Victor Mwanga refers to the expanse of bamboo crops in his compound as fruits of a love story. To him, the trees represent the love he shares with his wife, and how that love spurred them to venture into the unknown world of bamboo-farming, despite the cloud of hopelessness that hang over them when he quit employment five years ago.
Before he handed in his resignation letter, he was in turmoil. The thrill he once had when he started out as a logistician at an international company, fresh from Eldoret National Polytechnic, was fading.
His work schedule was full of travel that constantly separated him from his young family. Pressure to outperform competitors became so intense that he dreaded walking into the office. “I would get headaches, and I was often fatigued. I needed something different,” he says.
The night after his resignation, he and his wife, Flora, had what he terms as one of the most difficult conversations they have had as a couple. “I had no plan. I did not know what was next, or where money to pay our bills would come from,” he says.
He moved to Shamakhokho village, Kakamega County, where he had a small parcel of land covered in shrubs. Among the shrubs were 47 bamboo trees he had bought from the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) in Maseno when he was fencing the land in 2007.
“They had become tall, towering over us. I realised I could make money out of them,” he says. He almost dismissed the idea when he started researching on bamboo-farming in Kenya.
There were no renowned farmers who had tried it. There were only small-scale farmers who were doing it for aesthetics. There was no market for the trees, and research companies were uncertain of the best breed that could be grown commercially in the region.
Mwanga was convinced his millions were buried in the bamboo trees. He stretched his research to the deepest crevasses of the internet where he met international bamboo growers who would discuss issues such as seedling development, plantation establishment, harvesting, post-harvest management and value addition.
Armed with the knowledge he amassed from the internet and books, he started developing seedlings through cuttings from the bamboos he already had.
“It was just my wife and I trying out something that was not just new to us, but new to everyone around us,” he says. They ignored many messages of doubt from friends who wondered why they would waste time and energy on growing things that could not yield food. “People recommended main crops grown in Western Kenya such as maize and beans. Bamboo was a weed to them.”
Nelly Oduor, the deputy national programme director at Kefri Forest Products Research says the journey of accepting bamboo as a marketable crop has been long.
In the early 1980s, when the only available bamboo was the indigenous highland species growing in mountainous areas, a few Kenyans tried out bamboo farming by plucking the shoots from the trees to grow in their farms. Their venture was short-lived when Government banned harvesting of bamboos in water towers, citing degradation of the mountains.
“Not much research was put into bamboo until recently. Most people did not understand the complexities of growing it, and potential benefits,” she says.
Mwanga says through his persistent research, he started propagating seeds and selling to locals who needed fencing material. Towards the end of 2013, his first big-break came as a lucky happenstance.
The World Bank was looking for anyone who could provide bamboo seedlings in Western Kenya. Mwanga and Flora took it up. The team wanted about 15,000 seedlings, yet Mwanga was used to making about 20 seedlings per day.
“We worked night and day, making almost 300 seedlings daily. We knew this was how we could prove ourselves,” he says. In a few days, they were ready to deliver the seedlings to the World Bank project sites in Vihiga and Bungoma counties.
In no time, people started calling them the “bamboo couple”. Their home became a centre where anyone who wanted to buy bamboo seedlings would step into for advice. They became the embodiment of teamwork and hard work.
In 2015, Water Resource Management Authority (WARMA) reached out to them to provide trees for a river bank protection project in Vihiga, Siaya, Kakamega and Nandi counties.
As he prepared the seedlings, he realised that things were finally falling into place. It was barely two years since he quit formal employment, and he was getting more than he did when he was employed.
Soon, word that a young bamboo farmer was steadily rising reached Kakamega Governor Wycliff Oparanya. “I got a sponsorship to go to Southern China for a learning tour, where I learnt all I could about the species that could grow in Kenya,” he says.
He also got admitted to the World Bamboo Congress, an association that brings together bamboo farmers around the world.
It has been a steady rise for them since then. On his two-acre farm, he has 415 mature trees, 130,000 seedlings, and he has a green house where he grows 45,000 seedlings.
The process, he says, involves getting the seeds, growing them in a greenhouse, transferring them to a shed net for hardening, then transplanting to a farm where they grow into maturity.
His biggest challenge is getting seeds. Since bamboo seeds are not available locally, he has to import from China.
Professor Gordon Tanui, acting director at Kenya Water Towers says even though they have been encouraging people to take up bamboo farming, access to seeds in Kenya is the biggest challenge.
“Researchers need to put their heads together to find solutions for farmers who may want to get into bamboo-farming,” he says.
Flora Mwanga helps not only in the farm, but in marketing products such as household equipment, furniture and cushions they make from the by-products.
“We use everything we get from the bamboos. From the stems to the chippings, nothing goes to waste,” she says.
Their farm has become not only their source of income, but a place where community groups that want to learn about bamboo-farming can make a stop.
Last year, they partnered with International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) to teach communities how to use bamboo as an alternative and sustainable source of income.