Sustainable Development and Bamboo Value Chains: Ethiopia’s Green Growth Opportunities Within the “Sino-Dutch-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme 2016-19”

Sunlight over Brown Bamboo Trees

Bamboo is a versatile non-timber forest resource that is widely available across the world’s South. If harnessed properly, many of its over 1600 known species (Vorontsova et al., 2016) growing mostly in tropical and subtropical regions, could significantly contribute to the achievement of both Sustainable Development Goals (hereinafter SDGs) and Paris Agreement’s objectives.

In particular, bamboo’s multiple uses and related value chains could promote poverty reduction (SDG 1), clean energy use (SDG 7), sustainable housing (SDG 11), efficient and sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), life on land (SDG 15), as well as effective global partnerships (SDG 17).

UN Comtrade estimates the global market value of bamboo and rattan products to be at around USD 60 billion, including both domestic and international trade. China is by far the world’s largest producer of both bamboo and rattan products, as well as the leading exporter. The European Union (EU) as a whole is the second largest exporter of bamboo products (and the top importer ahead of USA and Japan), followed by Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines (INBAR, 2017).

The ecological setting of East African nations such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, would be highly conducive to healthy growth of bamboo resources. Yet, their assets are largely untapped and bamboo-related economic sectors significantly underdeveloped. Ethiopia, above all, enjoys the largest bamboo resource endowment in the region. The present article briefly reviews the key opportunities and challenges of bamboo value chain management and upscaling in Ethiopia within the context of an ongoing trilateral development project—the “Sino-Dutch-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme 2016-19”—that the International Network for Bamboo And Rattan (hereinafter INBAR) first brokered and now implements.

INBAR is an intergovernmental development organization created in 1997 in Beijing to specifically promote the use of bamboo and rattan for sustainable development and green growth across its membership base, which comprises of 45 member countries, mostly from the Global South. The organization has grown to become the most relevant international body in its field, working closely with member countries’ governments, international development organizations and in particular with United Nations’ (UN) agencies such as the UN Office for South-South Cooperation, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). INBAR is also a member of UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and was granted Observer status to the UN’s General Assembly as well as Permanent Observer status to, among others, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This article is the product of a broader, ongoing study that intends to contribute to the public debate over the use of bamboo for sustainable development and to ultimately present the upscaling of bamboo value chains in Ethiopia (and beyond) as a major, yet often largely untapped, inclusive green growth opportunity. The article is based on data emerging, up until early 2019, from scholarly work, working papers, relevant reports as well as direct interviews mostly—but not exclusively—within INBAR’s repository and network of key stakeholders: it takes stock, in particular, of the market analyses and value chains assessments conducted by INBAR’s experts in Ethiopia during the implementation of the “Sino-Dutch-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme 2016-19”. A follow-up article shall be produced for Solutions Journal upon the very conclusion of said Programme’s three-year cycle (December 2019), to review its overall achievements, evaluate its broader significances and assess the possible “replicability” of such scheme elsewhere in the Global South*.


Why bamboo?

As a woody grass—hence technically a plant, rather than a tree—bamboo is a natural resource that grows rapidly in much of the tropical world, over a total of about 40 million hectares globally (Lobovikov et al., 2007). Latest assessments (Vorontsova et al., 2016) have identified some 1642 species, many of which combine the characteristics of both grasses and trees, thus historically allowing for a vast array of known uses —around 10,000—that over time have made bamboo a cherished resource in both cultural and economic terms across numerous nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America (Widenoja, 2007).

Today bamboo can be utilized in the production of a wide range of products, thus possibly generating livelihood and formal employment at household or small-scale levels, as well as within medium or large value-adding enterprises (Mishra, 2015): these products may include woven baskets, handicrafts, utensils, furniture, mats, flooring, pipes, pulp, paper, solid biofuel, textile fibers and many more (Lobovikov, 2007). It can also serve as versatile, highly resistant construction material (Ogunbiyi et al., 2015) and as nutritious food and fodder (INBAR and UNOSSC, 2018), besides providing crucial ecosystem services and contributing significantly to biodiversity conservation as wildlife habitat (Linderman et al., 2005), as soil and water preserver (Zhou, 2005) and as an effective tool for carbon sequestration (INBAR and Tsinghua University 2018; Song, 2011).

