Sunday, September 21, 2008


Gigantis Bamboo plantation Bamboo HouseTHE TWO BAMBOOS OF ETHIOPIA
Walter Liese

Chair for Wood Biology,University Hamburg
Leuschnerstr. 91, D 21031 Hamburg, Germany


Only two bamboo species exist in Ethiopia, which is one of the largest, densily populated and poorest countries of Africa. The bamboos occur in two different ecological zones. The monopodial „high land“ bamboo Arundinaria alpina grows in altitudes from 2.200 - 3.500 m and the sympodial „low land“ bamboo Oxytenanthera abyssinica between 700- 1.800 m. Both are of considerable socio-economic importance for the rural population. The use of the bamboo groves follows traditional customs. The culms are often the only construction material for houses and fences and have also to serve as valuable energy resource. A.alpina is processed for simple furniture, either made locally or in Addis Ababa from culms transported over a long distance. Ethiopia’s important natural resource bamboo is endangered by poor managment and by negligence. A recent LUSO CONSULT „Study on the bamboo managment and utilization in Ethiopia“ has elaborated the present situation with recommendations for the improvement of managment and utilization of bamboo to benefit the farmers as well as the handicraft business.
Bamboo can contribute considerably to the sustainable development of the rural areas in Ethiopia.
Beside the two bamboo species also two reed species have to be considered, since they are partly used as a substitute for bamboo.


The aim of the paper is to enlighten the existence of the only two bamboo species in Ethiopia, their importance for the rural people and the need for further promotion. The presentation is based on a „ Study on suitable bamboo managment“ by LUSO CONSULT on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH, Eschborn (1997). The team consisted of G. Simon, M. Admassu, E. Boa, G. Hadera, B. Kigomo, W.Liese, G. Melsbach, and W. van Rooij, for the various objectives of the study.
Ethiopia has a size three times of Germany and 56 mill. inhabitants. The annual consumption for fuelwood and also construction material of 1.2 cbm per capita amounts to a total of about 65 mill m³. This high demand is mainly met by the about 1.4 mill ha Eucalypts plantations with an average yield of 15 cbm/ ha and further plantings. The green belt around the capital of about 45.000 ha Eucalypts produces annually 22 m³/ha with a total of about 1 mill m³. Regionally bamboo plays an important role as a supplement or alternative material. However, in whole Ethiopia only two bamboo species occur under specific environmental conditions, the highland bamboo, Arundinaria alpina and the lowland bamboo Oxytenanthera abyssinica. No further species has ever been tried. This is quite in contrast to neigbouring countries, like Kenia, where 14 bamboo species have been planted, partly on an experimental basis (Kigomo 1988, Kigomo and Sigu 1995). Ethiopia has a large bamboo potential, which is hardly recognized by the authorities, because bamboo is often considered more as a weed than a valuable forest resource.

The study purpose was to evaluate the contribution of a sustainable use of bamboo in selected areas of the highland and lowland in order to increase the awareness of bamboo as a valuable natural resource and the income especially of the rural population. Emphasis was also given to the socio-economic factors by a people-bamboo systems approach, which is not to be dealt here. The following presentation concentrates on the characteristics of the two bamboo species and their utilization.


