Bamboo and Rattan Business in Ghana

A few weeks ago, I was in Ghana, one of the 18 Member states of INBAR in Africa, and the host of our Regional Office for West Africa.  The INBAR office is in Kumasi, where we are sharing the premises with Tropenbos Ghana.

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Michael Kwaku and Paul Osei Tutu – INBAR Office

The main reason for coming to Ghana was to speak at the workshop on “Innovative Management and Utilization for Bamboo Biomass in Agroforestry Systems”.  The workshop presented results from INBAR’s work under the project: “Improving food security in Africa through increased system productivity from biomass-based value webs – BiomassWeb”.

The workshop was organized at the premises of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) in Accra.  FARA is an African institution, representing agricultural research in all of Africa.  INBAR and FARA are discussing how to upscale cooperation to the continental level, and I hope I can write about this in the not too distant future.

The workshop was well attended and generated a lot of very frank and lively discussion about the need for market development, the lack of planting material, the challenges with inter-ministerial cooperation, and the fact that there is not enough understanding and awareness about bamboo and rattan in Ghana.  We had representatives from the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, Ministry of Agriculture, the Ghana Bamboo and Rattan Development Programme (BARADEP), the Forestry Commission, the Forest Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), the Ghana Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the Embassy of China.  The overwhelming recommendation was to organize a follow-up meeting next year, with a wider list of invitees, presence of the media, and more discussions about the challenges for development of a bamboo industry.

This involvement of the local private sector was one of the exciting aspects of my visit to Ghana, and I was able to talk with several local entrepreneurs and business people.  In the workshop I met Janette Poku Akom from Kwamoka Farms and Processing Ltd .  Kwamoka Farms is a bamboo agro-forestry business that produces bamboo seedlings and reforestation services.  They state that their aim is to help in the reduction of deforestation through the promotion of wider use of bamboo as a renewable natural resource whilst contributing towards rural development and poverty reduction.

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Janette Poku Akom and Gloria Asare Adu

During the workshop, I also had a long discussion with Gloria Asare Adu, the CEO of Global Bamboo Products Ltd   Gloria has attended several INBAR training courses in China, and she worked with INBAR during the EC-funded charcoal project.  As a result, she has launched her own bamboo charcoal manufacturing plant, and she is selling her charcoal for household consumption in the local supermarket in Accra.

 

Ghana is well known for the manufacturing of bamboo bicycles, especially after Bernice Dapaah, the CEO of Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative was profiled at the 2013 Conference of Parties of the Climate Change Convention. The photo of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on a bamboo bicycle went viral.

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The Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is a Ghanaian social enterprise that addresses youth unemployment by creating jobs for young people, especially women.Netherlands-Embassy-Accra

Bernice employs nearly 35 workers, and they manufacture high quality bamboo bicycles.  She has good connections all over the world, and I was pleased to see one of her bamboo bikes in the reception of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Accra.

I last met Bernice during the 2015 World Bamboo Congress in Damyang, Korea.  She is a World Bamboo Ambassador, and she is passionate about using bamboo to create jobs for local women.  This time, we met at the INBAR Office in Kumasi, and she agreed to join me later this year to present her experiences during the Global Science, Technology and Innovation Congress (GSTIC2017) in Brussels, Belgium.

I also visited the workshop of the other bamboo bicycle manufacturer in Kumasi, Boomers international.  Their workshop is a good 90 minutes’ drive outside Kumasi into the countryside.  The CEO, Mr Kwabena Danso, was not on site, because he arrived back from UK that day, but I met him for dinner in Accra the following evening.  Boomers is employing approximately 35 young man from the neighbouring villages, and they are manufacturing very nice looking bamboo frames.

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The bamboo is harvested from nearby clumps, treated, sorted and used to make sturdy bamboo frames.  Boomers-Bike-workshop (13)They told me that the main market for the frames is currently in Germany and the Netherlands, and the bikes are assembled there.  I saw a large number of frames ready for dispatch, so business seems to be good, and Mr Danso confirmed that Boomers International is doing well.

Back in Accra, I visited several of the bamboo and rattan furniture stalls in the centre of town.  The furniture is manufactured and sold at the roadside, and there is a thriving business of local people who stop their car to have a look at the wares of display.  Several of these local artisans were in China last year, during a three-month bamboo training programme which was organized by INBAR and the Chinese International Centre for Bamboo and Rattan (ICBR) with funding from the Ministry of Commerce of China.  I had joined the students during the closing ceremony last November in southern China, and wished them good luck back home.  It was therefore very nice to meet some of them again, but this time in Ghana.

