The $60 billion a year industry made from a plant

Story highlights

  • Asia is by far the biggest producer of bamboo, but Africa's potential is huge
  • Bamboo is used to make bikes, scaffolding, chopsticks, flooring, furniture, paper and textiles
  • Bicycle manufacturing business in Ghana promotes use of sustainable bamboo

(CNN)The word bamboo typically brings to mind images of baskets, or bamboo shoots commonly used in Asian cuisine.

But this hearty, fast-growing plant has become an economic stronghold in parts of the world, with an estimated global economy valued at $60 billion a year, according to the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), an intergovernmental organization promoting bamboo and rattan.
    Though Asia is by far the biggest grower of bamboo, Africa's growth in bamboo has "great opportunity", according to Hans Friederich, director-general of INBAR.
    "The (African) continent has vast reserves of largely untapped bamboo that, if properly managed, could benefit rural communities and promote green economic development," said Friederich.

    Sturdy plant with huge potential

    Bamboo can grow up to almost one meter a day. Not only can it rapidly regenerate, but it has the advantage of being incredibly versatile.
    The robust plant is used to make everything from watches, bikes, scaffolding, chopsticks, flooring, furniture, building and roofing materials, paper and textiles among other items.
    "You can really plant bamboo in soil not useful for something else," said Friederich, explaining the plants potential in Africa. "To plant bamboo on unproductive land and eroded soil is very feasible," he said.
    What's more, says Friederich, is that bamboo is a resource that's truly sustainable. He believes it can help not only help boost the economy but also provide an environmentally sound way to alleviate many challenges in some African countries.
    "Bamboo can be harnessed to reverse land degradation, slow deforestation, combat climate change through carbon sequestration, and boost rural livelihoods through the creation of jobs and income," added Friederich.
    It's a plant which doesn't require any chemicals -- fertilizers or pesticides -- as it's largely immune to disease and pests. The United Nations Environment Programme and other UN bodies all realize the potential for livelihood from the plant, said Friederich.
    18 African countries have joined INBAR, including Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Kenya, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

    Ethiopia is Africa's leader

    Of the 18 African countries, Ethiopia is by far the leader in terms of bamboo. Two-thirds of the bamboo in Africa is situated in the upwardly-mobile state where the industry has grown from making toothpicks to flooring and curtains.
    In the past few years, the bamboo bicycle market has proven popular in Ghana and been an example of a great use of sustainable bamboo.
    Bernice Dapaah started the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative a few years ago. Her company was lauded by the United Nations and in 2013 she won an award from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which put her under the spotlight and sent more business her way.
    Though the potential is massive, the benefits of bamboo as a strategic resource for Africa remain largely "unrecognized and undervalued", says Friederich. "Practical policies at the local, national and regional level are needed for African countries to fully realize its potential," he said.
    Once that's sorted, Friederich agrees there is no stopping the growth of bamboo.