Bamboo a viable alternative to tobacco

CLIMATE change which is dominating global headlines will to a large extent determine the future shape of agriculture in Zimbabwe.

BRUCE GEMMILL

Other factors will have a strong influence, and these include population growth, the expected chronic food deficits in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries around the world, and also the likelihood of donor fatigue in Western countries.

These factors when combined make an overwhelming case for a strong productive commercial agricultural industry in Zimbabwe.

Since the country’s land reform starting around 2000, subsistence farming has pushed commercial farming to the margins.

By its very nature, subsistence farming can never become strong or sufficiently productive. To avoid chronic food shortages and persistent poverty which continue to stalk Zimbabwe, commercial agriculture, both large and small-scale needs to take over from subsistence peasant agriculture.

The foundation on which commercial farming is built is security of tenure for the man who works the land, holding it either in the form of freehold title or a negotiated tenancy agreement with the title holder, but under no circumstances leasing from government as is currently the case.

The realisation of strong and productive commercial agriculture is reliant on a robust and productive urban economy.

As small-scale commercial agriculture expands in the communal areas so employment must be created in the urban-based economy to accommodate those who do not wish to take part in the transition from communal to small-scale commercial agriculture.

Reducing the number of people dependent on the land for a living is a sound way of countering climate change. A modern-day example of this transition is China, which has moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial giant in four decades.

Zimbabwe’s agricultural industry will have to be re-built from ground zero after the politics of Zimbabwe gets back on an even keel.

This pending development will bring with it many investment opportunities. The investment opportunity I wish to focus on is the processing of bamboo, grown commercially on arms in well-managed plantations by professional farmers (small and large-scale).

These plantations would be located in both existing commercial and former communal farming areas. They would need to be within a reachable radius of the processing plant, similar in layout to the sugar cane estates of Hippo Valley and Triangle.

Bamboo could play a critical role as a replacement crop to tobacco whose future is uncertain given the strong international anti-smoking lobby and, locally, its impact on the environment due to deforestation.

For many years tobacco was the financial heartbeat of commercial agriculture. To reinstate quality tobacco as the core crop of a to re-built commercial agriculture would thus be extremely expensive and fraught with difficulties.

Grown as an industrial crop, bamboo is expanding rapidly in several Asian countries, particularly China.

Green, cut bamboo can be manufactured into a wide range of products from laminated boarding, plywood, chipboard, high quality fabric, pharmaceuticals, carbon fibre sheeting — the list goes on.
All the aforementioned products are in demand worldwide.

Another big factor in favour of growing bamboo as a farm crop is that it is labour intensive; harvesting the stems has to be done selectively by hand.

Bamboo is an expensive crop to establish, but if well-managed will yield up to 35 tonnes per hectare of biomass per annum. Again if well-managed, a plantation will have an economic life of 100 years or more.

Donors, such as, the African Development Bank should look favourably at giving financial support to such a crop.

Another possible plus is farmers who are due compensation and wish to return to their farms would more likely re-invest their compensation back into a secure perennial crop rather than a risky annual crop such as tobacco.

The proposal to pay farmers compensation in the form of tradeable bonds, underwritten by the World Bank, is commendable and would fit well with financing the recovery of commercial farms and businesses.

Farmers who take back derelict farms as the foundation on which to build their farming business would require large amounts of cheap long-term credit.

Tradeable bonds could be used as initial collateral, then as the farm and the accompanying farm business develop and gain value they could take over the role of collateral, thereby freeing up the tradeable bonds.

Commercial farming is still perceived by some Zimbabweans to be a colonial construction. There is no doubt it was introduced to the country by a white government for the benefit of whites, but commercial farming is universal and where practised eliminates the scourge of starvation.

Freehold title is the only form of land holding that brings together production and conservation. It is the only way forward for agriculture in Zimbabwe.

Bruce Gemmill is a former Zimbabwean tobacco farmer who also reared beef cattle and grew stone fruit.

One thought on “Bamboo a viable alternative to tobacco”

  1. ZimDelight says:

    The writer is making good points which are Worth looking into BUT why focus on the old white farmers to return to our farms. An audit needs to be done on current owner usage to identify those with potential and that such projects with them. History shape our present and our present shapes our history so we can not afford to ignore present day farmers and focus onky on older farms — for history which we can not rub off was made in the last 14 years

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