A new initiative in Ethiopia is harnessing bamboo to reverse land degradation and boost local economies. Lessons learned here could benefit communities in Ethiopia – and across Africa.
Bamboo is a powerful ally for restoring degraded landscapes: it regulates and prevents water erosion on slopes and along riverbanks; acts as a windbreak – sheltering natural vegetation and crops; and grows quickly to produce a dense canopy from which leaves fall to the ground throughout the year – mulching soil and enhancing infiltration.
Bamboo could play an important role across the estimated 25 percent of the world’s land surface thought to be highly degraded. This potential is recognized in Ethiopia where the government is using bamboo as a key input into to its Sustainable Land Management Program (SLMP), funded by the World Bank.
Land degradation is a serious problem in Ethiopia – driven by deforestation, the loss of vegetation cover, and growing demand for firewood. In this initiative, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources and INBAR are working together to develop bamboo across six pilot watersheds and build the capacity of communities and government agencies on sustainable bamboo development and management – transferring knowledge, planting and forest management skills, and new technologies.
Bamboo is a strategic choice in Ethiopia. The country has ample indigenous bamboo resources – estimated to cover almost 1 million hectares (ha) – and the Ethiopian government has already prioritized the plant’s development, developing a new bamboo strategy and policy for sustainable development. The country also has a fledgling bamboo sector – small-scale enterprises and modest charcoal production that the initiative can build upon.
But, many Ethiopians remain unconvinced about bamboo’s potential. “The area of bamboo is shrinking fast,” says Dr. Jinhe Fu, Team Leader of SLMP’s bamboo program. “There is still low awareness about the many benefits associated with bamboo. People continue to clear the plant for agriculture – and mostly fail to see the economic potential.”
For Dr. Fu the challenge is three-fold: to reverse losses and expand bamboo forest cover through a re-planting program; protect existing forests and increase their biomass through improved forest management strategies; and provide economic opportunities for farmers – helping them tap into the growing global demand for bamboo products.
At the initiative’s core is a south-south partnership that transfers Chinese knowledge and expertise to producers in five Ethiopian states. Trainings and workshops will be delivered to an estimated 3000 farmers – in areas including forest management and harvesting, handicrafts and charcoal production, and harnessing bamboo for construction.
Farmers will receive training on the use of hand and electronic tools that are needed to process bamboo effectively – helping to shift Ethiopia’s bamboo sector towards the production of high-value export goods rather than the low-value products currently manufactured for the domestic market. Without this shift, bamboo will remain a marginal contributor to the national economy.
This all requires the right enabling environment. “Success will really require a comprehensive approach – so introducing sound policies alongside capacity strengthening efforts and the expansion of bamboo resources,” says Dr. Fu, who will work closely with colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), advising them on national strategies and policies – including land tenure, national bamboo afforestation plans, and favorable investment policies to attract investors.
This relationship builds on previous delegations that brought senior Ethiopian policymakers to China where they could witness first-hand the country’s well-developed bamboo sector.
Contributing to Africa’s green economy
Although in its early stages, the initiative is already looking beyond the six pilot sites – successes and lessons learned there could potentially be applied elsewhere to boost bamboo production in other parts of Ethiopia and beyond.
Alongside plans to develop a ‘Sino-Africa Bamboo Centre’ in Ethiopia, the country could therefore become a hub for bamboo development and a key contributor to Africa’s emerging green economy.