Modern Bamboo Industry Burgeons Despite Sector Frailty

A thriving bamboo business that manufactures modern home furnishings like chairs, sofas, tables and other products has mushroomed in Addis Abeba. Ethiopia, endowed with natural bamboo forests, is a leading country in Africa in the resource. Sustainable management of natural bamboo, modernization of the manufacturing processes and value additions along the supply chain are recommended by researchers. MADEBO GIRMA, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Forty-year-old Tegen Tesfaye is married with two children. He owns Tegene Bamboo Works located near Saint Urael Church on Ghana Street, Yeka District.

Tegene, a member of Circus Ethiopia, a sport and talent club since 1996, has been in the bamboo business for almost a quarter of a century.

Some 25 years ago he had a chance visit to Ethio-Sweden Bamboo Works Training Centre in the Saris neighborhood. Immediately, he was hooked.

“In the middle of the visits, I just decided to join the centre and make it my career,” he told Fortune.

He took a six-month training course on basic skills in bamboo manufacturing and kept working at the centre as a trainer for two additional years.

He then established his own business and now works with six employees manufacturing finished bamboo furniture such as chairs, desks, filing cabinets, bamboo sofa seats and other products that sell from 250 Br to 6,500 Br.

Owners of cafeterias and restaurants are his main customers, according to Tegene.

“Some residents of condominiums also buy the products,” Tegene said, “due to the lower prices we offer and the ease of using the furnishings.”

Despite challenges and limitations, the bamboo business, along with its craft and artwork, is advancing and thriving.

Enkutatash and Fasika-Ethiopian new year and Easter celebrations-are boom times for the business, according to Tegene and other bamboo furniture sellers.

The business owners claim that the design, look and quality of bamboo furniture are improving.

“We replicate designs we find on the internet,” said Tegene. “Indonesian and Vietnamese bamboo makers are those who we especially copy designs from.”

The bamboo workers source the bamboo stems from Gurage Zone, Yirgalem woreda, Benshangul Regional State, Hagere Selam and Gojjam.

These stems are supplied by businesses such as Kedir Beshir, an elderly man who has been in the business for the past 15 years.

He provides bamboo stems working from his retail shop stationed in Merkato, the largest open market in the capital.

In the first ten years, Kedir was supplying the bamboo to a cottage industry of bamboo makers but shifted about five years ago to supplying large and small businesses across the city.

He sources the bamboo stems from farmers in the Chea, Enamur and Geta woredas of the Gurage Zone. He brings a truck full of the bamboo every week to the market.

Assistance from the government and non-governmental organisations have been attempted to enhance the sector.

A single bamboo pole is sold between 15 Br to 70 Br, depending on the thickness and height of the bamboo.

Tegegn took in seventeen-year-old Cheru Hussen, born in Ziway, Oromia Regional State, to train for a year in his shop. Two years later, Cheru is at the company making 100 Br for every chair he produces.

There are specialisations in manufacturing different products such as sofas, chairs and tables.

Another entrepreneur in the bamboo furniture business is 30-year-old Abebe Amare, who owns his own workshop and retail shop in the same area. He has been in business for the past six years and employs 10 temporary and permanent employees. One of his temporary employees, Befiqadu Assefa, has the job of applying cushions to about 40 pre-manufactured bamboo chairs a day earning 15 Br a chair.

Abebe and his employees scour the internet looking for the latest attractive designs to apply to their work.

Abebe aspires to lift his work a step ahead and fuse it with local and international themes and designs.

“I want to import different machines that can make modern designs,” he told Fortune. “But we are not getting full assistance from the government.”

There are some companies that use bamboo-stick production machines. SA Bamboo Works Plc, located at Tatek Industry Zone in Burayu town in Oromia Region State, is one such company. The firm has been operating with 300 workers since 2012.

In addition to home furniture, SA Bamboo produces curtains, flooring, toothpicks, incense sticks and other round sticks using bamboo for both the local and export markets.

Adissu Hailu, CEO of the company, also believes that support from the government is minimal.

“Not much effort is forwarded by the government to motivate the industry operators,” Adissu, a father of two with a background in economics, said.

Despite challenges and limitations, the bamboo business, along with its craft and artwork, is advancing and thriving.

Natnael Abel, a 26-year-old enterprising architect is engaged in the business. He took a six-month training in bamboo manufacturing as part of his professional and business growth.

He opened his business in 2013 and has been working with five employees selling his bamboo products.

Hiwot Abebe, one of Natnael’s customers, chooses to furnish her salon with bamboo furniture. She bought a chair from Natnael last month.

“Beyond their low prices, the items are light and attractive,” she told Fortune.

Researchers also believe that the country has underutilised its bamboo resources. Ethiopia is a leading country in natural bamboo resources in Africa with approximately one million hectares of bamboo forest.

“The products are not manufactured with technologically advanced processes,” Wubalem Tadesse (PhD), a senior researcher at Ethiopia Environment & Forest Research Institute. “In rural areas where the bamboo grows naturally, it is used as firewood instead of generating revenue.”

Despite the wealth of resources in the country, bamboo utilisation in Ethiopia is basically rudimentary. Bamboo product imports exceed exports, in contrast to the resource base of the country, according to a research paper, “Bamboo Resources in Ethiopia: Their Value Chain and Contribution to Livelihoods”, published in 2017.

Bamboo can be a food source, according to Wubalem.

“In China, it is used in meals,” he said.

Assistance from the government and non-governmental organisations have been attempted to enhance the sector.

International Network for Bamboo & Rattan, an intergovernmental organisation based in China, is providing technical support to help jump start Bamboo Common Production & Training Center at TVET Polytechnic College in Bahir Dar, Shoa.

USAID also periodically awards a grant to bamboo manufacturers to be used as the technological advancement for the process of making industrial and commercial quality bamboo.

Research in the bamboo business recommends that farmers be taught on how to manage the resource. This requires building the capacities of stakeholders, mainly by providing training at the bottom rung of the chain, the small farmer. The research also highlights various innovative bamboo uses, management practices and technological advances as solutions.



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