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Bangladesh: the bamboo pioneers transforming the country’s furniture sector 

Stories
7Jun

Logging restrictions have forced many Bangladeshi furniture companies to rely on imported wood. But one company has taken a different approach – tapping the country’s ample bamboo resources. The benefits: the beginning of a new ‘green’ furniture industry and more income and jobs for rural communities.

Furniture is big business in Bangladesh. The government describes it as a ‘thrust sector,’ a reference to its continued growth over the past two decades. But growth remains precarious, given the sector’s dependence on imported wood – a consequence of government efforts to restrict logging and protect the country’s dwindling forests.

Many companies are importing wood – incurring import duties of up to 92 per cent – but one entrepreneur gambled on a resource much closer to home. That resource is bamboo.

The shift to bamboo

A. K. Khan Plywood (AKP) was established in 1954 in Chittagong, and evolved to become Bangladesh’s leading producer of plywood products. But, when the government of General Ershad introduced logging restrictions in the mid-eighties, the company’s Board recognised that change was needed.

Bamboo development was not initially considered – despite growing widely in the ‘rice belt’ that stretches across the hills of northern Bangladesh. Confined to the production of traditional household items and scaffolding, many ignore the plant’s high value applications – an oversight that partly stems from the widespread negative perceptions about bamboo.

“In Bangladesh, bamboo has a negative connotation,” says Sherfehnaz Khan, Chief Coordinator for AKP. “In our colloquial speech, if you say that you have insulted someone, it is the equivalent of saying ‘you’ve hit them with bamboo.’” Many also question its durability, given that untreated bamboo disintegrates in contact with water.

The Chinese model

But, the company’s former Chairman, Shamsuddin, had seen the potential of bamboo in China during a visit there. China has the world’s most developed bamboo sector, valued at some USD30 billion, and makes products that are sold worldwide. Shamsuddin was convinced that AKP could learn from this success and tap into the growing global market for sustainable products.

AKP Board members quickly saw the benefits of a bamboo-based business model. However, consumer perceptions presented a much tougher challenge. Despite the plant’s many ‘green’ credentials, sustainability is rarely a consideration in Bangladesh.

“Our tag-line is ‘forest friendly products,’ but in Bangladesh that is not at the forefront of most consumers’ minds,” says Khan. “Instead, we make a value proposition, that by paying less you are getting a better quality product, and it will last longer.”

With an eye on export markets, AKP are successfully marketing products in the Middle East and Russia, and there are plans to diversity their product range over the next five years and export items to other international markets.

Workshops teach harvesting and forest management techniques to ensure quality bamboo poles.

Building the green value chain

AKP’s bamboo is sourced from within 500 km of the factory, mostly from small farmers who usually produce rice, fruit or vegetables. Bamboo production provides an additional source of household income – transforming a previously ‘dead asset’ into a money maker. The operation currently works with some 600 farmers, each responsible for transporting their bamboo poles to 33 collection points. Last year, the company collected an impressive 45,000 bamboo poles.

AKP has invested in training to ensure quality products. The Company’s Plant Manager organises workshops where requirements are explained and farmers are introduced to optimal planting, forest management, and harvesting techniques. As the enterprise expands, there are plans to establish a bamboo plantation and source bamboo from neighbouring countries, including Myanmar.

Lessons learned 

AKP has developed its bamboo biomass model through iterative learning, helping to identify the lessons that other companies can use as they consider a similar shift to bamboo: “invest in research for development; assess the bamboo species currently available; examine their properties; and determine their application and suitability for different products,” explains Khan.

Although the Bangladeshi bamboo sector is still developing, AKP has already received interest from government – a potential sign that support may be forthcoming? “I think they do notice something is going on,” says Khan. “Now we need to open the conversation to see how we can help each other.”