Meet Malaysia’s Bamboo King

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Dato’ Ghazi Sheikh RamliDato’ Ghazi Sheikh Ramli

By Sharmila Valli Narayanan

A former senator, entrepreneur Dato’ Ghazi Sheikh Ramli (or just ‘Ghazi’ as he prefers to be called) is the founder and chairman of a non-profit organisation called Global Innovation and Entrepreneurship Foundation (GIEF). A devotee of creativity and innovation, he is always on the lookout for the next big thing. It was through wide reading and international networking that he first became aware of the huge green potential of the humble bamboo.

The more he learned about bamboo, the more excited he became at its commercial prospect. He realised that bamboo had great potential to become the next big thing in the green revolution. This became obvious to him when, in December 2009 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak declared that Malaysia would reduce its carbon dioxide emission up to 40 per cent by 2020 subject to assistance from developed countries.

This announcement galvanised Ghazi and made him realise that now was the moment to push bamboo into the consciousness of the country. If Malaysia is serious about reducing its carbon dioxide emission, then bamboo is the plant that will lead the way.

“Do you know that bamboo minimises carbon dioxide and generates up to 35 per cent more oxygen than the same number of trees? Or that it is one of the world’s most sustainable resources?” Ghazi lists other merits of bamboo. “It has medicinal values, is low in maintenance and if developed properly, it has the potential to become a billion dollar industry like timber. Timber takes 20 to 50 years to mature, while bamboo matures in five to seven years. Studies have shown that when bamboo is properly treated, it is as strong as steel and sturdier than concrete, which makes it an excellent construction material,” he says. “Research also indicates that bamboo can be used to build affordable houses.”

One of the misconceptions of bamboo is that it is a tree and therefore wood. Bamboo is classified as a grass and a fast growing one at that. There are species that can grow up to two inches an hour. “There are 1,500 known species of bamboo in the world and Malaysia has about 70 species,” Ghazi adds.

He calls bamboo a “neglected, undervalued, misconstrued and misunderstood kampung product”.

Malaysians still think of bamboo as a rural plant that is used by villagers, he says. “For centuries, bamboo has had close ties with the rural villages in Malaysia. Kampung folks have used it for their daily needs like making utensils to store rice, making fishing rods and in building homes. We have not used innovation and creativity to tap the potential of bamboo. The rest of the world seems to have woken up to the potential of bamboo,” he says.

He cites some examples. In 2011, Rinspeed, a Swiss company that specialises in making concept cars for the Geneva Motor Show, debuted the Rinspeed Bamboo Electric Car at the famous motor show. BMW has also used bamboo in its car interior. In some developing countries like Costa Rica, bamboo has been used for building affordable homes since the late 1980s. When an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 hit Costa Rica in 1991, twenty houses built from bamboo that were at its epicentre withstood the quake without a crack while the houses built from concrete homes had collapsed.

“Bamboo has been used for flooring, interior décor and ceilings,” adds Ghazi. “Malaysia is talking about building affordable homes for people. It should look seriously at other countries that have used bamboo successfully to build homes. Unfortunately, in Malaysia and in a lot of developing countries, bamboo is looked down upon as a building material. People prefer concrete houses as they are seen as a sign of progress.”

Ghazi aims to change Malaysian’s perception of bamboo. Through GIEF, he is collaborating with the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) to make Malaysians more bamboo conscious and to realise the potential of bamboo to transform agriculture and the rural economy.

In 2013 from Sept 18 to 23, GIEF and MTIB jointly organised a very successful week-long celebration of Malaysia’s first World Bamboo Day. As part of the celebration were interactive activities, talks, seminars, a cooking demonstration using bamboo shoots, an eco-bamboo fashion show and exhibitions. World Bamboo Day has been celebrated worldwide since 2009.

This year in April, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City will host the Bamboo Global Summit. Ghazi and MTIB aim to ensure that Malaysia will be well represented at the summit. The most important event in the bamboo world is the World Bamboo Congress. The next congress – the 10th – will be held next year in Damyang, a small rural county in the southern part of South Korea.

World Bamboo Organisation (WBO) officials, who decide on which city hosts the WBC, visited Damyang in 2012 and were very impressed with the county’s achievements in modernising and rejuvenating its 300-year-old bamboo industry which was on the verge of extinction.

Ghazi too visited Damyang. The visit made a deep impression on him and in his words, “excited” him to the possibility of bamboo being a transformational plant that can change the economics of the rural countryside.

 

Next: How Damyang saved its ailing bamboo industry and what Malaysia can learn from it in terms of the economic potential of bamboo.

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