Bamboo has therefore been recognized over the years as a particularly relevant contributor to the achievement of global sustainable development objectives such as the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity’s “Aichi” Targets 2011-2020, Paris Agreement and, most notably, the SDGs emanating from the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030 (INBAR, 2015). The table below matches relevant SDGs with key bamboo characteristics:


Why the “Sino-Dutch-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme 2016-19”?

The Sino-Dutch-East Africa Bamboo Development Programme 2016-19 is a rather unique trilateral cooperation project initiated and implemented by INBAR, relying on the funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from the State Forestry Administration (SFA) of the Government of China, with the support of, among others, a number of local stakeholders in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. East Africa has the largest natural bamboo coverage in the continent—about 4% of the known worldwide coverage—yet this asset is, at present, significantly underexploited, generating only minimal industrial output and value-adding activities (Durai et al., 2018; INBAR, 2016; Van de Logt, 2018). The project can be graphically synthesized as follows:

Apart from the contribution from the Netherlands (the largest bamboo market in the EU), Chinese stakeholders are playing a major role within the project, providing both financial and technical support. This should not surprise, considering that China hosts the world’s largest bamboo forest coverage (6.73 million ha in 2010, up from 2.2 million ha in 1950) and has the greatest diversity of species (around 500), according to the State Forestry Administration’s National Bamboo Development Plan 2011-20. In 2016, the Chinese bamboo market reached an output of around USD 32 billion (roughly 10 times its size in 1970), and it is expected to employ around 10 million people by 2020 (INBAR, 2018). As by far the largest national market for bamboo products, it has therefore accumulated vast know-how embracing virtually all aspects of establishment, management and scaling-up of bamboo value chains. In particular, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) has so far engaged in numerous initiatives aimed at building capacity and transferring technology to East African bamboo producers in relation to bamboo handicrafts creation, furniture and handicraft processing and overall bamboo industry development.

Why Ethiopia?

Ethiopia is the most populous nation in East Africa, as well as the second most populous in the whole of Africa after Nigeria, with an estimated population of 107.5 million in 2018 (UNDESA, 2018). Its gross domestic product (GDP) has recorded an average 10.3% growth per year from 2006 to 2016, compared to a regional average of 5.4% (World Bank, 2018b). Despite such a remarkable market output expansion, in 2016 the UNDP’s Human Development Report indicated that Ethiopia’s Human Development Index still ranked 174th out of 188, that the income poverty rate (USD1.90/day at PPP) stood at 33.5%, and that multidimensional poverty affected 88.2% of the population, 67% of which severely (UNDP, 2016).

The International Labour Organisation estimates that in 2017 some 68% of the Ethiopian workforce were still employed in agriculture (ILOSTAT, 2018). Agricultural land covers 36% of the total territory contributing to about 40% of the Ethiopian GDP. Forests cover 12.5% of the national land, contributing to about 4% of the Ethiopian GDP, providing employment to about 270,000 and various forms of income and livelihood integration through Non-Timber Forestry Products or “NTFPs” (Durai et al. 2018; MoEFCC, 2017).


As a consequence, the government of Ethiopia has recently devised and implemented a series of policy mechanisms to promote further development in the country, placing great emphasis on inclusive green growth and thus on the very sectors of agriculture and forestry: important examples include Growth and Transformation Plans (GTP) I and II, Climate Resilient Green Economic (CRGE) Strategy, Productive Safety Net Programme, Women Entrepreneurship Development Programme, Sustainable Land Management Programmes (SLMP) I and II etc.

In this context, the relevance of bamboo in Ethiopia stands out, as also reflected by the abovementioned GTPII (2016-2020), which addresses bamboo as a key resource functional to the overarching goal of “green development”, consisting in the improvement of living standards as well as in various forms of simultaneous restoration and preservation of the natural environment. The country, in fact, enjoys the largest natural bamboo endowment in the region and one of the largest in Africa. Moreover, bamboo resources already contribute to the livelihood of around 800,000 locals, representing both an important agricultural crop and a precious NTFP (Durai et al., 2018). Nevertheless, as the below market and value chain assessment aims to point out, the potential of bamboo to contribute even more significantly to socio-economic development and sustainable environmental management remains, so far, constrained by fundamental criticalities and thus significantly untapped (Wondimu, 2018).

