Nearly 70 kilometres from Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, is the distance you would have to travel to reach Afribam’s green island in Mchinji.
As the gate slides to one side, revealing a very long avenue that disappears into the distance, it is almost like you have entered a different world altogether. It is actually a different world, a very sharp contrast to the areas surrounding this plantation which are characterised by fields awaiting the next growing season, sparsely punctuated by sporadic lonely trees and remnants of the last growing season. Other than these features, the fields can better be described as bald in comparison with the 12 hectares of land where thick and tall bamboo stand.
A fresh breeze immediately greets you. As it shakes the leaves, the bamboos crackle as they bow for the wind and the chirping of birds perched on them come in tune, thereby creating its own beautiful ambience, again in sharp contrast to what is just outside the gate. This is surely a forest, but not a typical forest with all sorts of trees. This is a forest of bamboo, bamboo that towers nearly five metres.
A Land Cruiser roars through the road that splits the plantation almost midway, and from it alights Grant Blumrick, Afribam’s Managing Director. From the first minute, it is obvious that he is passionate about what he does here. He narrates Afribam’s vision of placing bamboo as a sustainable alternative to trees which take more time to grow and become usable, coupled with the fact that bamboo can be grown in places not conducive for trees.
“Our philosophy is that a family can plant, say, three or four seedlings behind their bathrooms where the dirty water goes. In this way, the bamboo will be exposed to a lot of water and in a year or so, they can harvest it for use in the household as fuelwood or raw material for building,” explains Blumrick.
After a year, the bamboo can grow to a diameter of 50 millimetres, 100 millimetre after two, and in three years the bamboo can grow more than 150 millimetres.
“This is indeed a good alternative to trees. Bamboos are easy to grow and take less time to mature as compared to trees,” explains Blumrick.
Blumerick says it’s sad that people usually plant trees so that they can cut them down later.
“Trees should be planted for the sake of the environment, not to be cut down,” he says.
Afribam’s initiative has not gone without opposition, as some critics have said that bamboo is not good for the ecosystem, an allegation Blumrick trashes almost immediately.
“It is absurd to say bamboos are not good for the ecosystem. There are birds in the bamboo, goats can eat the leaves, and the roots enable the soil to breathe,” he says as he reaches for the foliage covering the soil. He reaches through the fallen leaves that form a thick carpet over the soil, and scoops a handful of soil. The soil is interlaced with roots and looks well aerated.
“These roots do not go beyond a metre deep. As such, the bamboo does not negatively affect groundwater levels. As I have already pointed out, bamboo actually helps in the retention of soil moisture,” says Blumrick.
In Malawi, one of the commonest bamboo species is the Yellow bamboo. But this is not the bamboo that is grown at Afribam’s Lisoka Estate. The plantation boasts of an exotic variety. Blumrick’s worry is that other companies import different bamboo species from elsewhere while claiming they are of the same variety as those at Lisoka.
“Mine is the Dendrocalamus Asper, which I import from China. But others are importing totally different species from other countries such as India which do not grow as much as these do. But unfortunately, they claim it is this variety. I feel they are cheating those who expect the bamboo to grow as big as these I have here because they will not grow this big,” says Blumrick.
Dendrocalamus Asper is also known as Giant Bamboo or Dragon Bamboo. This species of the plant is native to Southeast Asia and Indonesia. It thrives in tropical and even Malawi’s subtropical climates .
To ensure that its nurseries have a steady supply of water throughout the year, Afribam created a dam over a stream that runs through the plantation. Other than providing water for the bamboo nurseries, the dam is also a source of manure as the weeds that grow over the water surface are harvested and turned into manure which is used at the farm.
The water from the dam, Blumrick says, has also enabled small-scale irrigation farmers downstream to cultivate various crops all year round. Standing at the edge of the dam, one can indeed see various lush green vegetable fields in the distance. In some of these fields, farmers are busy irrigating their crops with the water from the stream that flows from the farm’s dam.
