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Bamboo bonanza for small farmers

Shree Padre, Palakkad

Published: May. 28, 2024
Updated: May. 28, 2024

WHEN he worked in the Gulf as a cook for 30 years, Azees Aboobacker squirrelled together his savings to raise small rubber and coconut gardens back home in Palakkad district in Kerala. He grew rubber and coconut, but the coconuts got stolen and so did the sap from his rubber trees.

Aboobacker, who is now 62, realized that long-distance farming is risky. What he needed was a plant that would flourish without everyday supervision. He found it in the ‘lathi bamboo’ or the bamboo variety that at one time was ubiquitously used as a cane by policemen.

It took five years for the bamboo to be harvest-ready, but when it was Aboobacker found that he could pay for his children’s education by selling the bamboo from just a small plot. Now, he has bamboo growing on 1.75 acres. “I am a bamboo farmer,” he says cheerfully.

The police's lathi bamboo has been replaced by lathis made of fibre. But this bamboo has many other uses as well and consequently a robust market beckons the farmer.

Botanically known as Thyrsostachys oliveri or simply T. oliveri,  lathi bamboo is called korna mula in Malayalam. It is used to make an agricultural implement called thotti or thotti mulan which is used to harvest arecanut, coconut and other crops. It is also used to make ladders, rig up shamianas and so on.

Bamboo cultivation has helped Aboobacker get ahead in life. He himself didn’t manage to study beyond Class 5. But he invested as much as he could in the education of his three sons. One works as a mechanical engineer in Saudi Arabia, the other is a technician and the third is studying electrical engineering.

Azees Aboobacker at his bamboo plantation

“Those who used to ridicule me for raising a bamboo plantation now call me a person with great foresight,” says Aboobacker with a laugh.

Like Aboobacker’s, personal stories of success with lathi bamboo abound. K.C. John, a bamboo enthusiast in Palakkad district, calls it the “small farmer’s ATM,”  because of how easily it can be turned into cash.

“In Kerala, where land for farming is scarce, the kind of income this bamboo can generate is unparalleled,” he says. “Whenever a farmer requires money, he has to just call up the buyer. He will come, fix the price, cut the bamboo and make the payment on the spot.”

John’s land is undulating, rocky and with hardly any topsoil. Eight years ago, out of curiosity, John planted a few bamboo plants on roughly half an acre. Last year, he earned Rs 35,000 by selling his bamboo culms.

There are others who have profited by growing bamboo. P.A. Achyuthan runs a stationery shop in Keralassery village. He has been raising bamboo on his small plot for 25 years.

“In all, I get 1,000 culms to sell. At the rate of Rs 120 per culm, I earn Rs 1.2 lakh,” he says.

V.G. Vijayan Nayar of Mundur panchayat used to be a full-time farmer before he switched to the real estate business. He has 30 clumps of lathi bamboo. During the pandemic he couldn’t sell his culms for a couple of years. But last year he earned Rs 60,000 by selling them. Every year, on average, he gets Rs 30,000.

What’s clear is that lathi bamboo is inexpensive to grow, doesn’t need much care and provides good returns.

“Compared to all other crops, it is the most profitable. It has no thorns, harvesting is easy and, like rubber, coconut and banana, it doesn’t require high capital investment. No need for irrigation or manure. During the monsoon, all you need to do is heap a few baskets of soil around the bottom of the tree,” explains Vijayan.

Vinod Krishnan of Ezakkad village, a rubber grower, has 30 clumps. Seven years ago, he and his brother, Pramod, became bamboo traders.

“We are not paying any attention to our bamboo crop so the quality of culms is average. We earn about Rs 50,000 in a year.” Since he is a trader, all he has to do is add his own culms to the load he picks up and earn a little extra since he would not be paying for transport.

Bamboo is quickly bought by traders who pay on the spot

Lathi bamboo grows to a height of 15 to 25 metres. A few basal internodes remain solid without any hollow portion inside. But the upper internodes have hollow areas. Apart from Kerala, it is grown in northeastern states like Tripura where it is called kanak kaich. Recently, due to rising demand, cultivation of lathi bamboo has spread to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.