Characteristics. The African alpine bamboo Arundinaria alpina (K. Schum.) grows in the highlands of East Africa at an elevation between 2.200- 3.500 m at lower temperatures between 10-20°C. Its occurence is confined to fertile sites well above 2.000 m. In Ethiopia A. alpina exists in the higher and more humid parts of the NW and SE highlands with a rainfall between 1.500 and 2.5000 mm and a short dry season. It grows gregariously, not in clumps and has a stout rhizome . It exists in pure stands and also in patches around farmsteads and is fully integrated in the farmers economy. A. alpina is a monopodial, medium sized bamboo with straight culms of 12-20 m height and a base diameter of 8-12 ( 20) cm (Fig.1). The culms are hollow with an average wall thickness at the base of about 16 mm and of 5 mm at the top with 2 cm diameter for fencing. The lanceolate leaves of about 7 cm length do not decompose easily in the cool climate and form often a thick soil cover of 10 cm and more. The occasional flowering, seeding and dying occurs in patches, no extensive flowering has been recorded. (Wimbush 1945, Kigomo &Kamiri 1985).
The mapping work by the study team mainly from aerial photographs with field verification resulted in a total area of highland bamboo for about 130.000 ha. A mature stand has about 6,000 culms/ha with an average biomass of 51 tons (air-dry). It is noteworthy, that due to the neglected managment many dead culms exist and that a substantial number of culms (about 10%) showed beetle holes and also broken tops. The annual increment due to about 1,000 new culms results in a yield of 8.6 tons/ha, which is in the range of other bamboo species. The total annual yield of the A. alpina stands would amount to about 160.000 tons. The oven-dry density of the culm wall is about 0.48 g/cm³. Propagation of the bamboo is done by the villagers to a certain extent, whereby a one year old culm is cut-off at the 5th internode with a portion of the rhizome; the survival rate is about 50 %.
Beside the typical appearence of A. alpina a few patches of yellow striped bamboo have been observed, which merits further investigation regarding a possible variety of the highland bamboo or another species.

Utilization. The young shoots are not customary eaten by the villagers, but liked by the monkeys, so that the stands are often protected by simple fences. The leaves, which amount to about 5 % of the culm’s fresh weigth, are used as fodder for the cattle. The culms are often cut already after one year, resulting in a stand with many only medium sized culms.
The culms are widely used by the rural population, mainly for house construction, for walls and roof, animal sheds and for fences for the unherded cattle. The typical iglu-shaped bamboo house of the Ethiopian highlands is either made completely out of round and split bamboo culms, or partly supported by wooden components (Fig. 2). A. alpina is easily to be split for making mats, beehives and baskets. Simple furniture, such as chairs, sofas, tables, and seats are made for own use. They are also sold along the roadside to pass-byers and dealers (Fig.3). The material is often of low quality, it is taken from young culms or discolored due to bad storage.
Bigger culms are transported to the capital Addis Ababa for further processing in small handicraft workshops.


Characteristics. The lowland bamboo Oxytenanthera abyssinica ( A.Rich) Munro grows in the western part of Ethiopia towards the Savannah Woodlands of Sudan at an altitude between 700-1,800 m. It is a hardy species on poor soils in dry vegetation formations. As a most resistant bamboo to drought it tolerates rainfall down to 700 mm and a high temperature of above 35°C. The sympodial bamboo grows in natural pure stands, covering large areas with the clumps dispersed considerably. Their quality is mostly rather low, since there is no managment and the cutting is done arbitrarly. The culms are grouped in large dense clumps, erect or leaning with a length between 6-10 m (Fig.4). The base diameter varies between 3-8 cm. They are solid during shooting and may develop a small central cavity with a thick culm wall later. Hence they are more difficult to split for weaving. The stripped leaves are about 20 cm long and have a decidous foliage under unfavourable conditions. Scattered individual flowering clumps occur, but not on a large scale (Fig.5). Propagation is not beeing done by the farmers, which might be due to the available large bamboo area, its unclear ownership and also influenced by the low survival rate of the sympodial type at the hot-dry environment (Fanshawe 1972, Kigomo and Kamiri 1985).
O.abyssinica covers about 700,000 -850,000 ha in Ethiopia according to mapping aerial photographs, field verification and further estimations. Kelecha (1980) assumed an area of 1,000,000 ha. Frequent burning is often applied after harvest from December onwards, which leads to a higher mortality of standing culms, but also to a greater number of young shoots. About 8,000 living culms and 4,000 dead culms (due to regular burning) were counted per ha. The many new culms up to about 4.000 lead to an annual increment of about 10 tons/ha (oven-dry). The total biomass has been calculated to 19.6 tons/ha. The density of the culm wall amounts to 0.61 g/cm³ (oven- dry), which is more than for the highland bamboo.
Morphologically different are some clumps with exceptionally thinner culms and also a few ones with much taller and thicker culms among the normal sized ones. The apparent differences could result from the cross-fertilization when flowering. It leads to a variety of seedlings with different growth characteristics of the individual clumps, quite in contrary to the monopodial A.alpina , where new culms arise from the expanding rhizome system. However v. Breitenbach (1963) mentions briefly a very similar species as Oxythenanthera bortii Mattei with united flower-spikelets in dense, terminal heads, which warrants further clarification.

