What do wood floors, t-shirts, beer, fire-proof ceilings, window-blinds, bicycles, chopsticks, and the veneer on the inside of a luxury car have in common? They can all be made from bamboo, a plant so versatile that it often makes us wonder: Is there anything bamboo can't do?
As ongoing work by The International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) demonstrates, bamboo has another - and noteworthy - application to add to its list: it's also the raw material for a remarkable innovation helping poor farming communities avoid deforestation, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and supply food to their families.
Although usually associated with Asia and, sometimes, Latin America, many species of bamboo are also native to African countries. They grow extraordinarily fast and, unlike trees, will grow again after being cut down. Thus a bamboo ecosystem can be productive while continuing to store carbon.
INBAR has shown that using bamboo resources to make charcoal takes pressure off other forest resources, preventing deforestation and thus the release of previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.
What's more, bamboo can be planted on degraded lands to reestablish healthy ecosystems, or in already deforested areas to reduce competition between land for biomass and land for food.
To add to its mitigation value, there is even evidence that bamboo charcoal burns cleaner than wood charcoal and with comparable heating and energy values. Charcoal production is another way for families to diversify their livelihoods and earn some additional income, and the relatively limited investments required for the simple charcoal-making process make it an income source that is accessible to many.
THE PROBLEM WITH WOOD CHARCOAL
Poor electricity coverage means that 70 to 90 percent of Africans rely on biomass - that is, wood or wood-based charcoal - for energy purposes. Charcoal is affordable, available, transportable, and comparable to other energy sources in performance.
In fact, charcoal production is a huge industry in Africa, providing jobs and a source of income for millions. The World Agroforestry Center estimates yearly production of 3.2 million tons in Ethiopia, 700,000 tons in Zambia, 1 million tons in Tanzania, and 2.4 million tons in Kenya. World Bank statistics say that the charcoal sector creates at least 20 times more jobs than the petroleum sector in Africa.
The problem? Wood for charcoal production is usually harvested unsustainably. Increasing dependence on firewood and charcoal for cooking and heating makes the industry one of the principle drivers of deforestation in African countries.
In Ethiopia, 141,000 hectares of forest cover are lost every year; in 2005, 111 million cubic meters of wood were harvested from these forests. Ghana's forests are diminishing by 115,000 hectares every year, and 25-28 million cubic meters of wood are being harvested. The degraded ecosystems left can no longer support the energy needs of a community, as the biomass that remains may be too far away or too expensive for the poor to access.
Even when plenty of food is available, no fuel to cook it with means no dinner on the table - a real dilemma for food security.
GETTING THE FIRE STARTED
A four-year INBAR project is the first to develop bamboo firewood and charcoal as an alternative energy source in Ghana and Ethiopia. INBAR relies on a South-South exchange of knowledge and technology from Asia to Africa to introduce bamboo charcoal to rural communities, and later supports training and capacity building for sustainable management of bamboo resources. Often these resources already exist in a community, but their potential is simply unknown.
At the local level, demonstration kilns, community-level training sessions, and educational workshops serve to raise awareness of bamboo as an effective energy source. Nationally, INBAR is increasing the range of useable bamboo species available in Ghana and Ethiopia, establishing micro and small enterprises, and supporting government and civil society organizations in the development of the bamboo charcoal value chain.
INBAR's efforts have already proven fruitful: over 600 hectares of new bamboo have been planted in Ethiopia and Ghana since 2009, 10,000 hectares of existing stands placed under management, 4,000 individuals trained in production processes, and 550 tons of bamboo charcoal produced. Over 10,000 households have started using bamboo for fuel, a significant step towards sustainable, renewable energy use.
Other African countries with deforestation issues and firewood or charcoal shortages have begun looking to bamboo to alleviate pressure on their forest resources. This versatile plant is quite literally on fire - saving forests, storing carbon, bolstering livelihoods, and ensuring a food-secure future for those that rely on it.
Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher and science writer based at the Center for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. Dr. Yannick Kuehl is a forest and climate change expert in the Environmental Sustainability Programme at the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR). INBAR is participating in Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day on 3 December, held in parallel with the climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar. For more information on the "Bamboo for household energy in Africa project," contact Yannick Kuehl (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Manoj Nadkarni (email@example.com)