Superbamboo against desertification and poverty (Johan van de Ven / Willem Van Cotthem)

Read at : Bamboo Sur

Superbamboo against desertification and poverty

My sincere thanks go to Johan van de Ven, General Director of Bamboo Sur, who drew my attention on the existence of a drought-resistant species of bamboo: Oxytenanthera abyssinica (A.Rich.) Munro.  It is growing in the following countries:

Northeast Tropical Africa: Eritrea; Ethiopia; Sudan
East Tropical Africa: Tanzania; Uganda
West-Central Tropical Africa: Cameroon; Central African Republic; Congo; Zaire
West Tropical Africa: Benin; Cote D’Ivoire; Gambia; Ghana; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Nigeria; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Togo
South Tropical Africa: Angola; Malawi; Mozambique; Zambia; Zimbabwe

It is a large herb grass growing very fast in open grassland, lowlands, and highlands, often on hills or along intermittent watercourses. This most hardy of the 3 African bamboo species is often found on slopes and well-drained very poor soils.  It even survives fire in its natural habitat. It is used for soil erosion control and the rehabilitation of degraded sites (combat of desertification).

It is propagated with cuttings and rhizomes, which means that once a plantation has been installed, propagation becomes easy.  Therefore, it has high potentials for agroforestry, industrial applications and planting in gardens.  More information on macro-propagation of this bamboo can be found on:

Oxytenanthera abyssinica seems to be a very promising species to be cultivated for many reasons: biomass production, food, fodder, medicine, shelterbelts, windbreaks, building material, house construction, scaffolding, fencing, furniture, granaries, local baskets for transporting, fish-traps, stakes, trellises, tool handles, household implements, pipes, arrow shafts, paper making, and charcoal.

At Bamboo Sur’s website (see above), one finds a detailed description indicating the potentialities of this interesting plant for combating desertification and alleviating poverty.  It can be used for creating living hedges around gardens and agricultural fields to keep the cattle out, or it yields a number of valuable products to enhance the annual income, e.g. charcoal.

Oxytenanthera abyssinica, Biomass bamboo for desert climates

The website introduces this bamboo as follows:

Bamboo Sur takes bamboo to the Next Level in sub-saharan African countries with establishing the first commercial O. abyssinica plantations.

Bamboo Sur is pleased to introduce this thick-walled bamboo species that is drought-resistant, grows in Savannah woodland and in semi-arid wooded grassland. This superbamboo is able to produce 9-10 tons of bamboo charcoal per hectare per year with a minimum rainfall of 350 – 800 mm.

Bamboo Sur’s plantations will be the first commercial scale O. abyssinica plantations in Africa. These new bamboo plantations will be a continuous source of bamboo charcoal supply for household cooking while it prevents deforestation.


Clump-forming bamboo with a robust rhizome up to 10 cm in diameter.

Clump dense, typically consisting of 20–100 (exceptionally up to 200) stems (culms) between 10–15 m tall and up to 10 cm in diameter.

Grows with a minimum required annual rainfall between 350 and 800 mm.

Average annual temperatures are 20 to 27°C, with monthly average daily maxima of 30 to 36°C and daily minima of 7 to 17°C.

It is a lowland bamboo, occurring from sealevel up to 2000 m altitude, but mainly at 300–1500 m.

Propagation is done by seeds or by stem cuttings.

Produce edible shoots.

Growth and development

  • A single shoot, which may reach 1 m in height, is produced in the first year from a rhizome.
  • From the third season onwards, several shoots are produced annually.
  • Rhizomes penetrate 30 cm in 3 years.
  • Stems reach 1.2 cm in diameter and 1.8–3.0 m in height within a few years of germination, reaching full height and diameter in 4–8 years.
  • New stems break through the soil surface in the rainy season. Extension growth slows down after 3–4 weeks, and ceases after 2–4 months.

  • Branches develop from the upper nodes from about the fifth week of active stem growth. Foliage is mostly shed in the late dry season.
  • The stems mature in 3 years and may survive for 8 years, but they are over-mature and unsuitable for harvesting from 6 years of age onwards.
  • Clump diameters range from 1 m to 8 m, and clumps may contain 20–100 (exceptionally up to 200) stems.
  • New shoots appear at the peripheries of clumps. Clump longevity of 30 years has been estimated for Oxytenanthera abyssinica in Sudan, but is less when mass flowering occurs and rhizomes die with the stems.

Uses of Oxytenanthera abyssinica

The stems are widely used for construction, fencing, furniture, fish-traps, stakes, trellises, tool handles, household implements, arrow shafts. The use of dry stems as fuel is widespread and they are frequently made into charcoal.

The stems have some potential as raw material for paper production. Split stems are used for basketry. Sap from the plant is collected for wine making in Tanzania and Malawi; the fresh or dried leaves are used as fodder, and the seeds and young shoots as famine food.

It is used in shelterbelts and windbreaks and for erosion control in land rehabilitation. In Ethiopia the root is applied in the treatment of skin diseases on the head. In Senegal leaf decoctions are taken to treat polyuria, oedema and albuminuria.


Harvesting of clumps starts when they contain 4-year-old stems; it continues at intervals of 1–3 years, with 4–6-year-old stems being cut.

In a management system designed to improve the productivity of natural stands with well-established clumps, rotational harvesting is practiced during the first 4 years.

Each year shoots of all ages in one quadrant are cut; this treatment progresses round the clump year by year.

Stems older than 6 years are used as fuel, those 4–6 years old as building material and those 2–3 years old may have value for weaving.

After the initial phase, 4-year-old stems can be harvested annually or, for stems that are 4 or more years old, at 2or 3-year intervals.

Improved harvesting and treatment techniques are needed to limit resource decline.


Yield estimates for natural vegetation where Oxytenanthera abyssinica is abundant are 10–33 ton dry stems per ha per year.

After a clump has reached an age of 6 years such yields are sustainable under appropriate harvesting.

Apart from culling dead or deformed stems, it is usual to leave unharnessed stems, which are 3 years old or younger, although clump congestion, or demand for supple material, may justify exploiting some of these.

Plantation Management

Oxytenanthera abyssinica is rarely managed systematically, but weeding of newly established clumps, and removal of overhead shade, is recommended.

Spacing of nursery raised seedlings has been 3.8 m × 3.8 m or 5 m × 5 m in experiments and in arboreta. In mixed plantations with hardwood trees the spacing is 6 m × 6 m.

Clumps take up to 6 years (from rhizome offsets) or 8 years (from seedlings) to reach the stem harvesting stage.

From the third year, thinning (50% of shoots from previous years) appeared justified in a planted stand in Kenya, because individual stems were smaller when stem numbers were high.

A pure stand of Oxytenanthera abyssinica contains up to 750 clumps and 30,000 stems per hectare.


With great pleasure I recommend the visitors of my blog


to take a look at the website


and to do a Google-search on ‘Oxytenanthera abyssinica‘ for more info about this fantastic bamboo.

Johan van de Ven and I are convinced that this superbamboo can play a remarkable role in the combat of desertification.  Its economic value can lead to an extraordinary improvement of the standards of living of the rural population in Asia, Africa and South America.


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.