T. oliveri has its origins in erstwhile Burma or Myanmar. Its advent in India dates to the pre-Independence era, when one Abdul Nasir Mauji imported the plants from Myanmar. They arrived in Palakkad by train. This bamboo variety was probably a new plant across India.

Abdul Mauji started growing T. oliveri on a few acres in Ezakkad village in Mundur panchayat, 15 km from Palakkad city. Locals say he used to export the culms and earn a good income.

“He would not share his plants with anyone. If he came to know that his variety was being grown on someone’s land, he used to file a police complaint,” say locals. But after a few decades, Mauji’s family sold off all their bamboo plantations.

An educational institution called Yuvakshethra Institute of Management Studies bought four acres of Mauji’s plantation. Plans were afoot to raze the plantation and construct buildings instead. But Father Cherian Anjilmootil, principal of the institution, put his blueprint on hold after listening to Baburaj Mullathodi, a bamboo activist from Uravu, an NGO in Wayanad.

“We don’t have such a large collection of lathi bamboo anywhere in the entire state of Kerala. This variety should be conserved and spread around,” was Mullathodi’s advice to Father Anjilmootil.

Curious about what was growing on their land, Father Anjilmootil and his friend, K.C. John, went to Wayanad and spent a day learning about bamboo and lathi bamboo from Uravu. They were very impressed. They realized that lathi bamboo could be a game changer for farmers. So they changed their earlier decision and decided to popularize cultivation of lathi bamboo as well as other varieties in their area instead.

“In 2013 we held a ‘bamboo festival’ for the first time. With Uravu’s help we exhibited 28 varieties of bamboo plants and more than 100 bamboo products,” recalls Praveen Bala, Yuvakshethra’s office manager. The one-day bamboo festival got extended to five days since it drew thousands of people. More than 2,000 students from 36 institutions visited the exhibition.

Vinod Krishnan with his crop of lathi bamboo

It was an educational institution that popularized bamboo, something generally regarded as the duty of the government and its departments. Yuvakshethra’s efforts catalyzed the growth of lathi bamboo in the following years.

In contrast to the earlier owners of the plantation, Yuvakshethra opened up its campus to the local community. Bamboo plants were sold to farmers at a nominal price. The oldest plantation of lathi bamboo on the highway stood like a model farm, inspiring passers-by and farmers. The remaining portion of the old plantation is only one acre. But it shows the level of growth of this variety and how thick a culm grows over the years.

After Yuvakshethra’s promotion initiative, bamboo cultivation spread rapidly. Some local people had already realized the potential of lathi bamboo before Yuvakshethra’s efforts. But plants weren’t available. All the same, some plants did reach a few homesteads and multiplied.



“Our Ezakkad village has been known as Bamboo Village for quite a few years,” says Father Joseph Olikkalkoonal, vice-principal of Yuvakshethra. Each house in this village has at least one or two lathi bamboo plants.

Aravindakshan (above) and Achyuthan run a nursery that produces lathi bamboo plants

A casual lookaround in Mundur, Kongat and Keralassery panchayats indicates the popularity of T. oliveri. Land holdings here are generally small. A few farmers have grown lathi bamboo on one to two acres.

The three panchayats cover a large area. None has data of the area under lathi bamboo or the total number of existing plants. Around 12,000 families live in the three panchayats and, according to Vinod Krishnan, at least 25 percent or 3,000 families grow bamboo. Aravindakshan, a local farmer, says, “In Mundur and Kongot panchayats, more than 1,000 families cultivate bamboo and earn at least Rs 1,000 per clump every year.”

Culms of lathi bamboo sell for Rs 100 to Rs 150 here. The price goes up to Rs 250 to Rs 300 once they reach Meenakshipuram on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

Y. Christudas, who lives in Kottakonam, 40 km from Thiruvananthapuram, has been in the business of making bamboo ladders and thotti, the implement for harvesting arecanut and coconut, for decades. He travels to Mundur to buy lathi bamboo culms and spends around Rs 20,000 on transport. A culm costs around Rs 250 when it reaches Kottakonam. Christudas makes ladders ranging from 10 feet to 25 feet in height. Every month he sells about 300 thottis.

