Young Kenyans aim to establish sustainable bamboo agroecological farming with the help of citizen science

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Upper Left: Caroline Wawira Njeru Upper Right: Lawrence Njoroge Chuka Lower Left: Stephen Njeru Munene Lower Right: Margaret Nyambura Wanjiru

A group of young people gathered in Kenya in 2018 to figure out how to establish a bamboo agroecology that would 1) provide a sustainable resource for their community, 2) restore degraded riparian areas, and 3) create a source of income for their group. They combined a citizen science model with a table banking model from the economic sector to launch a pilot initiative. Here’s how they’re doing three years into the project.  

Hundreds of projects all over the world use the CitSci.org platform to build and grow their citizen science projects. In our Project Spotlight series, you’ll meet the people behind the projects and hear about their citizen science successes and challenges. We hope you’ll take away new ideas you can try with your citizen science projects too.

In this Project Spotlight, we’ll hear from several co-creators of the iCitSci Bamboo Micro-Pilot project, including Dr. Elizabeth Warrick, PhD ((Liz) Information Science), Stephen Njeru Munene ((Steve) Information Management), Caroline Wawira Njeru ((Carol) Global Development Finance & Accounting), and Lawrence Njoroge Chuka ((Njoro) Community Development and Social Work).

Q: What is the iCitSci Bamboo Micro-Pilot project? Where does it take place?

Dr. Liz Warrick: iCitSci stands for Ishiara Citizen Science and is the name of a community based youth group in Ishiara, a market town located in Mbeere North in Eastern-Central Kenya. iCitSci launched the Bamboo MicroPilot Project in 2018 to test the viability of riparian bamboo agroecology in Mbeere and other areas with similar conditions. Agroecology farming is sometimes called agroforestry, when agricultural practice is prioritized over ecological restoration). I use the terms interchangeably.  

The iCitSci project is founded on the vision to reintroduce bamboo to damaged riparian zones where bamboo was previously endemic in Mbeere, and to leverage a riparian agroecology model for environmental and socioeconomic benefit. Mbeere is both the name of a place and the community indigenous to Mt. Kenya region (roughly 3 hours northeast of the capital city of Nairobi). Mbeere, or Ambeere, means “first peoples” in Kīmbeere, the indigenous language. iCitSci is the kind of self-determined grassroots endeavor an indigenous researcher hopes to come across at least once in their lifetime, and for me it’s been a privilege to work with this group of dynamic young people.  

Q: Tell us more about the relationship between Mbeere and bamboo. Why is bamboo re-introduction important?

Liz: In traditional Mbeere society, bamboo was a valued resource for riparian ecological health and it was also used in the production of artifacts such as ceremonial trumpets. These were blown by “agambi,” public information officials who used the trumpets as foregrounding tools when they made public announcements, much as today we use sound notifications to alert us to incoming messages and other digital communications.  

As a public resource, bamboo thrived in protected riparian ecologies. Harvesting of ecological resources for human consumption was strictly governed under the law, which was based in a place-centered justice system. Today indigenous bamboo is an endangered species and ironically undervalued. I say ironically because bamboo was a silent powerhouse, used for very specific functions and therefore of little value for everyday market economies. This is the very reason the plant had previously thrived in riparian zones. It could not be harvested by just anyone, because of its privileged socio-ecological status. 

The loss of bamboo and degradation of riparian areas 

With new ideas has come the breakdown of indigenous values regarding protection of riparian zones. Socially, ceremonial uses have ebbed, for example agambi who used bamboo trumpets to foreground public announcements have been replaced by present day communication technologies. As a result, bamboo has been over-harvested without deliberate replanting in the areas it once thrived.

Overharvesting of bamboo and other plants has had a negative impact on water sanitation and riparian ecology, as the bamboo filters water as well as provides a home for diverse microorganisms. The iCitSci group has found a silver lining – overharvesting indicates a latent and unmet market need – and members of our group are part of a riparian community. They are interested in an agroecology model that prioritizes the health of the rivers and built canals that come under their stewardship.

