Bamboo for SDGs: A Test for Uganda’s Nascent Industry

Giant bamboo towers over the security wall surrounding the home of a former minister in Kampala, making a dominant spectacle in a neighbourhood of dwindling greenery. Artistically, the tall culms and thick green leaves represent a developing country’s dream of a greener economy.

Before Flavia Nabugere Munaaba was in 2011 exposed to the value of bamboo, she had plans to convert her fairly large space in Busega, on the outskirts of Kampala, into a hotel. Today, more than 20 species of bamboo, including the Giant (Dendrocalamus giganteus), are at different stages of growth in that space, ranging from seedlings to mature plants.

“Right now I am a bamboo farmer who is also an entrepreneur. I am not only growing bamboo. I am also spreading the gospel about bamboo and telling people the values of bamboo,” says Munaaba, a former Woman Member of Parliament for Kaliro District (2011-2016) and Minister of State for Environment during the same period. She is currently the Secretary General of the Uganda Bamboo Association (UBA) which has more than 300 individual and a dozen corporate members. The association’s offices are within Nabugere’s enclosure.

Bamboo in Uganda mainly grows in protected areas such as national parks where it covers a combined 54,533ha. The total acreage of bamboo growing outside those areas is not known, but the number of people picking interest in farming bamboo is on the rise, albeit with little knowledge about the plant and its potential.

Many Ugandans still perceive bamboo as a wild plant, and many a farmer fear it can conquer their productive lands because of its aggressiveness – although this aggressiveness mainly applies to the running type, and not the clumping one. This fear may be attributed to lack of knowledge about the different bamboo types, species, and how to manage them. The promoters of bamboo growing, however, speak of its enormous potential for socio-economic and environmental benefits.

This is an excerpt from an article on the website of the Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA): “Managed sustainably, it [bamboo] could help many countries reach their global land restoration, climate change and sustainable development commitments.” FTA is a programme of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and, apparently, it is “the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change”.

Bamboo benefits

Bamboos are fast growing plants belonging to the grass family. Traditionally in Uganda, bamboo has been used in construction, crafts, furniture and among some communities, such as the Bagisu in eastern Uganda, bamboo shoots are a delicacy and a major part of tradition. Reports, however, have it that bamboo has over 10,000 documented product uses. At Nabugere’s home, and certainly the home of the UBA, is a mini permanent exhibition of some of those products including charcoal, vinegar, tar, liquid soap and different kinds of furniture. The known benefits of bamboo broaden to include soil and water conservation, acting as wind breaks, provision of sustainable renewable energy (especially because of its fast growth compared to trees) and acting as carbon sinks. All these aspects point to its potential to reduce poverty among communities and foster sustainable economic growth.

Uganda’s strategy

Supported by the FTA and the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR), Uganda developed a ten-year bamboo strategy and action plan which was launched in 2020. The strategy focusses on the management of bamboo resources for economic, social and environmental benefits. In short, the strategy is aimed at helping Uganda to develop her bamboo industry. The mission of the strategy is: “To build a robust bamboo industry in Uganda by sustainable management of bamboo resources and high value addition, contributing to gross domestic product growth, green economic development, job creation and enhanced ecosystem services”.

The targets outlined in the strategy are quite ambitious. For example, Uganda’s Forest Landscape Restoration target is 2.5 million hectares by 2030 and 15 percent of this will be through planting as well as managing bamboo. In the short run – between 2019 and 2024 – the target is to plant 70,000ha of bamboo and restore 15,000ha of natural bamboo. Between 2025 and 2040, the strategy envisions an additional 230,000ha of planted and 60,000ha of regenerated natural bamboo. And by 2030, Uganda’s net value of the bamboo trade at farm gate price should reach USD 508.4m.

How to get there

Among the guiding principles, the strategy is to be “private sector-led and market driven”, with the government institutions playing a supportive role. But as the situations stands, there is a general lack of knowledge on bamboo among Ugandans. In fact it is acknowledged in the strategy that “there has been minimal effort by government and the private sector to promote bamboo growing in the country”. To get the private sector into the lead of the bamboo industry will require significant national and international commitments.

The Dutch-Sino-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme, implemented in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, and now in its second 3-year phase (2020-2023), is so far the most visible intervention in Uganda. It aims to “transfer knowledge, technologies and policy experiences from Europe and Asia to help develop the bamboo sector” in the three countries. The programme is funded by the governments of the Netherlands and China, with co-funding from Uganda coming in form of human resource, office space, equipment and other contributions.

