The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 10th January 2013

The Poor Man's Timber: can growing native bamboo in Southern Ethiopia become a commercially viable business?

Given by - Felix Boeck

Reviewed by - Jean Broadbent

If enthusiasm is part of success then, having heard Boeck's presentation, one left the room thinking the answer to the question posed by the title was - yes, it can!

In his role as Associate Wood Engineer for a company based in Addis called African Bamboo plc, this 20 something year old Master of Carpentry plays a crucial part in this new business operating in southern Ethiopia for the last year with the aim of producing flooring products made from bamboo for the European and US markets. The company is a public-private partnership started by an experienced Ethiopian business family and supported by the German Development Corporation GIZ and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs PSI. It is anticipated that 10 million Euros will be invested in the business over the next 5 years to produce 100,000 sq meters of bamboo flooring by 2014 and increasing to 500,000 sq meters by 2016.

With the best will in the world this all sounded very impressive but equally extremely challenging. Could such an ambitious project be achieved so quickly in Ethiopia?

Even accepting that Ethiopia has a significant resource in presently untapped supplies of bamboo, estimated at well over 1 million hectares, most of which is in government ownership, the logistics to bring this resource into the production chain are complex. Small scale farmers will be the source of the raw material. They will have to be guided in management techniques, particularly to ensure that the bamboo is harvested at the correct stage of its growth. The crop will be transported to collection centres where it will be sorted into industrial grade, perhaps 80%, and low grade. The industrial quality bamboo will then be transported to pre-processing plants to prepare it for the main industrial process to make the floor panels.

The low grade material, and waste products from the processing plants, will be used to create bamboo briquettes to be used as a substitute for charcoal in the domestic setting. Re-forestation of this fast growing resource is a central part of the scheme. The bamboo is ready to harvest after 5 or 6 years.

On paper it all sounds very feasible and admirable. Evidently the greatest task facing the company so far has been engaging with local development agencies. We were told that already 32 co-operatives have been set up to train the farmers, who number in excess of 2000. However in areas such as Bale Mountains, it has been difficult to bring people into the project at all.

Turning to the end product, bamboo flooring panels, our speaker was very confident that the potential of bamboo in the construction field generally is yet unrecognised at a global level. Far beyond flooring panels and decking, bamboo can be used to construct whole buildings as we were shown. Herr Boeck was equally confident that with technical development assistance from more than 20 commercial and academic partners engaged on the project to date, this untapped resource could have a major impact on Ethiopia's economy, such impact being extremely profitable without further damaging any fragile ecosystems, and indeed having a very positive effect by encouraging re-forestation with a plant which has a much lower demand for water than eucalyptus.

My feeling at the end of the lecture was to say good luck to African Bamboo. This project has so many positive aspects it could indeed be very beneficial. Whether or not African Bamboo succeeds long term, it was very interesting to hear about the business plan and to see that many international agencies were convinced enough to back the project. An update in a year's time would be very interesting.

First Published in News File Summer 2013

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