A sustainable alternative to tobacco farming


May 31 marks World No Tobacco Day – and a chance to reflect on bamboo’s role as a sustainable, environmentally beneficial alternative to tobacco farming.

Dangers associated with nicotine are nothing new. The concerns about the harmful effects of consumption of tobacco products have drawn attention ever since people started smoking. As early as the beginning of the 17th century, Chinese philosopher Fang Yizhi pointed out that smoking caused ‘scorched lungs’, indicating the symptom of a deadly disease—lung cancer. But it was not until 1964 when the U.S. sur­geon gen­er­al’s panel is­sued a land­mark re­port linking tobacco directly to lung cancer that alarm was raised worldwide. Unfortunately, the significant environmental impacts of tobacco cultivation were and still are, much less recognised.

The widespread environmental degradation caused by tobacco production begins with the preparation of land for growing tobacco and carries through the life of these products through planting, harvesting of mature leaf, curing and sorting of tobacco leaf. As demand for tobacco leaves increased over time, it led to a correspondingly dramatic increase in the amount of land dedicated to tobacco production. In 2011, around 4,200,000 hectares of land were devoted to tobacco growing, representing less than 1% of total arable land globally. The result was largescale deforestation. Moreover, tobacco cultivation is one of the most chemically intensive crops. As tobacco is typically grown as a monocrop on marginal lands, inorganic chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are used heavily to encourage growth and mitigate competitive weeds. Tobacco cultivation further reduces soil fertility because it extracts important plant nutrients from the soil, leaving it almost barren. For the time, some revenue is earned but in the long run the growing process creates serious environmental hazards.

There is an effective legal instrument in place against smoking, but a lack of measures to regulate the production of tobacco. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. The core supply reduction provisions in the WHO FCTC are contained in article15-17, with article 17 specifically notes that “Parties shall, in cooperation with each other and with competent international and regional intergovernmental organizations, promote, as appropriate, economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers and, as the case may be, individual sellers.”

In December 2009, INBAR participated in an ongoing three-year project dedicated to the research and promotion of bamboo production as an alternative crop and livelihood strategy for tobacco smallholder farmers in south Nyanza, Kenya. With aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada and help from South Eastern University College, the study has been carried out on 120 field experimental sites. The experiment focused on three main areas: the investigation on the existing potential of introducing Bamboo as an alternative and viable crop in the region; the analysis and ranking of the local household livelihood strategies used by tobacco and non-tobacco farmers in the study area; and a detailed assessment of marketing dynamics on bamboo products as a feedback to investment in the tobacco industry. The experiment included 1208 giant bamboo (Denchocalamus giganteus) and 1243 common bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris). The study reached the following conclusions:

“The evaluation revealed that household livelihoods have generally improved in the majority (over 75%) of households in all sites. This improvement was attributed to both monetary and non-monetary benefits accrued from bamboo investment.”

This figure shows a breakdown of household livelihoods after switching to bamboo farming (based on number of respondents):

The above studies have shown great potential for smallholder farmers to adopt bamboo production as an alternative crop and livelihood strategy to tobacco, and shows that the many social and environmental problems associated with tobacco can be reduced through bamboo production. Importantly, bamboo could be a strategic tool to support the implementation of Article 17 of WHO-FCTC. With appropriate capacity-building and training, bamboo will have long-term benefits for farmers and scientists involved in tobacco control across the African region.

Article written by Violet Peng



INBAR. 2013. Bamboo Production as an Alternative Crop and Livelihood Strategy for Tobacco Smallholder Farmers in South Nyanza, Kenya: Phase II Final Technical Report for the Period:19th December 2009 18th June 2013. South Eastern Kenya University, Kenya.

The Tobacco Atlas. ‘Environment’. Online at [Accessed 31 May 2018]

Jacob K. Kibwage. Diversification of Household Livelihood Strategies for Tobacco Smallholder Farmers: A Case Study of Introducing Bamboo in the South Nyanza Region, Kenya. Maseno University, Kenya.

UBINIG. Conference Proceedings. International Conference on Shifting out of Tobacco: Impact of Tobacco Cultivation and Policy Advocacy for Shifting to Food and Other Agricultural Crops. Online at: [Accessed 31 May 2018]

The end of project report can be downloaded here.