The second phase has a budget of about USD 1.1m (for Uganda) and it is expected to benefit over 28,000 people. There is a target to restore 5,000 hectares of degraded land with bamboo as well as “enhancing sustainable management practices for 5,000 hectares of bamboo plantations and farms”.

The first phase, which cost about half a million dollar, was conducted between 2016 and 2019 and it among others looked at conducting bamboo resources assessments, market conditions assessment, capacity building, development of technical guidelines for bamboo processing, raising awareness and building partnerships between China, Europe and East Africa.

Michael Malinga, the Coordinator of the programme says they achieved most of what they set out to do in phase one and the second phase is building from the first. Activities in the second phase include development of bamboo courses for technical institutes, nursery establishments, exchange visits within the country and in Africa, research, value chain development and creating awareness.

“At the moment we have created a lot of awareness about bamboo. The problem is that Ugandans want to see when someone is successful and then they join,” Malinga says.

Andrew Kalema Ndawula, a former journalist and now an agroforestry farmer, who was also a national coordinator for INBAR, says Uganda’s bamboo sector is very young.

“The sector is in its infancy”, he say. “Slowly by slowly people are getting to know bamboo. There is a shift from total ignorance to increasing awareness among the public. We still have a long way to go in creating awareness, and we need to give technical support to those who are joining the sector.”

Kalema has been growing bamboo at his Talent Agroforestry Farm in Nakaseke, central Uganda, since 2012. He has 20 species of the plant at his farm and sells up to 50,000 seedling a year – that is on top of other products such as bamboo poles, vinegar, and charcoal which he uses as fertilizer at his farm and also sells some of it to small scale pharmaceutical producers.

It appears that most of the work towards a vibrant bamboo industry in Uganda has been done in the last one decade. Munaaba says that by the time she became the State Minister for Environment there was a desk in the ministry in charge of bamboo but there was “nothing going there”.

She embarked on promoting bamboo after her visit to a bamboo expo in China in October 2011, where she was impressed by what the Chinese were able to do with bamboo. Thereafter, she sent several delegations to China to learn about bamboo. She also participated in writing proposals for bamboo promotion in Uganda. But by the time the Dutch-Sino East Africa Bamboo Development Programme started she had lost her sit as MP and also her ministerial post – her further participation in the sector would eventually come through the creation of the UBA, registered in May 2017.

Research into bamboo

The bamboo strategy gives direction towards Uganda’s desired bamboo industry, but a lot of research will need to be done along the bamboo value chain – from identifying and multiplying suitable species for different areas and different purposes to value addition and, of course, markets for bamboo products. At the moment research activities in bamboo in Uganda, as measured against its potential contribution to sustainable development, are still scanty.

The National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) has since early 2021 been researching into raising planting materials through tissue culture. This is mainly because bamboo flowers once in many years, making it difficult to raise enough seedlings from seeds. But also, it is difficult to raise seedlings for some species through cuttings. The researchers are currently looking at one specie (with support from INBAR) but envisage more research work as the sector attracts interest from both public and private sectors.

“We are at the tail end of this research and we are confident we will get the results,” says Dr. John Adriko, a researcher at NARL. “We first want to raise the planting materials then we can later go into other types of research. We can do extraction of different phytochemicals. We may not go into the furniture and so forth because our lab is more of a biotech lab. Furniture and the rest will be for other groups.”

Other institutions, including the National Forestry Authority (NFA), the National Forestry Resources Research Institute (NaFORRI), the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) and the Centre for Energy and Energy Conservation are doing research in different aspects especially on bamboo value addition. But generally speaking, the bamboo sector in Uganda is under researched.

“There is a general problem when it comes to research. As a country we don’t set the agenda. The research is being supported by foreign organisations which may have their own agenda. Our interests are often overlooked. As a country, we have to do our own research, looking at our own needs, if we are to develop this sector,” says Ndawula.

Uganda needs USD 118m for ten years to stimulate and facilitate the development of its bamboo industry, according to the strategy, but the former minister of Environment, while she appreciates the steps taken so far, including the national strategic plan, she is skeptical.

“The biggest failure is by government failing to put money into the venture,” Munaaba says. “They agree it is a good venture. They agree it can increase incomes. They agree it offers a quick environmental fix. But they are unable to put money there. To get that political will is a big challenge.”

William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda

An employee at Nabugere's place in Busega attends to bamboo seedlings. Photo: William Odinga Balikuddembe
Photo: William Odinga Balikuddembe