A 25-foot thotti is priced between Rs 600 and Rs 700. A ladder of the same height costs Rs 1,500. His customers are areca nut, coconut and mango farmers, the state electricity board and event management companies.

Lathi bamboo is also used to make pandals for vegetable crops and to prop up shamianas. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, lathi bamboo is used as stakes for crops like tomato. The culms are cut into small pieces for this purpose.



Bamboo farmers in Mundur call the past decade the ‘golden era’ of lathi bamboo. This was the time they got very remunerative prices for their culms. The bamboo was used extensively for sand mining near rivers.

Achyuthan in his bamboo plantation

“Since I am a trader too, I have even sold one culm for Rs 700 at that time,” recalls Vinod Krishnan. After the state government banned sand mining seven or eight years ago, the price came down from Rs 250 to Rs 125.

“Despite this, lathi bamboo did not lose its popularity. We don’t know in which places it is grown or how much land is under bamboo cultivation,” says K.C. John. “But, excluding the monsoon months, we find that during the rest of the year almost one lorry-load full of bamboo culms goes nearly every day from Mundur and its surrounding villages.” Aravindakshan adds, “In a week, we see four to five lorry-loads passing from Kongod panchayat.”

Mundur has been the nerve centre of the lathi bamboo trade for over a decade. Apart from local sales, lorry-loads are transported to the rest of Kerala as well as to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.        

Sixty-year-old Kunhikuttan of Mundur has been working as a bamboo harvester for the past 35 years. Ten years ago, he became a bamboo trader. He starts work at 7 am. By lunch time, he calls it a day. A team of three can cut 200 culms which makes up around one lorry-load. Mundur now has about 50 bamboo cutters.

Lathi bamboo is not used much in industry. Its end users belong to the unorganized farming sector. So lathi bamboo has a decentralized market. Because of this, growers are getting a very encouraging price.

“Many decades ago, some intelligent guys pointed out that lathi bamboo is very well suited to lifting sand from a river bed. Because of this new use, it started fetching a good price,” recalls K.C. John. “Now it has caught the attention of interior decorators. This use will increase in course of time. Of late, the construction sector has begun using lathi bamboo instead of iron rods. Bamboo is a quickly regenerating raw material unlike iron that has to be dug out from the earth. If we find new uses for lathi bamboo, its marketing opportunities will increase even more.”



Tissue cultured plants of T. oliveri are now available. But the people of Mundur and many bamboo scientists are not satisfied with their growth. They prefer the rhizome generated plants. This methodrequires skill. Many growers produce such plants in nurseries and grow bags. They are priced upwards of Rs 200. Some nurseries sell such plants for as much as Rs 1,000 each. For farmers, plant propagation is a good source of additional income.

Aravindakshan and his brother, Achyuthan, run a nursery that produces lathi bamboo plants. Achyuthan sells each plant for Rs 250. They earn Rs 7,500 from plant sales every month.

A quarter-century ago, lathi bamboo was exported to Kuwait for staking orchid plants. Recalls Vakkayil Vijayakumar, “In those day I got a message from London. A company in Kuwait wanted bamboo poles with a specific-size hollow of 10 mm diameter. None of us knew what variety of bamboo would fit such specifications. The only clue we had was the sample they had sent us.”

Vijayakumar hunted all over but his efforts proved futile. One day, he was travelling in his car to Mundur. Suddenly, he noted a ‘new variety’ of bamboo in a roadside plantation. He stopped, went into the plantation and met the farmer, the late T.K. Raveendra, former vice-chancellor of Calicut University. Vijayakumar studied the lathi bamboo and realized this was the variety he had been looking for. He exported 12 containers of lathi bamboo.

 “At that time, rules were very strict. I had to put in a lot of effort to obtain clearances from the forest department and other departments. Now bamboo transport has no restrictions. If we get an export order, we can execute it happily,” says Vijayakumar.



It is Tripura in the northeast that grows T. oliveri on a large scale. Rajib Kanthipal, a bamboo industrialist, says the state’s Bamboo Mission supported propagation of T. oliveri on about 1,000 acres under its joint forest management programme between 2005 and 2007.

