Bamboo as an alternative to tobacco


On 31 May, countries all over the globe observe World No Tobacco Day. Bamboo has great potential to replace tobacco as a crop and form of sustainable income, as this INBAR project shows.

“Since I started growing bamboo, my life has taken a different direction: I can now afford almost everything I have always wished to have.” – Thomas Mahiri, 58

Despite global policies aimed at reducing world tobacco production and use, the number of farmers engaged in tobacco farming in some parts of the world is increasing at an alarming rate. This is particularly true in Kenya, which has seen a jump in the number of tobacco farmers from 500 in 1971 to 35,000 in the 1990s and 55,000 in 2011. For many communities, tobacco is regarded as the only viable cash crop and there are few viable alternatives.

This was the impetus behind an INBAR-led project, Bamboo production as an alternative crop and livelihood strategy for tobacco smallholder farmers in South Nyanza, Kenya. The project, which took place between 2006 and 2013, with funding from IDRC, Canada, aimed to establish bamboo as an alternative crop and form of livelihood across four sites in Kenya. Smallholder tobacco farmers were the main beneficiaries of this project.

There are many occupational health and environmental hazards related to tobacco farming, such as child labour, deforestation, soil erosion and health impacts associated with chemical pollution. Women and children tend to be most vulnerable, as they spend most time in this occupation. In terms of the environment, INBAR’s end of project report finds that tobacco farming in Kenya falls short of the standards set by actors such as Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority and WHO – with a “dismal” compliance rate of just 11.6 per cent.

Moreover, tobacco farming is not especially lucrative. A study conducted for Bamboo as an alternative crop showed that the annual net income of a non-tobacco farmer is typically higher than that of a tobacco farmer by about USD 198 a year. Tobacco farmers also spent an average of USD 35 on medical and healthcare services. These costs combined create “a significant difference in living standards at the rural level.”

The Kenya project had several components, aimed at increasing farmers’ capacity to switch from tobacco to bamboo farming. This included providing 120 farmers with bamboo seedlings; establishing nurseries for bamboo plants; and providing capacity training and materials to farmers to help with bamboo harvesting, preservation and treatment, as well as the creation of bamboo products such as handicrafts.

The project ran from 2006 to 2013, and resulted in some remarkable impacts:

There are challenges to expanding bamboo cultivation in this area. These were identified as: a lack of land and markets for bamboo products; no dedicated national government policy on bamboo industry development; and no bamboo value market chains.  Some of these challenges are now being addressed: the Government is developing a bamboo strategy, and recent private sector investments are creating a market for bamboo fibre.

Some families have incorporated bamboo into their fencing

Overall, the project has “demonstrated great potential in providing technical advice and support to the implementation of Articles 17 and 18 of WHO-FCTC.”  We hope that the lessons learned can be replicated in other counties in Kenya, or in other countries where bamboo is part of the natural vegetation cover.

The report Bamboo production as an alternative crop and livelihood strategy for tobacco smallholder farmers in South Nyanza, Kenya can be read here. The report can be cited as:

Fu, J. 2013. ‘Bamboo production as an alternative crop and livelihood strategy for tobacco smallholder farmers in South Nyanza, Kenya: Phase II’. INBAR Technical Report. INBAR, Kenya.