Smart countries face their challenges with innovation – they answer the call for help with a plan to transition and to make the most of their natural resources. In Kenya, they are combating a housing shortage and the plight of the tobacco farmer with one innovative program called Tobacco to Bamboo. Using the fast-growing and highly sustainable bamboo plant, the Kenyan government aims to provide housing and a livelihood for its people.
The Tobacco to Bamboo project launched in 2006. The brainchild of Maseno University’s School of Environment and Earth Studies, the project began as a research study on encouraging the cultivation and utilization of bamboo as an alternate livelihood to tobacco farming in South Nyanza and Western Kenya. Later, the school set up nurseries in Migori, Kuria, Homa Bay and Suba districts. The ultimate goal is to use the bamboo to make bamboo products and construct bamboo houses for the poverty-stricken country.
During the project, researchers conducted a market analysis for bamboo and bamboo products, compared the livelihoods of tobacco and bamboo farmers, and produced a series of community action plans for livelihood diversification. The results of the studies indicated that tobacco farming did little to improve farmers’ living standards, that bamboo did well under the same conditions as tobacco, and that there is a huge potential market for bamboo products.
Not only would the project benefit the nearly 22 million farmers who live on as little as $2US a day, but it would provide a greater good for the Kenyan public. While that cannot necessarily said of tobacco, the bamboo grown will provide housing for these same farmers who often live in sub-standard structures made of mud.
“Poor construction means they [houses] serve as breeding grounds for diseases including malaria, amoebic dysentery and respiratory conditions, which commonly claim the lives of many of their inhabitants,” explains Jacob Kibwange, project director of the initiative at Maseno University.
Poor housing is not just a rural concern. In the cities, the housing demand has reached 150,000 units per year against an annual production of about 50,000 units. According to the UN Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, the shortfall in the cities has led to overcrowding, slums and sub-standard housing.
“If we improved bamboo housing, we could change the lives of many people,” Kibwange said. “With about 15,000ha of mature bamboo ready to be used, particularly in the Aberdares, Mau ranges, Mt Kenya and Mt Elgon, [we have] viable and inexpensive housing material in Kenya.”
Maseno University has already launched housing projects in the town of Kisumu and has trained 240 small-scale farmers on bamboo growing in 120 field experimentation sites. The goal is to train 20,000 farmers in the next 15 years.
“Bamboo is a remarkably fast-growing plant that thrives in a range of different climates,” Kibwange said. “It can be planted easily in homesteads and harvested at the time of need without any additional expenditure.”
More advantages of building with bamboo include:
- Its ability to survive earthquakes intact. When a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Costa Rica in 1992, all 30 bamboo houses in the epicenter survived intact.
- The speed at which bamboo structures can be erected. After an earthquake rattled Central Java in 2006, over 12,000 shelters were built in a matter of months.
- Its unique ability to resist humidity making it less vulnerable to rust. In the wild, the bamboo plant does not shrink or swell with changing humidity levels and that trait carries through to use in building.
The hurdle in this remarkable plan now is an existing ban on harvesting bamboo. The Kenyan Forestry Service restricts harvesting bamboo to certain users and government institutions. But with the help of effective lobbying, proponents are hopeful to make the Tobacco to Bamboo initiative a success for the help of all people in Kenya.
Visit Green Earth Bamboo to take advantage of bamboo products for your own home. A bamboo sheet set offers softness and temperature regulation for the hot summer months or take advantage of an amazingly absorbent bamboo bath towel.