Buyers use the bamboo to make an agricultural implement called thotti and to make ladders

Farmers grow this variety in three concentrations: high density, medium density and low density. In high density, the gap between two plants is 1.2 to two square metres. This produces culms with minimal diameter. As the density lowers, the girth of the culm increases. High density plantations produce culms of one-inch diameter. Culms in low density have double the girth and are used as fishing rods.

Most farmers opt for high density planting. The culms are harvested in the second or third year of planting, much earlier than in Kerala. The price of culms is also much less. Each culm is sold for `60 to `80, mostly for making furniture.

“In Tripura, there is demand for whatever quantity of T. oliveri you grow,” says Kanthipal. “Because of this, farmers cut the bamboo before time, affecting the quality of the culm.”

Every year, he says, hundreds of lorries carry the bamboo for agricultural purposes across India. Apple growers in Uttarakhand are big customers. They use the culms to support nets which cover the trees to prevent damage due to hailstorms. Dendrocalamus strictus culms aren’t strong enough for this purpose. T. oliveri is stronger and does the job. Tripura, in fact, can’t meet the high demand for this variety of bamboo.

Lathi bamboo is exported to the US and to Switzerland and, ironically, to Myanmar, its country of origin, where it is used as fishing rods.

Partha Chakraborthy, another bamboo industrialist from Tripura, says demand for T. oliveri has increased over the years. “But we don’t have a port near Tripura. So we have to depend on exporters based in Kolkata, which is a limitation,” he says.

There is widespread belief that T. oliveri bamboo doesn’t flower like other species. But this is not true. Its flowering cycle is unpredictable. “We don’t generally get reports of T. oliveri flowering. One reason is that T. oliveri plantations are under private ownership and not in forests,” says Dr K.K. Seethalakshmi, a retired scientist from the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) in Peechi, near Thrissur.

“T. oliveri flowered in its mother nation, Myanmar, in 1891, later in Dehradun in 1938 and in Haldwani in 1962. I started my study of bamboo in 1979. Till my recent retirement, I have not heard about T. oliveri flowering anywhere in the world.”

What will happen if it flowers? “There are four possibilities,” explains Dr Seethalakshmi. “First, production of ample viable seeds. Second, production of seeds requiring much less germination. Third, production of sterile seeds. Fourth, clumps dying after flowering. However, flowering won’t be the end of a T. oliveri plantation. It will be a comma or semicolon.”



How did this crop attract the attention of farmers in Mundur who are not easy to win over? The first reason is that T. oliveri never fails as a crop even with less attention. It is easy to sell, can be grown on unproductive bits of land, and one gets steady returns.

Thotti, a harvesting tool made with lathi bamboo

Yet, cultivation of T. oliveri hasn’t spread to the rest of Kerala. The government has not created awareness about it or taken farmers on study tours. Though everyone describes this variety as a zero-attention crop, a little care and management such as manuring before the onset of the monsoon and heaping soil around the roots of the tree, would stimulate growth of more shoots and bring in additional income.

No one has yet come up with a set of practices to grow T. oliveri, or recommendations on how and why plants should be spaced. Raising a model lathi bamboo plantation on one acre would also be a positive step. After two years, once the plantation takes shape, regular study tours to this model farm as well as to selected farmers’ plantations would encourage more farmers to grow T. oliveri.

Scientists from the Krishi Vigyan Kendra could visit farms and provide advice to farmers on manuring or heaping soil around the trees’ roots, and so on.

Government agencies have been organizing many seminars and conferences under the Bamboo Mission. Unfortunately, such events do not really present the farmers’ perspective. A bamboo activist complains, “I have been attending bamboo seminars for the last decade. On not one occasion have I heard a farmer narrating his experiences from the dais.”  


For information and rhizome generated plants of T. oliveri: World of Bamboo –  97470 75610 (Baburaj), 94477 41225 (K.C. John) Uravu (Dr Abdullah) – 79027 93203


  • Zabiulla T

    Zabiulla T - June 26, 2024, 7:33 p.m.

    Its quite interesting and informative article. As a bamboo enthusiast I would love to see T.oliveri or Lathi bamboo in Karnataka. Thank you so much to Shree Padre for this article.