Resource appraisal and management

The first, crucial contribution of the Sino-Dutch-East Africa 2016-19 programme to the development of bamboo value chains in Ethiopia has been the very inventory of existing bamboo resources in the country. According to the bamboo resource assessment carried out by experts from INBAR and China’s Tsinghua University with innovative remote-sensing methodology (INBAR and Tsinghua, 2018), the total area covered by bamboo in Ethiopia is of 1.47 million hectares (see Appendix, Figures 1 and 2), significantly more than previous estimates which stood at around half of that amount (Lobovikov et al., 2007).

Two are the indigenous species that dominate the landscape, although some 20 more were recently introduced by the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute (Mulatu, 2016b): the much predominant Oxynthera Abyssinica (or “lowland bamboo”), present mostly in western regions like Benishangul-Gumuz and Amhara, and the Yushania Alpina (or “highland bamboo”), present mostly in southern and central regions of the country such as Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPRS), Amhara and Oromia regions (Durai et al., 2018; Mulatu et al., 2016a).

Lowland bamboo (producing poles of up to 10 meters in height, and 10 cm in diameter) is vastly available in state forests, but it is only sporadically domesticated on private farmland. The highland bamboo (producing poles of up to 20 meters in height, and 12 cm in diameter) is instead mostly farmed on private land (owned by individual farmers or institutions) as well as in community forests: in fact, farmers highly appreciate its versatile, straightforward processing and management, which make it ultimately far more widely utilised by craftsmen and industry players than the Oxynthera Abyssinica, despite its comparative scarcity.

Two main institutional schemes are officially in place for non-protected state forests: i) a combination of concessions—consisting essentially of authorisations released by government to private entities that want to harvest and transport forest products —and royalties to be paid for the transportation of harvested materials at toll stations along the way towards processing facilities; and ii) Participatory Forest Management (PFM), providing for the placing of entire communities in charge of management and harvesting of portions of state forests resources.

In reality, over-exploitation as well as under-exploitation—favoured by lack of proper enforcement, planning and incentives—do contribute to widespread degradation of bamboo resources in state and communal forests. Bamboo on farmland tends to be relatively better managed, but, due to lack of relevant know-how concerning best management practices and, in particular, sustainable harvesting techniques, optimal yields remain elusive (Durai et al., 2018; Wondimu, 2018).

Value chain analysis and market assessment

Another crucial component of the implementation, thus far, of the Sino-Dutch-East Africa 2016-19 Programme has also consisted in the first systematic, thorough assessment of existing bamboo market and value chains in Ethiopia conducted by INBAR’s network of experts in collaboration with local stakeholders such as: Ethiopian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources; Federal Micro and Small Enterprises Agency; Institute of Building Construction and City Planning; SLMP-II (Durai et al., 2018).

Actors include:

i. Bamboo resource producers: mostly farmers, often smallholders

ii. Processing enterprises: mostly household enterprises (occasionally run by farmers themselves) adding only minimal value and employing manual technology to produce bamboo poles, mats, basketry; several small enterprises are present in major towns, producing bamboo furniture; a few large industries are active in the Addis area to produce bamboo flooring tiles, sticks and energy products.

iii. Traders or middlemen: few and operating mostly within local or national markets.

iv. Consumers: in large part to be found in households, and among subsistence farmers.

The main product categories present in the bamboo market in Ethiopia therefore include: poles; mats; basketry and small handicrafts; furniture; construction materials; bioenergy. These tend to be produced by micro and small enterprises employing traditional techniques, adding limited value and implementing low quality standards (Endalamaw, 2013). Industrial production of more complex items such as bamboo flooring or ceiling panels and tiles, stick-based products as well as bioenergy products is also present, but it is currently limited to a handful (six, as of September 2018) of medium-sized enterprises.

