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Banking on Bamboo in Rwanda


28/09/2016

The Government of Rwanda has set its sights on increasing the country’s forest cover by 30 percent by 2020. And it’s looking to bamboo – a versatile, renewable resource with a growing global market – to play a part, while also improving rural income opportunities. 

Rwanda has worked on bamboo with various partners, including experts from China and the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan. Keen to broaden what was happening in small pockets of the country to more areas, the Government turned to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for technical assistance in managing and promoting the resource. 

In 2013, FAO launched a two-year Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) project in Rwanda’s Nyaruguru and Kicukiro districts to help the country begin tapping into bamboo’s commercial and environmental potential.  

Benefits of bamboo

Bamboo is a perennial, fast-growing woody grass that helps stabilize the soils of steep slopes and riverbanks, cutting erosion while also increasing water recharge. 

“Rwanda is very mountainous and people are building houses and farming on the hillside, so there’s lots of erosion and landslides,” said Edward Kilawe, a forestry officer in FAO’s Subregional Office for Eastern Africa and the TCP’s lead technical officer. “Most of the rivers are silted.”

Bamboo can help rejuvenate unproductive soils and rehabilitate degraded lands. And it can be harvested annually without clear cutting. 

Every part of the plant – roots, stems, leaves – can be used. Its tensile strength makes it ideal for slat flooring, panelling, moulding and furniture. It is also used for handicrafts, textiles, charcoal and other products, and is a food source for humans and animals. Rwanda’s mountain gorillas – a big tourist draw – subsist on bamboo. 

“Many people in Nyaruguru and Kicukiro supplement their incomes by making and trading bamboo products, like chairs, baskets, mats, barbecue skewers,” said Soter Serubibi, FAO Rwanda’s TCP focal point. “This is particularly important during seasonal shortfalls in food and cash crop income and in periods of drought.”

Raising awareness

FAO worked with the Government’s Ministry of Natural Resources, the Rwanda Agriculture Board and the Rwanda Natural Resources Authority to increase the quantity and quality of bamboo grown and to show the economic opportunities from value-added bamboo products. 

The project trained 95 stakeholders, from communities and public and private organizations, on bamboo’s potential – stakeholders who can then act as “champions on bamboo”, getting the message out to more people through their networks, Kilawe said.

Using the farmer field school approach, the TCP set up bamboo demonstration sites on community and government land, including along rivers.  

Rwanda does not have much available land, and a national policy prohibits crops or buildings from going up within 10 metres of a riverbank or 50 metres of lakeshore. But planting bamboo in those areas is possible – and a win-win as it improves the embankments and grows back quickly. 

Strengthening capacity

The TCP also trained 150 people from local cooperatives, farmer organizations and extension services on bamboo propagation techniques, stand management, harvesting, processing and production of local goods. 

These cooperatives were well established and working on other value chains, so introducing bamboo made sense, Kilawe said, because “they see it as a business, know where to sell, can mobilize more people and easily link with financial lending institutions.”  

The team worked with these cooperatives to improve income-generating activities for bamboo and other non-wood forest products, including honey, mushrooms, traditional medicines and marakuja, a local passion fruit. And it developed a national strategy for these products. 

The project also provided training on processing and marketing to 36 cooperatives already working with bamboo.

“Most of the toothpicks in Africa use wood from outside, but some of these cooperatives now have the skills to make toothpicks using bamboo, which they can then sell to local hotels, for example,” Kilawe said.  

The TCP team worked with the Rwanda Agriculture Board to create a bamboo field gene bank to ensure a supply of higher quality bamboo germplasm. Since the TCP, the Board has been training farmers throughout the country on managing this stronger variety of bamboo culm provided by the gene bank. 

Gaining traction

The Government’s commitment to promoting bamboo – both for socio-economic and environmental reasons – is strong.

“The Government is very serious about bamboo and realizes these efforts can help meet its pledged goal of rehabilitating and restoring 2 million hectares of land,” Kilawe said. 

That pledge refers to the global Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested lands by 2020. 

“The Government wants to continue improving the subsector so it can have a greater impact and contribute to the GDP,” he said, adding that the international market for bamboo products is growing, especially in the Middle East. 

The country is also part of a USD 4 million FAO Central African regional project, funded by the African Development Bank through the Congo Basin Forest Fund, to enhance the contribution of non-wood forest products to food security. In Rwanda, the project is building on the TCP’s work in Nyaruguru to improve bamboo, honey, mushroom and marakuja production – priority areas chosen by the forest communities and beneficiaries. 

FAO's TCP projects are targeted, short-term catalytic projects that leverage FAO's technical expertise to address specific problems in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural livelihoods among FAO Member countries, producing tangible and immediate results in a cost-effective manner.