Avia Collinder, Business Writer
Jamaica is now set to enter bamboo production on a commercial basis, having gained entry as the 38th member to the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR).
Jamaica already produces furniture and household items from bamboo, much of which is done by informal craft traders, but the new programme is meant to devise more hardy and quality products.
The plant grows prolifically throughout Jamaica.
Gladstone Rose, chairman of the Bamboo industry Advisory Committee at the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ), said Thursday that INBAR membership gives Jamaica access to technology transfer models and other documents that the agency can use to guide private companies to develop bamboo prototypes.
The prototypes include bamboo plywood, bamboo tiles, bamboo flooring, bamboo board, bamboo knives, bamboo spoons, bamboo students chairs and other engineered bamboo products using the most prolific local variety of bamboo, Bambusa vulgaris.
"The team has successfully produced bamboo products prototypes but now seek venture capital to supply already identified markets locally and in the United States of America," Rose told Sunday Business.
The BSJ work is focussed initially on Glengoffe, where training sessions using the INBAR material has been under way since April. The workshops will span two years.
INBAR is an intergovernmental organisation headquartered in China, comprising countries that have bamboo or rattan resources in quantities that can be commercialised.
Through its network of member countries, organisations and individuals from all continents of the world, INBAR develops and assists in the transfer of appropriate technologies and solutions to benefit the peoples of the world and their environment," said Rose.
"Information on 122 Chinese bamboo and rattan products/process standards have been received which will help the BSJ and bamboo products producers rapidly develop Jamaican standards and ultimately create a modern standards-led bamboo products industry," he said.
The BSJ earlier this year was designated by the Ministry of Industry Investment and Commerce to be the focal point for INBAR in Jamaica.
"The Government of Jamaica recognises that bamboo is a valuable renewable resource which grows rapidly and therefore is a good substitute source for wood instead of timber, obtained by cutting down trees which takes on average 40 years to grow to maturity," Rose said.
The Bamboo Industry Advisory Committee, which he heads, was set up by the BSJ to oversee the development of pilot projects, studies and product prototypes.
The committee also plans to publish its own guidance documents for use of the new bamboo industry that Jamaica expects to emerge from the INBAR project.
"Such documents will prescribe standards, policies and ethical practices for the industry," Rose said.
The standards-led industry is to be developed over a two-year period. The project incorporates entities such as the state-run Forestry Department and the Jamaica Wood Products and Furniture Association representing private operators.
Rose said bamboo manufactured products will include school furniture, including desks and chairs, while bamboo plywood will be used to make doors, skirting and mouldings.
"Bamboo charcoal and bio-char production is also another area of technology transfer which INBAR will assist the team in developing. Bio-char production will entail the heating of bamboo and organic waste in an oxygen-starved environment, so it is 'cooked' instead of burned," he suggests.
The bio-char process also produces gas, which can be used for cooking and to generate electricity.
The bio-char product, a charcoal-like solid high in carbon, is used to improve soil quality in agriculture. This means that greenhouse gases would be offset and carbon will be sequestered.
Rose did not comment on the project cost, but he touted the benefits as "synergies for poverty alleviation, sustainable management of natural resources, biodiversity protection and mitigation of climate change".
Currently, there is only one known manufacturer of bamboo products, Original Bamboo Factory. There was another, but it closed in 2008, said Rose.
A five-year-old paper by Donovan Lewis and Lawrence Nelson reported that there are a number of small craft producers who use bamboo as their main resource, and whose range of products "is not very wide but the quality is generally good".
The paper, which was prepared for the 2007 Bamboo Technology Training Course in Hangzhou, China, identifies some traditional uses for bamboo as construction of vending stalls, scaffolding, domestic clothes line sticks and agricultural yam vine runners.
Bamboo was first introduced in Jamaica to strengthen riverbanks. A Forestry Department count in 2000 found that the plant covered more than 44,000 hectares nationwide. Today, Rose says there are 47,000 hectares of bamboo growing wild.
Around 1999-2000, according to the Lewis-Nelson paper, the Forestry Department, backed by private sponsorship, imported and erected a "bamboo-concrete house" using material and technical resources from Costa Rica.
"It generated much interest from a wide variety of persons, groups and institutions, but has not realised the desired effect of utilising local bamboo for low-cost housing on a large scale," the paper said.
Market leader China has developed its bamboo industry into a US$14-billion enterprise, of which US$2-billion worth of products is exported to the West, according to Rose.
"The value of Jamaican manufacture is minuscule by comparison," said the BSJ executive. "We are trying to create a new industry."