Years of deforestation has brought the forest sector to its knees. This sparked fears of acute water shortage across Kenya as water towers turned bare.
Fears of dry taps, especially in towns and cities, were real, as deforestation depleted state forests, leaving water levels in major rivers and streams at their lowest.
But now a solution is emerging in the form of the giant grass that is bamboo. It is fast getting recognition in Africa due to its quick growth, resilience and high ability to conserve soil and water. Its economic prospects can’t be overstated.
Kenya is now rehabilitating water towers through an ambitious bamboo-growing plan that is hoped will restore normal water levels.
Through the Kenya Water Towers Agency, the state plans to establish bamboo plantations in all the country’s water towers and build bamboo factories to encourage farm owners to grow bamboo, as the factory provides ready market.
Experts say bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, with certain species growing at 91cm within a 24-hour period — a growth rate of almost four cm an hour.
KWTA says it has begun a Sh2 billion plan to safeguard water-catchment areas. Board member Margaret Maranga says the agency is in talks with county governments as it scales up a coordinated effort to safeguard forest conservation.
Maranga says the agency has identified 70 water catchment areas that will soon be gazetted as water towers. The country currently has 18 gazetted water catchment areas, including the Abardaere Ranges, Mt Elgon, Mt Kulal, Loita Hills, the Mau Complex and Cherangany Hills.
Others include Mt Kenya, Marmanet Forest, Mt Kipipiri, Ndotos, Mt Marsabit, Huri Hills, Kirisia Hills, Nyambene Hills and Mathews Range.
A report by KWTA when the plan was mooted in 2015 read: “In addition to being a valuable cash crop, bamboo has numerous ecological services, including flood mitigation, recharge of ground water, reduced soil erosion and siltation, water purification, promotion of bio-diversity and micro-climate regulation.”
Maranga says the agency will establish a Sh200 million bamboo factory in Kaptagat forest, a key water tower in Elgeyo Marakwet. The factory will process mature bamboo stems to produce toothpicks and other products.
“We will break the ground in the next one or two months. A lot of discussion with counties is going on in terms of the scale of investment,” Maranga says
KWTA assistant director of partnerships Richard Kirop says the agency is constructing an eco park and a running track alongside the bamboo factory in Kaptagat.
Kirop says the agency, through the funding from the Environment ministry and other partners, will spend Sh2 billion to restore the glory of all water towers.
“We are now about to conclude the feasibility study for this project. We want to determine the bamboo stock that will sustain the factory,” Kirop says.
Elgeyo Marakwet Governor Alex Tolgos says the county government donated a 300 acre plot for the establishment of the factory and a demonstration centre.
He says the factory will create jobs for youths in four counties: Elgeyo Marakwet, Baringo, Uasin Gishu and Nandi.
The county chief says water levels in the county have fallen sharply following depletion of water catchment areas. “We are facing an acute shortage of water in the county and we want to reverse the trend,” Tolgos says.
Elgeyo Marakwet has the second-highest forest cover at 38 per cent after Nyeri. “Our aim as a county is to increase our forest cover to 60 per cent by encouraging locals to grow bamboo in their farms and earn from them,” Tolgos says.
Tolgos wants the agency to gazette the Elgeyo agency as a water tower so that forests in the county’s highlands are conserved.
The Kenya Forest Service, which is providing the technical assistance in the multimillion-shilling restoration plan, says bamboo will promote water retention and protect river banks.
Elgeyo Marakwet KFS conservator Anthony Musyoka says the bamboo will retain water in the forests and a constant water supply. Musyoka manages the Kaptagat as well as a bigger portion of Cherangany water towers.
Bamboo, forest experts say, is harvested between three to four years after planting. “A lot of caution must be exercised to ensure that selective harvesting of the bamboo is done once they mature,” Musyoka says.
The forest management chief says Benon and Kaptagat have been identified for the giant bamboo variety growing plan.
“The focus is on water sources that are on farmlands. This programme will ensure water systems and streams are effectively conserved,” he says.
He says the bamboo sheds a lot leaves that in turn improve soil fertility, adding, “The bamboo has been impressively regenerating after depletion of natural forests.”
Earlier this year, KFS entered a partnership to produce and process bamboo reeds in Tharaka Nithi, Nyandarua and Narok counties.
Farmers in Chuka-Igambang’ombe and Maara subcounties will be engaged in bamboo growing. The farmers will be expecting to sell 5,000ha of bamboo plantations in Mount Kenya forest to the processors.
A Forbes Magazine report of August 2011, listed Ethiopia as Africa’s top exporter of bamboo in the world. The report, titled “Seven countries’ surprising top exports”, reported that Ethiopia has more than one million hectares of land under bamboo.
The country, according to the report, exports bamboo primarily for building and home products, such as bamboo flooring.
Within Embobut forest in Marakwet East, bamboo was cut down as locals used reeds of the tall grass to fence farms and construct huts.
Michael Kipkemoi, a resident of Kapyego, says bamboo has been on the decline following years of depletion, but acknowledges that the plant has naturally regenerated in recent months after KFS stopped logging and intensified eviction of illegal forest dwellers.
Wanton cutting of bamboo led to decreasing water levels in Embobut, Embomon and Arror rivers. The two rivers join River Kerio in the Kerio Valley in a long flow to Lake Turkana.
“Nowadays, one has to get deeper into the forest to get bamboo. It is also almost impossible to transport because you risk arrest and prosecution,” Kipkemoi says.
In China, bamboo has been used in architectural art for over 7,000 years, according to China Daily. During the Han Dynasty, skilful craftsmen built a magnificent palace for Emperor Hanwudi with bamboo.
In southern China, where bamboo is available on a larger scale, bamboo stilt houses are common residences for the people.
Today, some minorities in Southwest China, like the Dai people in Yunnan, still live in the two-storied bamboo stilt houses. The upper floor of the house contains bedrooms, kitchens and balconies, and the ground floor is used to house poultry and domestic animals.
According to KWTA, a strategy for bamboo growing has been developed to address the whole value chain process and establish Bamboo Processing Units in a number of counties that host major water towers.
“We also need to establish a growers’ association and county working groups, to set up platforms for coordinating and regulating local and international trade partnerships and set standards,” the agency said in a report.
Other concerned institutions including, Kefri and Regional Authorities, have been tasked with profiling bamboo species’ quantity and creating a re-planting regime.
The report also tasks the agencies with supporting Community Forest Associations and Water Resources Users Associations for a large-scale production of bamboo. They should also embark on a grassroots campaign to create awareness on the bamboo enterprise.