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The former students told me that they were doing well, and that business had improved significantly after their return from China.  Apparently, customers specifically ask for the “Chinese students” when they visit the roadside markets, and the students told me that they had seen an improvement in their designs, their manufacturing process, and the finishing of the products.  It was very encouraging for me to learn about this positive outcome, as I had asked myself if the training in China would have made a big difference.  Clearly, it has made life and the living conditions of this group of furniture manufacturers a lot better.

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One aspect that particularly bothers the artisans, is the fact that they have no electricity in their manufacturing space along the road side, and therefore they cannot use any equipment or machines.  They also lack proper storage facilities, and during the rainy season all the new furniture gets wet.  They want to move to a proper furniture market where they have better services, and they have asked the Bamboo and Rattan Development Programme (BARADEP) to help.  The Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, which is the host of BARADEP, has allocated land for such a common facility, and they are currently looking for funding to make it happen.  I agreed to help find a solution.

It is clear that there is a keen interest to develop the bamboo resources in Ghana, and there is already a local market.  Improved quality will make the local trade more lucrative, and an increased supply of bamboo will reduce the price of the raw material and consequently the price of the manufactured products.

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The ministry of Lands and Natural Resources is planning a major national programme to reforest some of the areas that have been devastated by small scale mining, and this could include bamboo plantations.  Such a large-scale intervention could be the game-changer that Ghana needs, and I have offered to work with the ministry to encourage the establishment of large-scale bamboo plantations

 

 

Ethiopian Bamboo

 

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I am in Ethiopia, for the launch of the second phase of the Sustainable Land Management Programme, which lives under the name of SLMP2. The programme is part of the Africa-wide TerrAfrica programme which I mentioned in my earlier blog story, which is supported by the World Bank through its own loan arrangements and a Norwegian trust fund, together with several other donors. The SLMP2 project is implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The State Minister for Agriculture, HE Sileshi Getahun is currently the Chair of the INBAR Council, and he is very supportive of INBAR playing a role in SLMP2.

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Minister Counsellor Tove Stub from Royal Norwegian Embassy in Ethiopia, HE State Minister for Agriculture Dr Ato Sileshi Getahun and INBAR Director-General, Dr Hans Friederich

The launch started with a welcome word by the Ministry and a series of key-note speeches from the World Bank, Norway, GIZ and INBAR, followed by the opening speech of Minister Sileshi. The World Bank stressed the fact that land degradation and climate change are the major challenges for agricultural development in Ethiopia. Norway explained that they have committed to help Ethiopia in its climate response strategy, and therefore they are very happy to support SLMP2. The representative from GIZ explained that the German government has supported Ethiopia for many years, and both the German development bank KfW and the technical assistance agency GIZ are involved in SLMP2.

I presented the case for bamboo as an alternative option for land restoration. Six out of the nine states in Ethiopia have native bamboo, and the total bamboo cover in Ethiopia is approximately 1million Hectares. I explained that INBAR is keen to support SLMP2 to show how to use bamboo for land management, and also to work with Small and Medium sized Enterprises to promote bamboo business. As is so often the case, people were surprised to learn about the many opportunities bamboo could provide, and some did not realise that Ethiopia is already rich in bamboo.

It is therefore very opportune that INBAR is one of the implementing partners of SLMP2, and this is something that was cemented the day before, when Minister Sileshi and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding our involvement in the project.

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INBAR Director General Dr Hans Friederich and State Minister for Agriculture HE Ato Sileshi Getahun sign MoU for collaboration in Addis Ababa on 13 June 2014

The agreement between the ministry and INBAR defines INBAR as the implementing agency for a component of SLMP2 that deals with bamboo. Currently, the proposal is to work in 12 field sites, where we will promote bamboo planting, help to establish nurseries and provide training in planting, maintaining and harvesting bamboo. We will also work with local business representative to help develop small scale industrial bamboo activities, we will work on bamboo carbon finance and we will promote charcoal bamboo as an alternative household energy source. The last point is particulalrly relevant, as INBAR has spent the last few years on testing the feasibility and economic viability of making bamboo charcoal for local use in Ethiopia and Ghana, through an EU-funded “bamboo as sustainable biomass energy” project.

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After my presentation, several people came to see me to ask if INBAR could expand the scope of its intervention and include more field sites. This is something we will discuss with the Ministry of Agriculture in the coming months, but my priority is to agree on the financial nitty-gritty and start the project.

Next stop: Nairobi, Kenya.

