As a nation, South Africa has been trying to develop a bamboo industry for almost 20 years, but driven by a handful of small players it has seen limited success. In 2011 the ECDC and others to facilitate growth, secure investment and maximize the potential to generate a large number of jobs for rural areas carried out a symposium in the Eastern Cape. As with many new industries, there was not enough traction to carry this forward and the few small pilot projects either did not take off or were not able to sustain themselves.
However recent events look like the tides may have finally turned with serious interest in both private sector and government in the potential for the country over the past decade. A symposium held by the Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC), with a grant from the British Academy Newton Mobility Grant Project, brought together key stakeholders to understand better the challenges faced and initiate a new drive for South Africa’s bamboo industry.
EcoPlanet Bamboo a global leader in the development of sustainable bamboo plantations chose South Africa in 2012 as the company’s choice for expansion after successful bamboo plantation development in Nicaragua, Central America. Over the past five years the company has, quietly and behind the scenes developed the 485 hectare Kowie Bamboo Farm, located in the Bathurst region of the Eastern Cape, into the first Forest Stewardship Council Forest Management certified bamboo farm in Africa. During the Durban workshop EcoPlanet Bamboo’s Chief Operating Officer Camille Rebelo highlighted the need for a more cohesive group of stakeholders and partnership if bamboo is to have impact at scale in South Africa, and provided an overview of the company’s interesting structure in the Eastern Cape with a trio of companies, including the bamboo farm but also the investment into manufacturing through EcoPlanet Core Carbon and much needed investment into R&D through the third sister entity EPB Laboratories.
Since the 2012 development of the Kowie Bamboo Farm in the Eastern Cape, a new government driven initiative has also seen success in transforming the bamboo industry for South Africa. Green Grid Energy, driven by Derek Naidoo, former Deputy City Manager, has initiated a 300 hectare plantation also of Bambusa balcooa in the Ilembe District. This bamboo farm has a clear market and target end use, which is the production of renewable energy to power a Sappi mill in the region. Green Grid Energy undertakes a different model, focused on high yield, through irrigated bamboo fields. Both Mr. Naidoo and associate Michiel Smit presented on many of the same challenges that are experienced across all bamboo stakeholders, which covers both challenges around growing the bamboo itself and also around the political climate at all levels, local, regional and national. Green Grid Energy identified a lack of research and research institutions focused on bamboo as a key barrier.
Outside of these two key players in South Africa’s bamboo industry a number of other entities provided input and suggested frameworks. Brightside Bamboo comes from the other end of the supply chain as an importer of bamboo from China to feed into South African markets, while farmer Guy Solomon shared his experiences on the growing of bamboo at small scale on his KZN farm.
In summary these stakeholders came together identifying similar challenges for bamboo to meet the desired targets in the country, including the high potential for job creation and the conversion of some of the country’s dry and degraded lands into productive ecosystems.
We hope that strategic partnerships and alliances forged will help these key stakeholders, with Green Grid Energy and EcoPlanet Bamboo at the helm to finally overcome the historical trend and look forward to seeing the progression of bamboo as a positive crop for our South African environment and rural economies.