Bamboo power

24 11 2011

I turned into the entrance and my misgivings rose. The property was not well cared for. There was not a blade of grass anywhere so clearly there was no money for a borehole and the house was in serious need of some repairs and maintenance. The rubbish pit was clearly visible further down the slope and cans and other detritus lay scattered around it. A tall, thin man in his seventies, who introduced himself as Mr G, greeted me and thanked me for coming over. He’d been at the nursery the previous day when I was out and when I phoned back had enquired if we could establish imported tissue cultured bamboo plantlets. I’d been intrigued and besides it was a business opportunity so had agreed to and early morning meeting. As he turned to go into the house I noticed that his trousers were in need of some repairs and maintenance too and I wondered if I would still be having to work at his age.

We made our way into a sparse office and he invited his black colleague to come and join us. They were indeed importing large quantities of a type of timber bamboo that I’d not heard of, primarily for fuel for four proposed 100MW power stations in a joint venture with what I gathered to be a South African company. The bamboo has many uses and is used in Malaysia for house contstruction too. They were also hoping to get tobacco farmers to grow it for burning to cure their crop in place of gum trees (it not surprisingly grows faster) and for live fences and a myriad of other uses. They hurridly emphasized that it was non-invasive. I asked what the plantlets would look like and was passed a folder that they’d put together. The photographs were enlarged to fit the page and so badly pixelated that I couldn’t really see what was going on. Clearly basic photo manipulation was not something they were familiar with and I momentarily thought of offering to do it for them then decided not to; there was a pervading, rather sad air of desperate hopefullness and I didn’t want to deflate it in any way.

When I asked about quantities I was told that initially they would be very small, a few thousand plantlets at most. They thought the power stations that would require some 10,000t per year of bamboo to maintain sustainability would probably do their own plant establishment but they did ask me if I could cope with up to 1 million plantlets. I thought this was probably wishful thinking on their part but did not say so.

At the intersection of Borrowdale road not far from the meeting place there was a newspaper billboard; “1 MILLION FACES STARVATION!” it blared. I thought it ironic that people were prepared to invest large amounts of money in a power generation project but not in producing food in what had to be conflicting land useage. I had been told that there were 4 power stations planned (but not where) and the 40,000ha of bamboo plantation (not just for the power stations) was unlikely to be virgin land. Now 40,000 ha could conceivably produce 200,000 tonnes or more of maize. Obviously making money is more important than feeding the population though I have to admit we are desperately short of power in Zimbabwe.