Bamboo is tree of life for Mount Selinda women

Prostitution puts women at risk of HIV/AIDS, so alternative ways of earning money can be a real lifeline. CLAYTON MASEKESA discovers a bamboo-growing project that is changing things for the better.

Carpenter Cephas Kamhuka making products using bamboo.
Carpenter Cephas Kamhuka making products using bamboo.

Tsverukai Garapo, a 44-year-old single mother of four children, leads the Mount Selinda Women’s Bamboo Association – a six-member group that was set up in 2011.

For the 10 years prior, Garapo was a senior technical advisor at the Environment and Natural Resource Management Agency in Tanzania.

Garapo has vast knowledge of bamboo plants. What’s more she shows genuine humility and an unquenchable thirst to share her knowledge with disadvantaged women in her community.

She has presented the commitment and courage of a great leader. She has taken – and continues to take – her share of risks by investing in the community's most underprivileged people.

Her mission in life is to raise awareness about the marvels of bamboo.

“I established this association because our country is poor. Our young women and mothers have little or no education and very few opportunities to make money,” says Garapo.

"Mothers need money to feed their children, but because their choice of employment is limited they end up falling into the prostitution trap,” she adds.

“Bamboo is a special plant. It offers excellent opportunities for environmental sustainability and it is helping populations in developing countries to reduce poverty. This includes Zimbabwe.”

In 2012, she received some funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD) through the Livelihood and Economic Development Programme. In conjunction with Zimbabwe’s ministry of agriculture, the programme aims to create sustainable rural livelihoods and enterprises by using bamboo resources.

“I did not know the marvels of this plant. It has turned around the livelihoods of many women in the community,” says Garapo. “This programme has generated some basic income for many families. This is why I want everyone to understand the potential of bamboo, and the many things that they can do with this plant.”

Garapo has been encouraging members of her community to use bamboo to build houses.

“We are selling the bamboo to carpenters to make furniture and dustbins for offices, desks for schools,” she says. “It’s even used to make scarves. We have also realised that the days of going to collect firewood could soon be over, as we will replace it with bamboo charcoal. This also means that we will save trees.”

Garapo calls bamboo “the wood of the poor”.

Programmes officer Zivanai Muroro says the programme focuses on developing innovative processing technologies and production techniques and on enabling rural communities to produce a range of high-quality bamboo products.

“It also provides rural communities with capacity-building in bamboo harvesting, cultivation and management techniques, thus making sure that local resources are used in a sustainable way,” he explains.

Bamboo, says Muroro, is not only deemed to be the fastest growing plant on the planet, it’s also a viable replacement for wood and an essential renewable resource for agro-forestry production.

“These characteristics make bamboo unique in terms of its potential contribution to sustainable development.”

Women and girls in Mount Selinda are now generating enough income to buy food and medicine and to send their children to school.

“The women are very intelligent,” says Garapo. “They use the income generated from their bamboo sales to buy food, medicine and malaria prophylactics and to undergo HIV/AIDS tests.”

Carpenter Cephas Kamhuka buys around 30 bamboo sticks from the women a month to make a variety of products.

“The women’s association has done a great job for us carpenters here. We have been finding it difficult to use timber, but we’ve found that bamboo is the best to make various products,” he says.

“I cut the poles into six pieces and use these to make baskets, chairs, tables and dustbins. I have created a catalogue featuring my numerous products, and I employ youngsters to distribute the catalogues to offices and hotels,” adds Kamhuka.

Irene Dumbura is the group’s stores manager.

“I always make sure the inventory is well stocked. We sell our products to clients in Mountt Selinda and other cities,” she says, adding that profits were shared equally.

“The bamboo has indeed changed our lives,” she adds.

Garapo’s vision is to train as many people as possible.

"I need to build more awareness among Zimbabwean women so that more people understand the many benefits of bamboo and learn how to use bamboo for different purposes,” she explains. “This way, women in Zimbabwe can help themselves to overcome poverty.”

She’s busy exploring potential new markets for her products and has identified Zambia, Malawi, Kenya and Uganda. Her long-term plan is to buy more land to plant bamboo.

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