Emily van Rijswijck
It is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and has a multiplicity of uses, from the manufacture of biofuel to decor accessories, furniture and building materials.
A miracle plant? No, just the ordinary bamboo, a plant usually associated with Asia and giant pandas, but one which also proves to be well adapted to the dryer conditions of the Eastern Cape.
And it is these qualities – and the potential to alleviate poverty in South Africa’s poorest province – which have convinced the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) to embark on pilot projects for the cultivation and production of bamboo and its related products.
Already a one hectare plot at St Albans near Port Elizabeth has been planted with the evergreen grass, with another two, larger projects of five hectares each taking shape in Centani in the former Transkei and at Ndakana near Stutterheim.
The three projects are funded by the ECDC for the benefit of the Eastern Cape community and the plants will be harvested according to the market that is available at that time, confirmed Ken Bern, regional head of the East London-based ECDC.
“We are hoping to be able to harvest the first shoots for hand weaving in two years’ time,” he said. For hardwood products used in the making of floorboards or furniture, the bamboo shoots would have to be matured to at least five years.
Economically viable within five years
Bamboo can grow at an incredible rate. In temperate conditions it shoots up at three to 10 centimetres per day; in ideal conditions by as much as 100 centimetres per day. One hectare can yield anything from 20 to 40 tons of bamboo and can be economically viable within five years of planting.
But it is its incredible adaptability to different, often poor soil conditions and its numerous applications which makes it such an attractive crop, especially for the poorer rural communities of the Eastern Cape.
Clumps of these plants can be found around the province, showing that it can grow here successfully, said Pelo Gabaraane, MD of SA Bamboo, the company which has been commissioned by the ECDC to manage the Centani and Ndakana pilots.
“The plant is regenerative and fast growing, and provides tremendous potential to fight poverty in the province.”
Gabaraane and his colleague Nkosinathi William are project managers at the Centani and Ndakana plantations.
Five people have already been employed at each plot and will actively be running the project, with SA Bamboo overseeing operations. For the moment the projects will remain small as this provides the ideal conditions for training the community in the aspects of cultivation and processing, said Gabaraane.
“For the moment, the projects are not economically viable. It is simply useful as a teaching mechanism,” he confirmed.
The bamboo organisation is already in negotiations with the Department of Economic Development to secure funds for the eventual extension of the project in Ndakana to 300 hectares to achieve greater economic viability, said Gabaraane.
At least 300 people will be able to find direct employment at a project of this scale. In the meantime, while the bamboo shoots are small, the land will also be used for intercropping with the planting of vegetables between the bamboo rows.
The pilot projects will focus on passing on skills training for the supply of raw materials in three bamboo related products: basket weaving; furniture and building materials; and biofuels.
At the moment South African bamboo furniture producers import all their raw materials from oversees. The Eastern Cape community has the potential to eventually tap into this lucrative market once they start to produce their own bamboo crops on large a scale, Gabaraane believes.
“It is important to realise that there are two aspects to the pilot projects, both of which provides skill transfer and employment opportunities,” he said. ”These are the actual cultivating of the product and the downstream processing of the product. We want to make sure that the projects bring about real, viable economic benefits to the larger Eastern Cape community in the long term.”
The basket weaving project gets going in January 2012 in Ndakana, with SA Bamboo sourcing mature plants from around the province to train five local women in the equipment and weaving processes used. These products will be available in curio shops around the area.
“We believe the community has to be involved in the project from the beginning, from the actual planning phases all the way to the growing and processing of the raw product.”
A big stalk of grass
Genetically speaking, bamboo is just a very big, sturdy stalk of grass: a stalk of grass with amazing properties. It is said to be able to absorb 30% more carbon than trees and has the ability to grow rapidly in diverse conditions.
While pine plantations will only be able to yield a harvest in 20 years, producers of bamboo will be able to harvest their bamboo in no more than five years.
In South Africa, the Indian species Bambusa balcooa has been completely naturalised and has been around for over 300 years. As a hardwood for furniture and building related applications, it has no equal.
South Africa only has one indigenous bamboo species, the hardy Thamnocalamus tessellatus or berg bamboo. This plant grows in its typical clumps all around the colder Drakensberg region in the south-east of the country.