Bamboo, the new economic transformer of agriculture in Malaysia

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A bamboo forest in Damyang (photo credit: twowheeltrekker.com)A bamboo forest in Damyang (photo credit: twowheeltrekker.com)

By Sharmila Valli Narayanan

In yesterday’s Business Circle story, we introduced Dato’ Ghazi Sheikh Ramli, the founder and chairman of a non-profit organisation called Global Innovation and Entrepreneurship Foundation (GIEF) who is a firm believer in the potential of bamboo as a cash crop. His networking with the officials and members of the World Bamboo Organisation (WBO) made him aware of the huge untapped commercial prospects for bamboo.

Energised by the meeting with the WBO officials in South Korea in 2012, Ghazi was determined to celebrate the first ever World Bamboo Day in Malaysia in 2013. He needed a key partner to help realise this dream. He approached Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) for support. The timing was perfect because MTIB had just finished completing a master plan for the development of the bamboo industry in Malaysia. The joining together of Ghazi and MTIB was a winning combination; together with other partners they made Malaysia’s inaugural celebration of World Bamboo Day (held from 19 to 21 September 2013) a huge success.

Ghazi’s visit to Damyang a small county in South Korea in 2012, opened his eyes to what bamboo could do for rural economy. Damyang county is a picturesque countryside in South Korea where one can still find quiet, unspoiled villages. Bamboo has been part of the lives of the rural people of Damyang for over 300 years. There were hundreds of local markets dedicated to bamboo. Over the years, the demand for bamboo declined. It reached alarming proportions 20 years ago when all the bamboo markets closed down. It looked as though the bamboo, which was a part of the county’s identity, would disappear all together.

Damyang’s bamboo savior was its governor, Choi Hyung-sik who revitalized the bamboo industry by expanding the bamboo sector to modernize and to adapt sustainable utilization. His efforts paid off. The result is that Damyang’s bamboo industry has been revived and its local bamboo markets are thriving. Under Choy’s leadership, local bamboo resources are carefully maintained and managed to sustainably supply bamboo culms and shoots for emerging new markets. He also, since 2003, spearheaded an effort to promote the development of “New Bamboo Products” as a way to boost local economy. Today, bamboo is at the heart of Damyang’s economy.

It was Choy’s efforts to modernise and revitalize the bamboo industry that impressed the officials of the WBO who decided in 2012 to award the Damyang the privilege to host the World Bamboo Congress (WBC) in 2015. At the same time, seeing Ghazi’s passion, dedication and commitment for bamboo also prompted them to name him as one of the ambassadors for WBC 2015.

Bamboo as a transformative agent in agriculture

All this talk of bamboo as the iconic green crop is fine but how does one translate it to the Malaysian scenario? Ghazi (pic) points out that agriculture has been identified as one of the National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs). “Bamboo is a product that people in the kampung can relate to. It has been a part of their lives,” explains Ghazi. “We need to show them how it can be transformed to an attractive cash crop. Here we can learn from Damyang where researchers got together to come out with new products made from bamboo. Here is where creativity and innovativeness must come in to create new products and uses for bamboo.”

Bamboo should not just be seen as contributing to agriculture only. It also has huge potential for different industries as well. According to Ghazi, research has shown that there are 12 key industries where bamboo can play a part. Some of these industries are food, plantation, textile/fabric, construction, medicine, transportation (Ghazi is busy working on a bicycle made from bamboo), entertainment and interior décor. “There are about 60 different business opportunities to be explored in these areas,” says Ghazi.

He cites two examples on how bamboo can have an impact on other industries. The first is the snack industry. “We can make bamboo chips and sell it worldwide. Our scientists and researchers need to come out with new flavours for bamboo chips to make them commercially viable. Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo Inc in the US makes billions of dollars a year just from potato chips. If it can be done with potato chips, it can be done with bamboo chips.”

Another industry where bamboo can have an impact is the batik industry. “Bamboo can turn batik industry green. You can use bamboo to make textile or fabric and paint batik designs on them. Eco-fashion is going to be very big in future,” he says. “We need to make the rural folks aware of the huge potential in bamboo farming.”

It’s not just the rural folks who need to be educated. People in decision making positions also need to be aware of bamboo’s potential. Ghazi has been busy trying to talk to the right people. There is a reason for his urgency in meeting with the officials. Ghazi reveals that during the dialogue session with WBO in Damyang in 2012, he proposed that the official wear for delegates for WBC 2015 to be green batik. “The officials accepted the idea. For this to become a reality, we need to work with many parties. We need funds to see this idea through and help from various ministries. That’s why I don’t mind going to anyone to present my case for bamboo. It does not matter if they do not accept my ideas; at least listen to it first,” he adds.

“I am convinced that bamboo is an iconic crop for transformation of the agriculture sector and countryside,” says Ghazi.

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