Changing Perceptions: Bamboo

As a frequent visitor to Latin America, Ben Sandzer-Bell saw the opportunity to use his aerospace engineering background to create a business. His vision was for a company that would have a positive impact by building long-lasting, locally-sourced, locally produced green housing made of bamboo.

The result of his quest is CO2Bambu, a company that started putting up 80 buildings in Nicaragua and has plans to expand to sustainable, highly portable housing for disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes. He started in Nicaragua because he saw the need. As he said,

"The rest became a function of the bamboo available in Nicaragua, which is uniquely fitted to construction. Since there is a massive housing deficit in Latin America, it was a no brainer."

Like every aspiring entrepreneurial venture, CO2Bambu has put the founders' resolve to the test. For local Nicaraguan farmers, bamboo is minimally useful, often razed to make room for cash crops or pasture land.

"It was hard to convince farmers that throwing away bamboo was getting rid of something that has economic value," explains Thelma Mena, CO2Bambu program manager. "Our job was to work with the farmers to show them the value of bamboo, and then help them combine their ancestral farming and building capabilities with modern quality control and construction techniques."

Working closely with northern Nicaraguan farmers, CO2Bambu exchanged information, often learning as much as they taught.

"Local farmers taught us how to harvest with the cycle of the moon," added Mena. "The New Moon is the ideal time for cutting bamboo because it means the water levels in the bamboo stalks are at the lowest, which helps prevent disease in our harvested bamboo."

CO2Bambu homes have several unique characteristics that make them easy to sell to potential funders. Not only are they created by local hands using local, sustainable materials, they offer tremendous advantages in strength and flexibility.    These qualities mean it withstands flooding, hurricanes and earthquakes more resiliently than concrete and steel. Though not significantly cheaper than conventional building materials, it is cost competitive. These benefits helped to secure NGO sponsorship to start their first multi-housing building program for 80 homes. But getting started wasn't as simple as just hiring laborers. Unlike a mature economy, where local stores carry all of the building materials required along with highly trained designers and builders, Nicaragua is still developing. As a result, the country lacks many of the basic components necessary for the type of home building project CO2Bambu had in mind. As Sandzer-Bell noted when describing his experience developing what turns out to be a micro economy:

"Step one: we train foresters who know how to grow bamboo and know when it is ripe for cutting. Step two: we work with local government officials on regulatory issues. And step three: we develop a crew of builders and civil engineers who can think bamboo."

CO2Bambu's approach has managed to do something nearly impossible: They have kept significant portions of the profits and the environmental benefits within local communities. Their process includes:

  • Buying bamboo seeds from Nicaraguans trained in seed collection and preservation.
  • Donating seeds to local farmers who grow seedlings and transplant bamboo in reforestation projects--60,000 plants in the past 2.5 years.
  • Helping to restore riverbeds and previously clear-cut forested areas, improving water quality, soil retention, and natural habitats.
  • Sustainably harvesting by cutting only 30% of mature stocks at a time.
  • Training men and women to cure bamboo, build the bamboo mats used for house walls, and then buying back the materials.
  • Obtaining funding from local governments and international NGOs to hire local workers to build bamboo.
  • Giving women ownership of bamboo homes which last up to 25 years.

In a nutshell, CO2Bambu has worked hard to address their own market needs, as well as those of the community throughout the entire value chain. The people of CO2Bambu are like a force of nature, believing both their business model and their bamboo homes to be ideas that are worth sharing. For the future, Sandzer-Bell sees opportunity in Nicaragua as well as in disaster prone areas. In addiion to the benefits to the Nicaraguan economy, the greatest selling feature is CO2Bambu's flat pack system, which uses mats for siding that can be shipped flat in kits that resemble an IKEA cabinet. This makes them easy to deploy following a natural disaster. Compared to the plastic tents--which some Haitian families still live in--CO2Bambu's homes provide better shelter for a longer period of time. They can be built quickly and safely, and then later retrofitted into permanent shelters. This process fills an immediate need for housing and then transforms into long-term housing in a cost-effective, environmentally-sensitive manner. Sandzer-Bell is exploring ways to use carbon credits to help finance his projects, as well as building alliances with international NGOs to expand into Haiti and other distressed areas.

"The same NGO entities that want to fight climate change are bound by traditional construction because they don't have the time and resources to develop ecological housing solutions. So as soon as a disaster comes, they have to drop the climate change concern."