It is the Swiss Army Knife of plants: food, housing, biofuel, medicine, and desalination filters all come from bamboo.
Despite the fast-growing plant’s promise as a miracle resource, the multi-billion market for bamboo is only now gaining momentum as a replacement for timber and many other materials that is finding its way into everything from fabrics to utensils.
“The virtues of bamboo are not new, but the interest in it is,” says Antonios Levissianos, UNIDO senior industrial development officer. “Bamboo is no longer seen as a poor man’s timber, it is growing to be the most promising substitute for wood and there is great scope for further generating rural employment."
In a refugee camp Africa, it is also now forming the basis for a new economy. Thousands of displaced people ejected from the Mao Forestry complex, one the last and most important forests in Kenya, have turned to bamboo to earn a living instead of cutting down the forest. Left "destitute and desperate" after being removed from the protected area in 2009, according to AlertNet, an initiative called BamCraft has replaced relief aid with jobs crafting mats ($50) or furniture sets (about $100) for hundreds harvesting local bamboo stands.
“We have about an acre of land (0.4 hectares) under bamboo,” furniture maker Hudson Sang told AlertNet. “After harvesting (the bamboo) we make tables, chairs, floor mats, baskets, brooms, necklaces, sugar dishes, smoking pipes, and even wine cups.”
The BamCraft project, managed by the UN and Kenya Forestry Research Institute, with funding from Japan, is tiny, but it may point the way to jobs and reforestation programs in destitute rural regions where marginal and barren land will support bamboo plantations. But the plants are not enough. Infrastructure to access markets, and the know-how to turn the grass into products, is just as important.