“Initially, people thought we wanted to deprive them of the water when we created the dam. But now they appreciate what we did as the water is now available throughout the year. Before this dam, the stream could go dry at some point in the year,” explains Blumrick.
A dusty road extends from the dam and splits into different directions as it enters the plantation. These roads circle round and dissect the plantation. But though this cobweb of roads can also be said to be acting as firebreaks, Blumrick says bushfires are the least on their list of worries.
“Bamboo is grass, so it has a higher chance of survival even in case of fire,” he says, “just like other grass, the bamboo would sprout back.”
From the mature bamboo, Afribam makes charcoal which they sell at its office at Lilongwe City Centre and also in other prominent supermarkets within the capital city and beyond.
“If you compare it with the charcoal that people make from trees, this is a more efficient source of energy. And given that it is made from a sustainable source, it is a plus,” says Blumrick.
Bamboo has gained attention for its potential role in removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which would contribute to keeping global warming below 1.5C and restoring forests at an even faster rate. It is estimated that on an average, one hectare of bamboo absorbs about 17 tonnes of carbon per year. A report by the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), references a study that projects carbon stored in Chinese bamboo forests to increase from 727 million metric tons in 2010 to 1,018 million metric tons in 2050 — or by nearly 40 percent in as many years. In addition, the report indicates that bamboo may help reduce reliance on fossil fuels by providing an alternative, renewable energy source. Bamboo may also help protect wildlife habitat. It further states that 1.7 billion people around the world rely on biomass, such as wood, as their primary energy source; planting bamboo groves may reduce dependence on and destruction of natural forest for fuel.
With Malawi losing about 33,000 hectares of forest annually to illegal logging, bamboo production might be what the country needs to enhance its resilience to the harsh effects of climate change and swiftly restore degraded land.
While supporting restoration efforts such as those introduced by Afribam, deputy director in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change, Titus Zulu, also acknowledges the degree of damage on the ground.
He explains that with the help of all sectors of society, the Ministry is planning to set up various programs that will promote bamboo cultivation under the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (Afr100).
Afr100 is a country-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of land in Africa into restoration by 2030. Malawi signed its commitment to achieve this in 2016.
“The Department of Forestry understands the need to restore 4,500,000 hectares under Afr100. Under this program the Department has set aside 150,000 hectares of land to plant bamboo. This program will be undertaken by all sectors of society,” he explains.
Additionally, Zulu says, “The Department has programs on the ground to push for rapid adoption of bamboo planting in the country. Such programs include bamboo planting with tobacco farmers, bamboo research to introduce as many bamboo species as possible, supporting projects that plant bamboo in their impact areas.”
Despite backing these government-led initiatives, Herbert Mwalukomo, Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) is quick to point out the need for bamboo to be planted in areas where it will not compromise other land uses. “We need to put in place measures that will ensure that the bamboo that is being planted is in no way compromising other land uses such as the growing of food crops.”
And just like Blumrick, he as well cautions against the introduction of invasive species of bamboo which can greatly derail the gains made with acceptable varieties like giant bamboo and other local kinds.
In response to these concerns, the Forestry department makes an assurance that the giant bamboo species that they are promoting have undergone necessary tests and approval for use by the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi and planting will be on suitable land. The Dendrocalamus Asper bamboo species thrives in Malawi’s subtropical climate. For the looming tree planting season, it is anticipated that bamboo seedlings from the Institute will be distributed across the country as a way of ensuring that locals are playing their role in bringing solutions to problems that they had a hand in not only creating but also exacerbating their impacts.
“Locals are at the core of these initiatives because they are facing unprecedented hardships in accessing fuel wood for their various food processing and economic needs,” says Zulu.
Millions of trees are planted annually across Malawi with the hope of restoring degraded land and mitigating climate change. However, not many of these survive due to uncontrolled bushfires. The introduction of bamboo seedlings this season is bound to positively impact this endeavour in the coming years, one way or another. In addition to the traditional woodlots, authorities need to promote communities to grow bamboos at a large scale and come up with plantations like Afribam’s plantation in Mchinji.