Photos by EcoPlanet Bamboo
Bamboo is not exactly a plant that is associated with South Africa’s natural beauty or agriculture. But these days the plant is making headlines when topics such as carbon sequestration, reforestation, and regenerative agriculture are discussed. In addition, bamboo is a plant with many uses.
Several experts have already expressed their opinion about the viability of the bamboo market, and the possibility of growing bamboo in a country like South Africa looks promising.
The demand for bamboo is driven by two factors: firstly, by the popularity of the product as a building material for furniture, decor or even wall panels, and secondly, because there is an increase in the use of natural products that are sustainable, as well as a need for material for textiles and packaging.
According to a study by Technavio, the forecast value of the global bamboo market for 2022 to 2027 is approximately 20,38 billion dollars. The study looked at the fifteen biggest players to get a holistic overview of the industry’s well-being.
The report finds that many consumers still do not know the benefits of bamboo products, but also that the industry has been challenged by the limited area in which bamboo grows.
The bamboo forest wants a moderate climate with plenty of water
Even though bamboo is an excellent substitute for wood, the perennial plant is in fact a type of grass. Worldwide, there are more than 1 400 species that, depending on the specific species, can grow to only 10 cm in height for dwarf bamboo or to a massive 40 m! The plant also only forms seeds late in its life cycle, so most of the propagation takes place vegetatively.
Bamboo grows in a tropical to subtropical climate where temperatures vary between 18 and 36 degrees Celsius. However, it is highly adaptable and can survive in other locations, provided that there are no temperature extremes.
What makes bamboo a hot topic is the potential for soil restoration in places where years and years of tillage have leached all the minerals from the soil. Bamboo is effective for carbon sequestration (1,78 tonnes per hectare per year!) and offers a fast-growing alternative to charcoal and wood products. Properties of the plant are also linked to nitrogen fixation.
Because it is quick to get established, has minimal nutrient requirements and forms an eager root system that counteracts erosion and promotes soil moisture, it is seen as a sustainable, environmentally friendly timber source.
EcoPlanet Bamboo, one of the largest bamboo growers in the world, has already identified the potential for bamboo manufacturing in Africa. The success of this company’s plantations offers potential for job creation, sustainable bamboo fibre production for paper and packaging, as well as the restoration of depleted land.
“Bamboo’s woody fibre has the potential to replace hard wood,” says Camille Rebelo, co-founder, and General Manager of EcoPlanet Bamboo. “One of the advantages is that bamboo plantations can be thinned out and produce a ‘harvest’, but still continue to grow. So, it does not need to be replanted.
“Secondly, bamboo requires very little input. You will often read that bamboo needs no input, but this is not true. It just uses a lot less compared to trees.”
Land restoration and job creation are part of EcoPlanet Bamboo
EcoPlanet Bamboo Group’s reason for existence is to use extremely impoverished land to grow sustainable, deforestation-free, environmentally friendly bamboo fibre. With this material, they aim to provide zero-waste, bio-refineries with bamboo pulp and other useful products.
EcoPlanet Bamboo has already restored more than 6 000 hectares of land. Their Kowie bamboo farm in the Eastern Cape is Africa’s only certified deforestation-free bamboo plantation.
“At our core, we are an African company, because we have a Kenyan co-founder and head office in East Africa,” says Camille. “So, we have always had a strong focus on Africa, and we were looking for a place with the right framework for our operations.
“We decided on the Eastern Cape for several reasons, although a location with higher rainfall would be better,” she elaborates. “We wanted to target a place where we could make both a social and an environmental impact. The Bathurst area was once a thriving agricultural centre, but various factors led to its demise and the subsequent poverty.”
South Africa is one of the world’s largest producers of pulp and paper, making it the ideal location for EcoPlanet Bamboo to develop the Kowie bamboo farm and target this market.
The Kowie bamboo farm
The species that grows there is a naturalised bamboo species, Bambusa balcooa, and it already occurs on several farms in the district.
“Bamboo falls between agriculture and forestry in South Africa. This represents a less intensive way of farming where there is a holistic focus on the long-term upgrading of the field with little or no mechanisation,” she explained.
Camille says that years of intensive tillage and grazing have impoverished the soil.
“We work with biochar to try to enrich the soil and the bamboo itself loses leaves every year during the dry season which also enriches the soil. As the soil recovers, the bamboo forest forms a multi-dimensional ecosystem that has several benefits: from stabilising the microclimate to protecting against runaway fires.”
Until recently, the farm had a permanent team of around 20 workers, but after the project was declared successful, EcoPlanet Bamboo is looking at commercialising the farm to produce an annual harvest.
“In 2022 we have decided to expand with a further 500 ha, which will start within the next three months. To make this possible, the team was expanded to 85 workers for all aspects, from the greenhouse to soil preparation and planting,” says Camille.
Sustainable bamboo products in a young market
The ability to harvest selected bamboo poles is part of what allows the plant to be sustainably harvested. But apart from a sustainable harvest, there are still challenges around entering the market: currently there is no market for unprocessed bamboo.
Unprocessed bamboo is the bamboo poles that come directly out of the forest. No cutting, pulping or anything else was done to it. Therefore, the onus is on manufacturers to develop integrated value addition. The farm is currently too small for that, and this played a big role in the decision to expand. Once enough raw material is available for commercial production, EcoPlanet Bamboo will focus on clean technology and the processing of high-grade pulp. The pulp will be used to produce high-quality toilet and tissue paper that applies a zero-waste policy.
“The aim is to rehabilitate 4 500 ha of land in the Eastern Cape in the coming three to five years,” Camille says. “We intend to use a network of small farms where at least 25 to 30% conservation areas are included where we can make both a social and environmental impact.
Technavio (2023) Bamboo’s market size is set to grow by USD 20,38 billion from 2022 to 2027, PR Newswire. Available at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/bamboos-market-size-is-set-to-grow-by-usd-20-38-billion-from-2022-to-2027–the-increased-demand-for-bamboo-plates-drives-the-market—technavio-301856507.html
Weeden, M. (2023) 8 amazing bamboo facts, One Tree Planted. Available at: https://onetreeplanted.org/blogs/stories/bamboo