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Bamboo Economy

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When Tegen Tsegaye, 29, first joined the Ethio-Swedish Training Institute in 1996, he was planning to become a skilled bamboo furniture maker and start his own business. After his very successful 12 month stay there, he was chosen to teach at another of the Institute’s facilities. Though his achievements as a student had given him the opportunity to impart the knowledge he had gained, he was also deterred from the dream of establishing his own business.

Tegen accepted the position and was assigned to the Awassa branch of the Institute, where he stayed on for three years. He was earning 1,700 Br a month. He taught orphaned children how to make the very same bamboo furniture that he was taught to make.

“Bamboo is ideal for making furniture or any other items that you may need for your home,” he says. “In Ethiopia, however, bamboo is traditionally considered to be a poor man’s material.”

There have been repeated studies that manifest the advantages of the bamboo plant. In addition to bamboo forests being abundant, processing requires relatively low level machinery. Most importantly, bamboo is a useable building material in its natural form, the round poles.

Bamboo is used for everything, from house framing and flooring, to thatch cladding for walls and ceilings; it is even used as shingles for roofs. Even in countries where bamboo has not traditionally been used in the past, it is starting to establish itself as a more exclusive building material for the upper class market.

“I am sure my students have benefited from the training on how to make bamboo furniture,” says Tegene. “The demand for bamboo furniture is growing, so at least they are guaranteed a means for a livelihood.”

After teaching theoretical and practical lessons at the Institute for three years, Tegen was forced to return to Addis Abeba. The Institute that had taught him his vocation and given him his job was now closed. He had nothing but his furniture making skills. He found a job with a private bamboo workshop, earning less than he did whilst in Awassa.

“Even though I was not making a lot of money at the time, that was the period when I learned how the bamboo furniture business functioned,” he says. “I began to learn what kind of products the market demanded.”

He stayed on at the workshop for three years, honing his skills and learning the business. In 2008, he opened his own small workshop and display showroom next to St Uriel Church, along Ghana Street in Yeka District, where he paid 800 Br a month for rent.

When he first opened the workshop, he used to produce cheap and low quality products. Demand, at the time, was not so high for bamboo furniture.

“My customers were people who could not afford to buy furniture made from more expensive materials,” he said. “Bamboo was already viewed as a low quality and inexpensive product.”

Tegen explained that this was based partly on the poor craftsmanship on display at the markets and the tendency of craftsmen to use immature culms that have not been dried properly. The result was furniture that is prone to distortion, cracking, termite attacks and fungi.

After four years of producing and selling different furniture made from bamboo, Tegen’s customer base has changed dramatically. His customers range from big hotels to cafes, luxury houses to lodges and, additionally, diplomats and expatriates. Many are attracted to the furniture primarily because of its beauty. Just as importantly though, many of his customers are also beginning to understand and appreciate the cultural value of bamboo work.

He produces all small and large scale household furniture from dining chairs and stools to double beds, and six piece sofa sets. He also provides bamboo finishing work for walls, ceilings and floors, keeping the space in question fully cultural.

“Most people and companies now understand the beauty and durability of bamboo,” says Tegene. “This was unthinkable just a few years ago.”

There are hordes of road side bamboo workshops and display stores on the same street, around St Uriel Church. It is the densest concentration of bamboo retailers in the capital.

Urban bamboo furniture makers buy their culms from Merkato wholesalers. The wholesalers collect the bamboo from all over the country. The cost of the culms varies according to their size. Wholesalers buy a truckload of up to 1,000 culms, for prices ranging from six to 15 Br. They in turn sell them to the road side workshops for 30 to 45Br each before, the culms dry.

Despite the massive profit margins, the wholesalers at Merkato complain that they lose scores of culms to spoilage, because they do not have enough buyers. Many culms end up being sold for fire wood, three Br for a culm according to Kedir Suleiman, a wholesaler for the past five years at Merkato, Doro Terra.

A study by the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), in 2009, revealed that Ethiopia has 959,662ha of highland and lowland bamboo. This corresponds to two thirds of Africa’s current total bamboo resources. Benishangul Gumuz Regional State is home to the  largest proportion of it.

