Bamboo for profits: The things you need to know

Bamboo Trees

Bamboo is one of the most versatile tree grass with the ability to grow even in poorest soils. It grows well in any type of soil with a Ph of between 6-8 and requires lowest inputs and care. Bamboo is most valued thanks to its multiple usage that has earned it ‘golden tree’ name across the world. Evans Ongiro, a plant specialist from Isinya Farm shares tips on growing bamboo for commercial purposes.

Where to get seedlings in Kenya

The simplest way to propagate lucky bamboo is by taking cuttings, which can be trimmed off the parent plant with clean scissors or gardening shears. Place these cuttings directly in water until new roots have formed. Bamboo can also be propagated by planting the cuttings in fresh, moist soil with plenty of drainage. You can also grow from seedlings.

Kajiado County's Isinya Kitil Farm, a bamboo specialist, is one of the leading distributors of both bamboo plantlets and seedlings for local and international markets.

The company has an online platform where farmers easily purchase or book for their specific variety. Each plantlet goes for Sh50 and is packaged in a tray containing 66 items. Seedlings measuring six to nine inches are sold at Sh200 each and farmers are not restricted on quantity of seedlings to purchase. The farms also sell bamboo mini clumps at Sh500.

Land preparation and planting

Planting bamboo does not necessarily require one to plough the whole farm.

“One is only required to dig holes with a spacing of 5 by 5 metres,” says Ongiro.

According to him bamboo clums meant for the production of edible shoots, animal, chicken fodder planting can be planted on a closer spacing of 2.5 to 3metres.

“Place the bamboo seedling at the centre of the hole before filling it with soil mixed with manure,” he says. 

Mulching

Bamboo is a woody grass and its roots and rhizomes benefit greatly from top dressing of mulch. “Some suitable mulch material can be bark or leaf mulch, grass, manure, compost, chipped wood and sawdust,” says Ongiro. 

“Typically 5 to 15 cm of mulch is sufficient for bamboo grown in the ground. In areas with severe cold weather, apply at least 30cm deep layer of mulch,” he says.

Fertiliser application

Although not mandatory, it has been established that adding fertiliser to bamboo can promote its growth and more vibrant leaves.

“Bamboo, just like other grasses, consumes large amounts of nitrogen hence any fertiliser rich in this nutrient like 20N 5P 5K is suited for it,” says Ongiro.

According to him the most preferred fertiliser for bamboo is organic compost or manure, which is applied by top dressing the growing area.

The recommended time for fertiliser application is during the shooting.

Pest and disease control

“Bamboo contains a substance that gives the plant a natural resistance to pest and fungi infestation, though some problems do still exist in some plantations,” says Ongiro.

This anti-bacterial property makes bamboo farming more economical than many agricultural based investments.

“However, some bamboo seedlings can be affected by leaf rust. The rust can be can be controlled using any fungicide,” he says.

Weeding

The growth of bamboo plants can be hampered by weeds and other competing vegetation. It is important to control and arrest the growth of weeds around each bamboo clump.

Failure to do so will invariably result in poor root and stem development in the young bamboos.

“An area within a radius of 60cm around each plant should be cleared of all weeds and competing vegetation then apply mulching,” says Ongiro.

Pruning

Pruning is the cutting and removal of culms, branches or leaves of the bamboo. This can be done with sharp pruners depending on the thickness of the culm.

“Pruning branches gives the stem a robust growth and width. Once any part of the bamboo is cut, it will grow again, a property that allows the crop's dimensions to be permanently controlled,” says Ongiro.

“When pruning bamboo, make cuts just above the culm node and cut above the branch node when pruning branches,” he says.

Harvesting

“Bamboo stems mature in three yrs after transplanting and can survive for at least eight years.” says Ongiro.

Harvesting is done sometimes throughout the year or twice when sap content is low depending on the ecological conditions and type of bamboo.

“Lack of harvesting leads to congestion of clump, resulting to poor quality and quantity of bamboo stems,” says Ongiro.

Bamboo is ripe for harvesting when it within three to four years.

“Harvesting of this tree is, however, labour intensive as it requires more than an individual to safely remove a single culm without damaging surrounding ones,” he says.

Economic value of bamboo

Bamboo is used to make a long list of high-value products. In fact, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the plant has over 2,000 different uses, with nearly 10,000 uses that can fetch even more money if processed.

Commercially bamboo is used for furniture and a variety of building and roofing materials, from fencing poles to veneer, floor tiles, panels for walls and ceilings, door and window frames and window blinders.

In the paper and pulp industry, bamboo can be made into newsprint, toilet paper and cardboard, which would help to conserve forests. The textile, food and chemical industries convert bamboo into fabrics, T-shirts, wine, vinegar, biochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Domestically bamboo is used to make mats, baskets, canoes, fishing kits, bicycles, fences, toothpicks, school desks, pencils and rulers, to name just a few products.

Challenges with bamboo plants

While market is readily available, you may have to do a bit of marketing just to create sustainable demand for your product.

For example, the three years that you would have to wait for the crop to mature, should be enough for you to create a buzz around your farm so that you are assured of earning from your sweat when the day of harvest arrives.

Apart from direct marketing, you can get a little innovative to create and sell bamboo products.

If you have not thought of planting a bamboo tree, now is the time!


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