The bamboo sector in Ethiopia is not regulated by any specific, comprehensive legislation (although, at the time of writing, negotiations brokered by Sino-Dutch-East Africa Programme’s stakeholders are ongoing to promote the ultimate adoption of a single “National Bamboo Strategy and Action Plan”)*: a broader, “generic” policy framework instead simply assimilates bamboo resources to other forest products—as it typically occurs across most of INBAR member countries—and includes, most prominently, the Forest Management, Development and Utilisation Policy of 2007, the CRGE Strategy of 2012, as well as 2016’s GTPII, SLMP II and the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute (EEFRI) Strategic Plan 2016-2025. Besides setting basic tenure and access rights (e.g. government authorisation necessary to gain access to state forests; tax required for transportation of both state forest and private bamboo), said policies fall short of defining precise sustainable harvesting or management requirements. Similarly, various entities—both national (e.g. Ministry of Environment; Ministry of Industry; Ministry of Agriculture; Small and Medium Manufacturing Industries Development Agency; Ethiopian Standards Agency; private sector representatives etc.) and international (e.g. INBAR; various NGOs etc.)—do play some role in the development of bamboo value chains, but still lack, at present, a consistently integrated strategy as well as the ability to coordinate solid incentives for the specific development of the bamboo sector*.

Both public and private value chain governance mechanisms appear weak (Kaplinski and Morris, 2000), hence remaining mostly market-based or modular at best (Gereffi et al., 2005). Vertical and horizontal integration as well as product differentiation and specialisation are minimal, and there is still very limited ongoing research and innovation for progressively increasing value addition (Durai et al., 2018).



Overall, what emerges from the above assessment is that, at present, bamboo value chains in Ethiopia are only minimally developed, and that related industries are few and operating at a rather infant stage (Durai et al., 2018; Endalamaw, 2013; Wondimu, 2018). While negotiations concerning a possible groundbreaking “National Bamboo Strategy and Action Plan” are indeed taking place*, the governance framework is still weak, rather fragmented and thus only marginally effective at driving the expansion of the bamboo sector and at ultimately promoting the inclusive development that it could deliver, if better harnessed and managed.

Nevertheless, considering the resource availability, its properties, the state of the market and the broad socio-economic macrotrends in Ethiopia, virtually all of the abovementioned value chains offer significant opportunities for further development and upscaling. For instance, more sustainable, participative and coordinated management of both private farmland and state forest bamboo would fundamentally improve quantity and quality of the basic resource supply. Enhanced industrial production of bamboo panels, boards, sticks, pulp and paper could contribute to the import substitution of almost half a billion USD (UN Comtrade 2017) worth of such wood-based products. Similarly, the harnessing of abundant lowland bamboo stocks for bioenergy production could contribute to the preservation of other forest resources and to the reduction of imports of active carbon into a market where demand for fuelwood is steadily growing. Locally-made bamboo furniture would generate employment and help satisfy the rising domestic demand so far met with imported metal, plastic and wooden items, while bamboo construction materials could feed the booming real estate sector and reduce the utilisation of more environmentally-impactful components (Wondimu, 2018).

The development of the bamboo sector in the context of the ongoing Sino-Dutch-East Africa Programme can therefore become extremely beneficial to Ethiopia’s pursuit of sustainable development via three complementary routes that, at this partial stage of the Programme’s implementation, appear most crucial: a) consolidating the very resource foundation of the whole sector by improving access to and management of the abundant bamboo resources within both state forests and private land; b) prioritising the upscaling of industrial value chains of bamboo boards, sticks and bioenergy products, given their high potential in terms job creation, prospects of success, trade impact, compliance with broader government agenda; c) intervening in a coordinated manner on policy tools, so as to create a comprehensive enabling framework specifically for the bamboo sector.*

* Right before the publication of the present article (October 2019), the Ethiopian Government finally adopted the country’s first “National Bamboo Strategy and Action Plan”, as brokered by Sino-Dutch-East Africa Programme’s stakeholders and implementation staff on the ground. This represents a major milestone for the development of the bamboo industry in Ethiopia, as well as an important benchmark of both regional and global relevance that shall be further assessed in a follow-up article in the next issue of Solutions Journal.