The model will allow for controlled harvesting for the market while maintaining enough of the population to preserve the role of bamboo in water sanitation, soil and sand preservation; and ecological support. 

Bamboo grove in Mbeere – Image courtesy of iCitSci Project

Q: What makes citizen science a useful approach – why not just go after a business model?

Liz: Firstly, getting acquainted with citizen science is a way for us to demystify science. Often we carry out the same observations as part of indigenous experimentation in farming and re-forestry. The key difference is between tacit and recorded data. When the data are recorded over time, we and others can use it to learn outside the immediate experience. 

Also, on iCitSci, every observation is time stamped, and identified with Site ID, location, project name, and name of the person recording the data. This means we are able to support data transparency at the very young stage in the project and to evidence its value for future project development. This is not something we are waiting for future investors, project partners, and consultants to mandate. Rather we want to learn from our own mistakes now and be in a position to contribute actively to future development of citizen science data management protocols to support indigenous citizen science. 

Q: Let’s talk about your pilot season. How did you get started? 

Liz: When the group became interested in bamboo in 2018, there was little prior research with contextually relevant scientific data on the topic. The nascent bamboo industry has been fueled in the last 5 years by greenhouse nursery farms that have sprung up organically and largely without the capacity to conduct reliable soil and water testing under laboratory conditions. Today, at grassroots the industry still lacks the means by which to advise or train inexperienced small scale farmers. It has become a commonly accepted industry practice for the specialists who run the few nurseries in the country, to make generalized assumptions about soil conditions and water needs based on limited understanding of ecological zones outside their immediate service area. However, climatic and soil conditions can vary greatly in a matter of a few miles, even in the Mt. Kenya region; where large scale nurseries emerging elsewhere are still nonexistent.  

The pilot broke ground in mid 2018, using the same organic practices that have become prevalent with small scale farming in the region whilst introducing the element of scientific data tracking to record the progress of bamboo. By blending the two approaches; as well as consulting with elders who retain indigenous knowledge on ecological stewardship; the pilot has generated factual and useful context-specific data that can inform policy and practice at grassroots level. For example, agricultural officers can build awareness of emerging needs for access to sampling and testing to support the emerging sector.  

In Phase 1 we wanted to know if alien species of bamboo were just as viable as indigenous species under the different site conditions that we wanted to target for future expansion.  

iCitSci bought and planted 3 species the first year, based on the recommendations of experts at the bamboo nursery, regarding species that they considered suitable for cultivation in Mbeere. They recommended Oxytenanthera abyssinica, an indigenous solid stemmed species, Dendrocalamus membranaccus, a hardy, woody species, and Dendrocalamus maximuslamina, a giant species.

Q: What did you learn that first year?

Liz: At the end of Phase 1, we found out that contrary to expected success with Dendrocalamus mebranaccus, the species deemed hardy by nursery staff, all individuals dried out and died in the first 6 months. This included individuals planted on the banks of canals and streams with plenty of groundwater. They could not withstand the very first dry season in Mbeere. We also found that Dendrocalamus maximuslamina, the giant species, did not do as well as expected. It did not grow in girth as it does in its native environment. We found that Oxytenanthera abyssinica, the indigenous species, was most successful given the right conditions. 

Q: Then what happened?

Liz: In Phase 2 we asked what contextual variables (site characteristics) were observed at each site and how they impacted plant growth, specifically the height and width of individuals. We observed the site characteristics based on findings from Phase 1, and focused on the surviving species, Oxytenanthera abyssinica and Dendrocalamus maximuslamina. Based on the data we have so far, it appears that the native species, O. abyssinica is the most hardy option and does best when it is well watered, in soils that are well-drained and where it does not have to compete with napier grass.  

This was an especially important evidence-based outcome, given the current pace at which alien species such as the two we tested are being introduced into the agricultural milieu, with potential further damage for ecologies. Future research can also build on findings to adapt the indigenous species for desirability of factors such as girth and height.  