Many farmers in the highlands manage and harvest highland bamboo in small stands on their farms; they harvest the culms from November to February and from June to September. The buyers of the culms include local furniture makers and consumers who use it for construction materials.

Large scale bamboo manufacturing is little known in Ethiopia, with only two factories currently in operation, and a third one currently having its machinery installed.

Bamboo Star Agroforestry, established four years ago, employs 250 people in Benishangul Gumuz Region, Assossa Zone.  It has 393,000ha of bamboo plantations, in four zones of the Region. The company produces bamboo flooring, ceilings, and toothpicks. It supplies finished bamboo products on a large scale to the construction market in the capital.

“We have a significant customer base in the local real estate companies,” said Mickael Gebru, CEO of the company.

According to him, Bamboo Star Agroforestry has distributed 500,000 bamboo plants to the farmers in the area and is planning to plant up to one million bamboos in the coming year.

“We are focusing on exporting flooring and ceiling to different countries,” he said. “We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to export to Saudi Arabia.”

Adal Industrial Group PLC is also involved in large scale production at its factory in Sidamo. The company, established in 1989, first began its relationship with bamboo by producing incense sticks. In 1995 it expanded its use of the plant and started producing bamboo toothpicks. Nine years later, in 2004, the company introduced technology from the Far East and began producing bamboo flooring, curtains, table mats and charcoal briquettes.

African Bamboo PLC, the third company planning to get involved in bamboo production is currently installing machinery at its new facility around Mekanisa, in Nefas Silk Lafto District, according to its owner, Khalid Duri.  The company intends to produce bamboo panels for outdoor decking, construction and pre-fabricated bamboo houses.

Though an inspired few may have taken bamboo production to a larger scale, the roadside workshops in Addis Abeba still share materials and meagre workshops. Despite the obvious advantages, the smaller businesses hardly ever source their materials or advertise their products together to increase efficiency.

“The only thing we focus on is our workshop,” says Semreteab Tekeste, owner of a bamboo workshop and showroom near St Uriel. “Our customers are walk-ins and come to us on their own.”

Semreteab claims that there is a severe lack of expertise and efficiency in the bamboo production and retail business. But for him, that is not the biggest problem.

“We do not get any support whatsoever from the government,” he grumbles.

The 2009 IIED study also shows that there is an extremely high degree of waste, during both harvesting and processing. Only the top halves of the culms are harvested, due to the greater demand for thinner, greener, and more easily workable bamboo. The remaining culms are difficult to coppice and represent a significant loss of raw materials, according to the study.

“This is because of the lack of modern technology and trained manpower we are facing,” says Semreteab.

The smaller furniture maker, Tegen, is also looking into markets in South Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

“They are approaching us because they like the furniture we make,” he says.

The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), on its website, states: “The huge bamboo resource base, the availability of trained people, the ongoing project developments supported by partners and the pioneering industries in the sector are the favourable conditions for the thriving nature of the sector in this country”.

There are ongoing discussions with China to establish a Bamboo Training Centre for Africa in Ethiopia; complete with a multipurpose botanical garden, in the near future.

The International Network for Bamboo & Rattan (INBAR), an intergovernmental organisation based in China, is currently working with the MoA to develop and promote innovative solutions to poverty and environmental sustainability using bamboo and rattan.

This organisation recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with African Bamboo PLC to cooperate on a 30ha bamboo reforestation project outside Hawassa, which according to INBAR’s website has been done “in order to facilitate the possible generation of carbon credits in the form of voluntary emissions reductions (VERs)”.

According to Tesfaye Hunde, the East African bamboo director of INBAR, there are around 50 small and medium enterprises and three factories in Ethiopia specialising in bamboo.

The Ministry of Agriculture is planning to double the current bamboo forest coverage of the country over the coming five years.

“Instead of cutting trees that are a hundred years old, it is better to cut bamboo which can double itself within three years,” he said.

Bamboo grows in all regions of Ethiopia, except Afar, Somali and Harari.



BY YETNEBERK TADELE
FORTUNE STAFF WRITER

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