KENYA: Bamboo project to expand rural housing

NAIROBI, 28 May 2010 (IRIN) - 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 Kibwange, project director 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 Mau and Kakamega areas of Western Kenya.

"If we improved bamboo housing, we could change the lives of many people," Kibwange said. "With about 15,000ha of mature bamboo ready to be used, particularly in the Aberdares, Mau ranges, 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 launched housing projects in Kisumu town and trained 240 bamboo small-scale farmers and set up 120 field experimentation sites. The aim is to train 20,000 farmers to exploit bamboo in the next 15 years.

"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.