Bamboo – the timber of the 21st century?

Growing demand for wood products has led to deforestation across the world. One innovative company is, however, looking to reverse this trend while at the same time turning a profit. The answer? Bamboo.

Camille Rebelo, co-founder and managing partner of EcoPlanet Bamboo

EcoPlanet Bamboo develops and operates commercial bamboo plantations in South Africa and Nicaragua, and claims to be the largest company of its kind outside China, where engineered bamboo products are already a huge market.

The company says engineered bamboo can replace traditional timber for products such as flooring, decking, particle boards and structural frames. Paper manufactured from bamboo is also of the same quality to that made of wood. In addition, bamboo can be processed into charcoal and pellets from more efficient and cleaner energy solutions.

Bamboo is said to have many advantages over traditional timber trees. A hardwood tree grown in tropical areas can take up to 30 years to reach a harvestable size, while bamboo can grow to maturity in as little as four years. Cutting a tree for timber kills the plant, whereas because bamboo is part of the grass family, cutting it down only stimulates growth.

Camille Rebelo, the Kenyan born co-founder and managing partner of EcoPlanet Bamboo, told How we made it in Africa that globally the focus has been more on the stringent protection of forests, rather than addressing the fact that there is a growing demand for timber products and wood.

Conscious capitalism

EcoPlanet Bamboo’s “triple bottom line” or conscious capitalism philosophy aims to create economic, social and environmental returns. The company’s plantations are situated on severely degraded or deforested land. The plantations are also located in some of the world’s most remote areas with high levels of poverty, representing opportunities for job creation.

The company currently has one 1,200 acres plantation in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, and two plantations of approximately 4,800 acres in Nicaragua.

“We look for areas where there is a large able workforce, where there are very few opportunities for economic development,” Rebelo noted.

Saving the environment and alleviating poverty are not normally associated with high-returns businesses. However, Rebelo reckons that a financially strong business is the only way to bring about significant change. “I believe very strongly that if you are going to really make large-scale change, you have to prove that you … can get the financial returns that regular investors require, while still really positively impacting both the social and environmental sides.”

In fact, the best business advice that she ever received was from a wealthy individual while she was still studying. “He said, ‘Camille you can dedicate your career to going out and working at that sort of NGO conservation level, and you will have great impact on that local level, [but] if you really want to impact large-scale change, you have to go into the business world, and you have to unfortunately be able to make enough money or be wealthy enough that you can have access to the people that have the power to make change.’ That was a very important piece of advice for me,” Rebelo explained.

The company’s operations are spread out across the world. Its five-person corporate head office in the US is headed up by CEO and other co-founder, Troy Wiseman, while Rebelo and another staff member are based in Kenya. Together the plantations in South Africa and Nicaragua also employ hundreds of people.

Although EcoPlanet Bamboo is less than two years old, it has certainly made significant progress. The company has already secured US$40 million in investment, and aims to go public in the next five years. The company is also looking at developing more plantations in Africa. “At the moment we are doing feasibility for Mozambique and potentially Ghana,” said Rebelo.

In South Africa, EcoPlanet Bamboo will soon also launch a sister company EcoPlanet Core Carbon for the production of green charcoal, biochar and activated carbon.

So what is the secret to Rebelo’s success in business? “I’ve partnered with the right people who know the things that I don’t know … I started two companies before EcoPlanet Bamboo, and made the mistakes of partnering with people who had the same sets of skills as I did … EcoPlanet Bamboo has been so successful because we’ve got an incredibly strong partnership of people who bring very different skills to the table.”