Utilization. The fresh bamboo leaves are a valuable fodder, when grass becomes scare during winter time. Cattle can nourish long only on bamboo leaves. Also the cattle and goats grazing through the bamboo stands during the rainy season eat their leaves, so that the clumps become short and dome-shaped (Fig.6). The young shoots of O. abyssinica are eaten by some ethnic groups. Bamboo culms are in the lowland with no eucalypts around the main material for construction, fences, beehives, mats , baskets, and ropes, but also for fuel.The solid culms are used mainly for construction and they are said to be more resistant to termites than the ones with a cavity. The products are made only for the farmers own use , since there is no local market, neither transport or trade due to the lack of tradition, the simplicity of the products, longer distances and also to the low processing qualities of O. abyssinica.
Of special significance is the use for energy, mainly for the traditional cooking of the staple food injera. As average, a household needs for fuel every two days one boundle of about 20 kg dry bamboo. Whereas the hard work of cutting is normally done by men, and the culms than left standig for some drying, the transport of dried bamboo in bundles to the homestead is done by women and also children (Fig.7).Such bundles are also sold on the market. With a yearly consumption of bamboo per household of about 3.6 tons and an average culm weight of 5 kg about 700 culms are to be used pro family, which are produced by about 0.25 ha.

Bamboo does not make a good fuel. Although its colorific value of 4.60 cal/g equals nearly that of timber with 4.77 cal/g (Zhou 1981) it is not easy to be cut into pieces, dries slowly, and makes a poor fuel with abundant smoke. A bamboo fire must be continously fed, since its burns quickly. It is not to be converted into charcoal in the usual way, because it results only in light ashes.


Bamboo processing on a commercial scale is only performed in Addis Ababa with culms of the highland bamboo Arundinaria alpina coming mostly from the Sidamo region, 500-600 km away. The quality of the culms is often low. They are too young and not sufficiently seasoned with subsequent shrinkage of the products, and with discolorations due to bad storage conditions. The production units are small family shops. Most of the workshop owners were trained by a group of Chinese at the Ethiopian Cottage Industries Development Agency about 20 years ago, with an additional input by some Japanese volunteers a few years ago. The processing is mostly done manual with simple technics, a surface treatment, like varnish, is neglected. Likewise are the products, such as several types of furniture (chairs, sofas, tables, shelfs), fruit and flower baskets or lamp shades (Fig.8). The types of furniture are similar at the various processing sites with few exeptions, depending on the creativity and workmanship. The tools available are rather simple, often remakes from original chinese ones (Fig.9). Customers are mainly foreigners or wealthy Ethiopians, but not tourists due to export restrictions. The products of standard models and design are mainly made on order with a prepayment. They are also offered at the roadside to car travellers. There is no organized marketing for bamboo products, they were not to be seen in Department stores or at the huge Mercato market in Addis Ababa. The handicraft work by the Ethiopian Cottage Industries Development Agency shows a wider variety and better quality , but they are sold only in a public showroom, not on the free market.
Bottelnecks for the production and marketing of bamboo products are:
• lack of working capital
• low quality of culms, tools and technics
• products of lower quality and simple design
• little space for processing and the exposition of bamboo products
• competition with wooden and plastic commodities
• difficulties in obtaining sufficient culms because of the necessary permit.
Forest Authorities consider bamboo as part of the forest, and forest products are strongly regulated in order to controll the decrease of the national forest. The transport of culms for processing to Addis Ababa, even from privat stands, requires a trading licence with time and money involved as well as royalties, and there are several checkpoints on the road.


