboo fibre to Europe and recently sold their first container of bamboo fibre,” he highlighted.
He says there is a need to diversify forest products and move away from the traditional timber, to add value to the forest products.
“Most of the farmers are not ready to engage in bamboo value addition. They just want to supply to the bamboo industry,” he said.
However, Okello noted that some bamboo enterprises are getting established in the Lake Victoria crescent because of the anticipated demand.