What do we do with unusable land? How can we generate streams of extra revenue? What is bamboo good for?
The bamboo economy
The bamboo economy is based on the cyclical nature of the plant, and bamboo can generate direct revenue and be used for a variety of purposes.
A Bamboo Regional Hub (BRH) is an economic node that propagates, treats, and processes bamboo for use in construction, craft, and export.
It consists of a bamboo nursery, environmentally friendly bamboo treatment facility, and bamboo craft workshop.
A suitable location for a BRH is within a high concentration of existing available bamboo resources.
Various organisations including our own are working on identifying communities with access to existing bamboo plants. We are jointly formulating skills development courses and info-graphic material designed to empower these communities to enter the bamboo marketplace and ultimately become autonomous agents that manage their own hubs.
A BRH can manage and process existing bamboo resources, propagate clumping bamboo species, and replace alien, water-thirsty invasive tree/weed species with clumping bamboo.
Bamboo uses around 40% less water than what a eucalyptus or wattle plantation would use. Moreover, bamboo roots (rhizomes) do not go further than 1m below ground unlike deep eucalyptus tree roots that deplete the water table.
Community members can apply for certified training to register as a harvester or plant owner in order to sustainably harvest and trade bamboo following the BRH framework.
Bamboo construction technology is tried and tested, and bamboo is an environmentally responsible, rapidly renewable resource. RHSA have access to a team of architects, planners and engineers, and can develop working plans and provide supervision for the development of new BRHs.
A established BRH facilitates the cultivation, harvesting, and post-harvest processes, enabling the distribution of seedlings and usable construction resources within and around the community, promoting a local and sustainable industry. The following is a conceptual timeline of how a BRH may be set up.
 2021, 169, Everson CS et al, “Quantification of the evapotranspiration and stream flow reduction caused by bamboo species on water resources in So
Phase 1 / Year 1-2 – Site Selection, Planting
Bamboo is planted in a grid (which varies according to species) and is watered regularly during the first year of growth. If there are indigenous or otherwise useful plants, they can be worked around, to create a mosaic effect. The following species are suitable for planting along the east coast of South Africa.
- Dendrocalamus Asper – edible shoots, construction, craft
- Guadua angustifolia – construction
- Bambusa Bambos – landscaping (security), construction
- Bambusa Multiplex – landscaping (hedges) and crafts
- Beema Roxb – construction, bio fuels
Together these species will provide the variety necessary for a network of self-sufficient Bamboo Regional Hubs. See our species list for more details.
Phase 2 / Year 3-4 Water, Dwelling, and Waste Management
As the bamboos take root, a worker’s dwelling (1) is built from earth technology (sandbag / CSEB / adobe), bamboo and other available timbers. A toilet is also constructed, with the septic tank (2) being located in the bamboo grove. The seepage from the septic tank is absorbed by the growing bamboo. As time goes by, you will expand the bamboo plantation with respect to indigenous life (concept of mosaic plantations). Rain water also begins to be harvested at this time. The idea here is to close loops and create synergy between domestic waste water and bamboo. The process of building serves as a skills development workshop over several weeks.
Phase 3 / Year 5-6 – Bamboo Nursery, Bamboo Treatment Facility
As the bamboo matures, propagation and basic processing infrastructure is built, and rain-water collection and capacity is upgraded. There are two streams for bamboo production: propagation and processing. A Bamboo Nursery (3) facilitates the reproduction of desirable bamboo species throughout the year via cuttings and other means of propagation. This enables stable seedling supply for the next Bamboo Regional Hub and a new generation of growers. A Bamboo Treatment Facility (4) will process raw bamboo into a usable construction material. Untreated bamboo only lasts 2-3 years compared to 30-40 years if treated and used undercover. The treatment facility enables experimentation of various treatment techniques, including iterations of preservation by sap displacement (Boucherie) and hot and cold soaking techniques (Boric acid and Borax solution).
The most effective techniques will be documented and the process and results will be published by RHSA as open-source material. The treatment facility will be equipped for curing and drying the bamboo poles and strips.
Phase 4 / Year 7 Onwards – Bamboo Craft Workshop, Regional Hub Upgrades & Expansion
Once the main growing and processing infrastructure is set up, a Craft Workshop (5) is set up. The Craft Workshop is a space that enables the processing of bamboo into various products. Among these include daily utensils; furniture and housing components such as posts, beams, wall partitions, screens, roof trusses, doors, etc The Craft Workshop will also have a small commercial element to it, which will be context specific.
At RHSA we are developing our own bamboo processing technologies and systems adapted and fine tuned to the South African context. Once developed fully, these systems will be integrated into the BRH architecture.
The ultimate aim of the BRH is to produce construction grade material and bamboo products, to the benefit of the local community.
Phase 5 / Year 10+ – Expansion and Support
At this point production is at full capacity. During the wet season, seedling propagation and forest management are the main activities. During the dry season there is more emphasis on harvesting, treating and curing. Craft workshop and graded structural pole production continues all year round.
With sufficient plantations having at least 2 varieties of bamboo grown, it is possible to expand the BRH entirely out of bamboo and earth construction, with relatively small amounts of plastic, cement and steel needed only for the most critical structures and services. Each new BRH would catalyze another, as raw resources become abundant. Conceptually, this idea mimics the rhizome.
The BRH is a concept that continues to evolve as we learn more about the communities and clients we work with.
The more BRHs that are developed, the quicker it will be to start new ones due to the network effect coupled with the annual cycle of bamboo. It may be possible to condense the time frame for the establishment of a BRH, if there are sufficient bamboo resources around, and a sensible management plan is conceived.
RHSA offers support to anyone looking to plant and use bamboo.
Renewable Houses South Africa (Pty) Ltd 2021