Q: What have you, as leaders of this project, taken away from your citizen science experiences so far?

Steve: Collecting data and interacting with all of the projects’ bamboo sites has been a high point as I watched the plants grow and learnt how different species responded to different ecological conditions. I learned a lot about conditions that support natural propagation of new shoots. It’s important for the “forestry” part of agroforestry. As an individual, one of the things I am most excited about is that I have taught myself how to propagate bamboo from cuttings of stems. It’s important for the “agricultural” part of agroforestry. Since I have experimented with bamboo shoots and cuttings, I find that we can establish our own bamboo nurseries in future, using our own crop as the source of seedlings and stems.  

Carol: We started on a small scale, and with various challenges most of the seedlings died along the way. But the small number that survived has thrived and propagated. The constant monitoring and data recording is a success for the entire group. We can see what works and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. 

Q: COVID-19 disrupted the original plans for your project but your team persevered. What are some of the challenges COVID added to the project?

Carol: iCitSci group, as a way to keep members connected, started a table banking exercise. Table banking is group investment. Members get small loans from a common kitty and repay with interest to build savings. Before COVID, we all had loans we were servicing. However, with the COVID effects, where most of us stopped working, the repayments stopped. It was also difficult to meet and deliberate on the most effective way to proceed due to the lockdown.

Njoro: Covid almost paralyzed our group, since it was declared illegal by the government to hold meetings. It also affected the group’s investment fund, since some of our working contracts in our respective jobs were canceled, hence leaving us with little income. We ceased depositing into the fund and focused on not losing the capital that was already there before the onset of quarantine in March of 2020. We have deliberated a couple of times and upheld the decision not to use the funds for covid-related shortages. 

Q: Where do you hope the iCitSci project will be 10 years from now?

Maggie: Funding is a major area of concern if we are to meet our goals. As a group, our aim is to look for a spacious piece of land and start a large bamboo project, whereby we could generate income and even support schools or other local organizations. 

Njoro: In the next ten years I see iCitSci having invested heavily in at least 10 acres of bamboo, starting the first successful bamboo agroforestry project in Mbeere of that size. Our vision is to support local manufacture of bamboo products and offer training modules for the wider society beyond Mbeere. There is very little data on bamboo in this country, although there are many small scale projects that come up organically. We can offer evidence based information for beginners and help develop the science on how to grow bamboo in similar conditions all over the country and even regionally in Africa.  

Thank you for sharing your story

Thank you to the iCitSci team for taking the time to share the story of your bamboo citizen science project. We wish you all the best as you continue to develop and grow the project and we look forward to hearing more about how it develops in the coming years.

Want to learn more?

Dr. Liz Warrick can be reached for further inquiries about the project at warrick@integratedstewards.org. You can also find her on LinkedIn.

7 comments on “Young Kenyans aim to establish sustainable bamboo agroecological farming with the help of citizen science”

    1. Thanks Kennedy! We’re glad you appreciate the post and I am sure the iCitSci team will be excited to hear about your ideas for collaboration!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well put, Sarah, and thank you for a great feature story on iCitSci. I am sure the team will be along presently to continue the conversation with Kennedy! We are, as we say back home, on African Time: slow but sure wins the race!

        Like

    2. Thank you. We appreciate your interest in the project, Kennedy! Credit goes to Sarah at citsci.org for a story well told. We’ve certainly learned a lot from the micropilot dataset and are looking forward to post covid planning.

      Like

    3. Thanks for this Kennedy. we are happy to now be able to share content from citsci.org on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, and from a Kenyan perspective, this is key to being more active in the community.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great Post, Sarah!

    One of the contextual variables we did not explore in the blog post due to space was domestic herbivores as the leading pests due to fence-free grazing practices. Several sites were decimated by cattle overnight. Goats also have a devastating yet paradoxically promising taste for almost every part of the bamboo plant, relative, to the readily available grazing.

    Like

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