Beside the two bamboo species also reeds should be considered. They are often used as a substitute for bamboo and their products are mixed with those of bamboo origin. They are also the basis of subsistence for a number of families in Addis Ababa. Corresponding with the occurence of the two bamboos also two reed species exist. Both belong as grasses also to the Gramineae and are structurally similar to the bamboos.
Arundo donax L. grows in the mountains and highland under similar ecological conditions as Arundinaria alpina. Elsewhere it is known as Spanish Reed, native to mediterranian countries and used there also for „bamboo“ products. It is a preferred material for reed instruments, like clarinets and oboes. The height of the plant is about 4-6 m and the basal thickness up to 4 cm. In contrast to A. alpina it has very long green culm sheaths and no branches. It grows widespread in the Addis Ababa region. The handcrafting is made here by specific ethnic groups, the Guraghe and the Welayta. It is processed along the streets for chairs, beds, tables, book- shelves, beehives, containers, baskets, containers and also mats (Fig.10,11), mainly from young and fresh culms. Their price is distinctly lower than for those commodities made from bamboo. Also the quality is lower and the service life shorter due to the softer anatomical structure of the reeds compared with bamboo. The presentation of these reed products may falsifly give the impression of a wider use of bamboo handcrafting.
Phragmites communis Trin., the East Africa reed, grows in seasonal flooded lowland plains, mid-highlands and riverine areas. Its height is up to about 4 m and and the diameter of the culm up to 15 cm. In the mid-highlands, where bamboo is not available, mats and fences are mainly produced from Phragmites, but taken as bamboo. It is locally also used as a decorative element for houses and restaurants .
The possible impact of reeds beside the known bamboos is also shown by a report on „Bamboo and Reeds in Ethiopia“ for the Ethiopian Forestry Action Plan (Getahun 1992), where the necessary promotion of reeds is emphasized.


The knowledge about bamboo in Ethiopia and its utilization is meagre. The bamboo stands are poorly managed or considered as „no man’s resources“. Bamboo is still fairly free available to the rural population, with their free access to land and the bamboo. Nurseries for propagation do not exist. Only few institutions are somewhat interested, as the Forest Research Centre and the Wood Utilization and Research Centre ( with a trial test with low land bamboo as concrete reinforcement), but with limited working possibilities.The Ethiopian Cottage Industries and Development Agency acts as a training center for small handicrafts, including bamboo processing. To promote the development of bamboo, its use and processing a „bamboo awarness „ has to be created.Relevant information has to be provided, leaflets prepared, regional cooperation strengthened and international contacts established.
The highland bamboo is widely spread around homesteads and nearby villages in the respective ecological zones.The care of the stands follows traditional customs and is governed by the needs for utilization and cash respectively. The cultivation should be improved.The lowland bamboo is not managed at all and used as „no man’s resource“. Managment Guidelines were proposed ( Boa in LUSO CONSULT 1997) for consideration by the regional authorities, to secure the most needed continous supply of bamboo for construction and energy.

Attention should be given to the propagation of the two bamboos at other suitable sites and to the introduction of additional species ,which showed promise in Kenya under equivalent ecological conditions.The aim should be to enrich the existing bamboo resource and to fill the gap at those sites and altitudes , where so far no bamboo is growing. Millions of rural people could benefit from such endavour.
Bamboo products do not play a significant role in marketing and use. They are often traditional in design and of low quality. The processing technics and tools as well as the quality of the raw material require improvement. Bamboo handicraft and marketing needs to be developed.
Several handicaps limit the wider use of bamboo products, such as severe restrictions by the authorities on the material supply, shortness of capital and restricted facilities by the producers as well as low presentation of bamboo products for local use and for tourists to demonstrate bamboo as a valuable natural, renewable product of Ethiopia.


Thanks are expressed to LUSO CONSULT and GTZ for the agreement to refer to the „Study on sustainable bamboo management“.


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