Fighting climate change and poverty one bamboo at a time

Aisha Karanja, the founder of Back to Basics Organization displaying bamboo seedlings at her Ndwaru road farm in Dagoretti South Constituency,Nairobi on December 27,2023.


What you need to know:

  • In 2019, Unep says the global bamboo market was valued at over $72 billion, with an international trade of about $2.9 billion per annum.
  • But according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry National Bamboo Policy 2022, Kenya’s bamboo sub-sector is struggling.

As she steps into the one-eighth-acre plot, she could easily be mistaken as a nature lover looking for quality tree seedlings. But Aisha Karanja is a woman on a different mission as she propagates bamboo seedlings in Dagoretti, Nairobi County.

Her nursery is thriving as evidenced by the more than 5,000 seedlings sprouting on her piece of land. As she bends down to support a weak seedling, a large bamboo spreading its branches and leaves provides a cool shade over her head.

Ms Karanja, an environmental enthusiast, says bamboo plays a crucial role in urban greening and has numerous environmental benefits. According to Growmore Biotech, which deals with large bamboo plantation projects and research across the globe, bamboo is a crucial element in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A grove of bamboo releases 35 per cent more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees and thus planting the species is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and help fight global warming.

Ms Karanja oversees the bamboo nursery through Back to Basics, an organisation she founded to promote environmentally friendly activities.

According to the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Forestry National Bamboo Policy 2022, there are over 1,600 species of bamboo growing in different agro-ecological zones globally and over 10,000 documented bamboo products.

Ms Karanja says her nursery contains four species: Abyssinia, Asper, D. latifarus and Polymorpha. “We work with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute to identify the correct species that grow here,” she says.

The 15 women who work under the Back to Basics organisation, plant the seedlings in Nyandarua and Murang’a. They sell each seedling at between Sh60 and Sh350. The Kenya Parliament in September 2020 classified bamboo as a cash crop and recorded it as the 16th scheduled cash crop in the country.

Data at the Ministry of Investments, Trade and Industry indicates the approximate wholesale price range for Kenya bamboo is between Sh22 and Sh43 per kilogramme.

Kenya Forestry Research Institute says Kenya imports bamboo and rattan products worth over Sh120 million and exports bamboo products valued at over Sh40 million annually.

Ms Karanja says they use bamboo to make furniture and ornaments. She says bamboo is a viable replacement for wood as an affordable housing construction material. “Bamboo shoots are food for humans; and feed and fodder for livestock.

“Bamboo leaves help enrich nutrients in the soil. It also helps in cleaning water. We have very clean water from the borehole because of the bamboo trees,” she adds. Ms Esther Gathoni, who works with the organisation, says she withstood abuses from men while working at a construction site. But the story changed when she joined Back to Basics.

“I have learned skills to earn money without abuses from men," says the 51-year-old mother of five. Ms Fahima Waithera, another member of the organisation, says she was a stay-at-home mother with no skills. “I’m happy I have a source of income," says Ms Fahima, 43, a mother of four.

“Bamboo has made me improve my life and become an environmental champion. I teach grandchildren about environmental conservation,” says Mary Wanjiru, 60.

Aisha Karanja, founder of Back to Basics organization together with Mary Wanjiru and Esther Gathoni working on a garment in an open space in Dagoretti.

The women say they have started income-generating projects like poultry keeping.  Back to Basics  also collaborates with young people to promote climate-related activities through the Friends of the Planet Initiative campaign.

“Bamboo sub-sector contributes to gender equity and equal opportunity to youth and vulnerable groups,” says Esther Ngiya, a project manager at Back to Basics . The women make mats, bags, scarves, shoe racks, cloth drying shelves and t-shirts among other things.

Ms Karanja, who is also the chief executive of Back to Basics, says it has not been a walk in the park as she sensitised the community to demystify myths about bamboo being the hideout for snakes.

“This project supports locally-led solutions to climate change. Women must be involved in adaptation and mitigation actions,” says Ms Karanja. Ms Karanja says the implementation of the Gender Action Plan at the COP28 in Dubai was a big win for women fighting climate change.

Bamboo contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goals and helps countries mitigate the effects of climate change.

Bamboo contributes to 10 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals namely SDG 1 (End poverty in all its forms everywhere); SDG 2 – (Zero hunger); SDG 5 – (Gender equality); SDG 7 (Affordable clean alternative energy for domestic and industrial use especially for food processing industries and reduces the dependence of forests, electricity poles).

Others are SDG 9 (Industry, innovation, and infrastructure development); SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities); SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production); SDG 13 (Climate action); SDG 15 (Enhance the quality of “Life on land”) and SDG 17 (Establishing partnerships for the goals).

Highland bamboo is an integral part of indigenous forests in Kenya and it is the only indigenous bamboo species that grows naturally.

Data from the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, and Forestry indicates that bamboo forest once covered over 400,000 hectares but has reduced to about 133,273 hectares majorly located in government land and forest reserves.

Some of the bamboo-growing counties are Migori, Vihiga, Busia, Homa Bay, Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Kirinyaga, Kitui, Laikipia, Nyandarua, Embu and Tharaka Nithi. The counties support the 15 billion trees initiative to restore and conserve 10.6 million hectares of degraded landscapes and ecosystems towards achieving 30 per cent tree cover in Kenya by 2032 and the Bonn Challenge, which is a global goal to bring 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2030.

Bamboo is a suitable crop for watershed management and is an important vegetation in the Mau Forest Complex, Mt Kenya Forest, the Aberdare Range, Cherang’any Hills and Mt Elgon Forest.

Bamboo in gazetted forests accounts for about 95 per cent of bamboo resources in Kenya. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), about 1.5 billion people depend on bamboo; with an annual production and consumption of 20 million tonnes.

In 2019, Unep says the global bamboo market was valued at over $72 billion, with an international trade of about $2.9 billion per annum. But according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry National Bamboo Policy 2022, Kenya’s bamboo sub-sector is struggling.

Key barriers include lack of strategic direction, inadequate supply of quality planting materials, high price of bamboo seedlings and lack of coordinated development and allocation of resources.

Other impediments include inadequate research emanating from low funding, low level of technology adoption, weak marketing systems, limited information and inadequate decision-making tools at both national and county government levels.

A resource assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) in 2005 showed that countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have combined bamboo coverage of 37 million hectares.

This accounted for about one per cent of the global forest area. Data from INBAR in five African countries —  Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Tanzania —  show a combined bamboo coverage of 2.8 million hectares representing 4.1 per cent of the forest area.