In the developed world where a flip of a switch or twist of a knob starts food heating the idea of gathering dung, wood or making charcoal for food preparation is a nearly horrifying thought. But for billions of humans, that procedure is a daily routine.
It isn’t possible for people to join in the world of trade, increasing incomes and raising living standards to the developed world’s condition without getting through the food gathering and preparation needed at far more productive time scales. Increasing human population is making the food issue even more complex, and much of the forests of the less developed world are disappearing and the result is soil destruction. Tree growth can’t compensate fast enough.
Bamboo just might.
Bamboo is a plant not often associated with Africa because it’s being not exploited. But it grows there as well as in Asia, and it can be used as an alternative source of energy. China, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) and a partnership among African nations and communities are working to substitute bamboo charcoal and firewood for forest wood. The European Union and the Common Fund for Commodities are funding the initiative. The market is huge, 80 percent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa depend on naturally occurring fuel sources for their energy needs.
Dr. J. CoosjeHoogendoorn, Director General of INBAR says, “Bamboo, the perfect biomass grass, grows naturally across Africa and presents a viable, cleaner and sustainable alternative to wood fuel. Without such an alternative, wood charcoal would remain the primary household energy source for decades to come with disastrous consequences.”
Initial successes with bamboo charcoal in Ghana and Ethiopia, which have put bamboo biomass at the center of renewable energy policies, are spurring interest in countries across the continent and prompting calls for greater investment in bamboo-based charcoal production as a ‘green biofuel’ that could fight deforestation and soil degradation.
INBAR’s bamboo as sustainable biomass energy initiative is the first to transfer bamboo charcoal technologies from China to sub-Saharan Africa to produce sustainable ‘green biofuels’ using locally available bamboo resources.
Roughly it takes seven to 10 tons of raw wood to produce one ton of wood charcoal, making wood fuel collection an important driver of deforestation on a continent of nearly one billion people, who have few alternative fuel sources.
Professor Karanja M. Njoroge, Executive Director, Green Belt Movement points out, “Bamboo grows naturally across Africa’s diverse landscapes, but unlike trees, it regrows after harvest and lends itself very well for energy plantations on degraded lands. We should put it to good use to provide clean energy for the continent.” Sub-Saharan Africa has over 2.75 million hectares of bamboo forest, equivalent to roughly 4 per cent of the continent’s total forest cover.
MelakuTadesse, National Coordinator for Climate Change Unit at Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture explains the route to sustaining a bamboo fuel system, “With further investment and policy reform, community kiln technologies could be up-scaled to reach thousands of communities in Ethiopia.”
The resource is there; bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet and produces large amounts of biomass, making it an ideal energy source. Tropical bamboos can be harvested after three years, compared to the two to six decades needed to generate a timber forest.
The entire bamboo plant, including the stem, branch and its rhizome, can be used to produce charcoal, making it highly resource-efficient, with limited waste. Its high heating value also makes it an efficient fuel.
The charcoal production is like any other, the controlled burning of bamboo in kilns, whether traditional, metal, or brick.
The partnership is looking at technology adapted to produce larger quantities of charcoal to serve a larger number of rural and urban communities as well as to produce bamboo charcoal briquettes that are ideal for cooking because it burns longer, produces less smoke and air pollution than ‘natural’ charcoal.
China, a global leader in the production and use of bamboo charcoal, where the business sector is worth an estimated $1 billion a year and employs over 60,000 people in more than 1,000 businesses is bringing industrial partners, including the Nanjing Forestry University and Wenzhao Bamboo Charcoal Company who are helping to adapt equipment like brick kilns, grinders and briquette machines, and hand tools, for bamboo charcoal and briquette production using the local materials.
The idea brings energy production, jobs and sales to customers. In addition to charcoal, bamboo offers many new opportunities for income generation. It is being processed into a vast range of wood products, from floorboards to furniture and from charcoal to edible shoots.
In Ghana where the first stage of the idea is underway, 300 micro small enterprises in the program area have been established with over 2,000 growers cultivating bamboo as well as charcoal production and some 7,000 low-income local households are expected to use bamboo charcoal as cooking fuel by the close of the project year in 2014. A total of 505 metric tons of bamboo charcoal have been produced for October and November of 2011.
That has led and supports efforts of cultivating bamboo, having seen the planting of 11,733 seedlings out of 14,880 seedlings propagated from 15 different species selected across the globe.
Ghana is motivated – bamboo technology is a welcome concept because the rate of forest depletion shows the country has lost about 6.6 million hectares of forest cover since the beginning of the last century and has the highest rate of deforestation of 2.19% globally – a disaster in the making.
Bamboo could be an African turning point, the partnership envisions leaders, policy-makers, private sector, metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies, religious and traditional authorities as well as civil society organizations leading the crusade towards saving the forests and the environment from destruction and end its ability to support the human population.
It’s all really hopeful in a continent where human life remains so challenged, politically adrift and at the mercy of nature’s competitive onslaughts on life. It time for Africans to help themselves much more and a technology transfer from China may just do the trick.
We wish them luck and success and a Thank You to the Chinese.
By. Brian Westenhaus