Bamboo charcoal – what an amazing resource

Last Friday, I left Bejing with my colleague Dr Fu Jinhe and my wife Bee to travel south to Zhejiang Province, and more specifically to Suichang County, which is the heart of bamboo charcoal production.  Suichang is rich in bamboo, with 82% of the territory under forest cover and much of that is bamboo.  The total area of bamboo forest is reported to be 233 square kilometres.

What impressed me most during the visit was to discover the many uses of bamboo charcoal, and the fact that nothing is wasted in the process.  My first encounter with bamboo was with a local farmer who was digging for winter bamboo shoots.  Bamboo produces shoots twice per year, and the winter shoots do not appear above ground.  Less than 20% survives because of competition for nutrients, and therefore it is actually good to dig up a proportion of the winter shots, thus given the remaining ones more chance to survive.  Because winter shoot are difficult to collect, they are valuable, and they taste supposedly very nice.  I ate some of the shoots later in the day, and can confirm that they have a lovely slightly nutty taste and they are soft and delicious.

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In 1995, the Chinese Government imposed restrictions on charcoal produced from wood, and some entrepreneurial individuals in Suichang County started to use bamboo as an alternative source of charcoal.  The first attempts reportedly resulted in large piles of ash, but over the years, the process has been honed so that now large quantities of high quality charcoal are produced.  The charcoal is mainly traded in the domestic market in China, but the charcoal producer Mr Weng told us that he also sells to Korea and Japan.  Bamboo charcoal is made from the waste of other bamboo utilization processes, and the bamboo kiln that I visited had heaps of bamboo cuts that will go into the furnace during the coming days.

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The bamboo is heated to 900-1000 degrees in a closed kiln, and after a certain period of time the oxygen flow is stopped so the bamboo carbonizes.  After one week, the charcoal can be collected.  One kiln can produce a tonne of charcoal, and currently a kilo sells for 4 Yuan (0.50 dollars).  That is not all, because the steam coming out of the chimney at the top of the kiln is fed into long bamboo poles, and cools so that the liquid flows back down the inside of the poles as vinegar.  This is collected in large containers, and provides the raw material to whole range of products, varying from cleaning liquid to preservative.  This is not done by Mr Weng, but is the purview of a separate chain of product development.  Mr Weng has six kilns in one row and four in another row, and his small enterprise provides employment for 45 people.  He is 77 years old but going strong.

Mr Weng in front of his charcoal kiln

Mr Weng in front of his charcoal kiln

Once the charcoal has been manufactured, there are several subsequent production chains that use bamboo charcoal to produce other high-value goods.  Some of the charcoal is developed for general household use purposes, such as fuel or de-humidifying agent and some of it is bagged or put in boxes for use as air freshener.  But charcoal powder is also mixed with flour to make charcoal biscuits, the coating for peanuts or black noodles.  Charcoal has medicinal properties because its high absorption capacity allows it to absorb stomach acids, so mixing charcoal in with other foodstuff makes it particularly healthy food.  I stayed at the Tanyuan Inn, managed by the delightful Mr Chen Wenzhao and his equally lovely wife Mrs Ji, and they produce all kinds of bamboo charcoal food.  Their shop also sells black bamboo charcoal soap, and they are in charge of the Suichang bamboo charcoal museum.

The local government of Suichang County has allocated space to a number of bamboo charcoal companies, in order to promote the development of bamboo charcoal industry.  Apparently there are now 54 bamboo charcoal enterprises registered.

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One line of production mixes charcoal dust with clay to create extremely stylish wall and floor tiles.   The company that I visited also produces high quality charcoal air and water filters. They have a high-tech laboratory, and are looking for other new innovations.  Other products that are being developed, in addition to what I saw, include textiles, chemical products, cosmetics, charcoal cement and more.  We had an interesting meeting with the vice-governor and her staff and she explained that in Suichang County bamboo trade amounts to 1.2 billion Yuan per annum, and 350 million Yuan of this is from bamboo charcoal.  Bamboo charcoal is good business.  As one of the businessmen told me: “I used to have 50,000 Yuan in 1995 and now I have 100 million Yuan, all as a result of my bamboo charcoal business”

Finally, the extensive bamboo forests, the production of charcoal and associated activities have created a destination for nature-based tourism.  Many visitors from Shanghai, Hangzhou and other nearby towns come to Suichang for entertainment and recreation, especially since the highway was opened 5 years ago.

In short: the bamboo charcoal is a valuable primary product, a source for growing innovative secondary production and a catalyst for a booming tourism service industry.

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This was a very informative and enjoyable visit!