Kenya should encourage the use of bamboo in building affordable shelters, especially for 60 percent of the population who live in poorly constructed dwellings in rural areas, says a specialist.
"Poor construction means they [houses] serve as breeding grounds for diseases including malaria, amoebic dysentery and respiratory conditions, which commonly claim the lives of many of their inhabitants,” Jacob Kibwage, project leader of an initiative at Maseno University that aims to encourage bamboo exploitation, told IRIN.
The project, Tobacco to Bamboo, is pioneering the construction of cheap bamboo houses in the Kisumu and Kakamega areas of Western Kenya.
"If we improved bamboo housing, we could change the lives of many people," Kibwage said. "With about 15,000ha of mature bamboo ready to be used, particularly in the Aberdares, Mau Forest Complex, Mt Kenya and Mt Elgon, [we have] viable and inexpensive housing material in Kenya.”
According to a 2007 study by the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, nearly 60 percent of Kenya's 37 million people are rural farmers who live on less than US$2 a day and live in inadequate homes that are often made of mud and poorly ventilated.
In the cities, the housing demand has reached 150,000 units per year against an annual production of about 50,000 units. According to the UN Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, the shortfall in the cities has led to overcrowding, slums and sub-standard housing.
The tobacco to bamboo project was launched by Maseno University's School of Environment and Earth Studies in 2006. It began as a research activity to encourage the cultivation and utilization of bamboo as an alternative livelihood to tobacco farming in South Nyanza and Western Kenya and later set up nurseries in Migori, Kuria, Homa Bay and Suba districts.
Maseno University launched housing projects within the campus and town and trained 15 yuoths in bamboo housing and another 240 small-scale farmers in bamboo plantation establishment, setting up 240 field experimentation sites. The aim is to train 20,000 farmers to exploit bamboo in the next 15 years instead of growing tobacco in the region and Kenya.
“Bamboo is a remarkably fast-growing plant that thrives in a range of different climates,” Kibwange said. “It can be planted easily in homesteads and harvested at the time of need without any additional expenditure.
"Because of its lightness, a bamboo house suffers very little damage from earthquakes and could serve as temporary and quick construction in disaster-prone areas in emergencies."
After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, about 4,000 bamboo houses provided shelter to thousands made homeless by the disaster, particularly in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was also found that bamboo could resist heat of up to 55 degrees and unlike steel, was not vulnerable to rust and salty humidity.
In Kenya, however, an existing ban on harvesting bamboo could affect plans for its use. A Kenyan Forestry Services source, who requested anonymity, said the ban restricts harvesting to some selected users and government institutions. Experts are lobbying for it to be lifted.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions