“Anything that you can do with wood, you can do with bamboo. People are looking for alternatives and I think that bamboo is the product of the future. The more you learn, the more impossible it becomes not to be passionate about bamboo. Firstly, the sustainability of the product is a major draw card. To get something of this quality and durability (from a wood equivalent), you are looking at cutting down beautiful old trees,” explains owner of the Bamboo Warehouse, Ant Stott.
He’s probably better known as a champion international paddler and four time Dusi Canoe Marathon winner – but he’s just as passionate about growing the business to which he has devoted much of his energy since 2013.
Currently the Durban and Cape Town branches of Bamboo Warehouse are the biggest suppliers of bamboo and bamboo products in South Africa.
The business started with importing flooring from China. Stott says that when their Chinese supplier sent him samples of boards, he immediately saw a host of other opportunities and began importing bamboo furniture boards in various thicknesses which are now used for kitchen and bar counters, floating stair treads and furniture. Bamboo composite decking and bamboo screens for outdoor areas followed.
Stott is a walking encyclopedia on both bamboo as a raw material and its seemingly infinite applications.
He explains that bamboo can be harvested every four to six years with farmers doing this on a rotational basis. Bamboo produces 35 percent more oxygen and removes up to five times more carbon dioxide from the environment than a tree of the same size.
Most products are made using bamboo composites or compressed bamboo fibers. The natural properties of bamboo allow for the creation of a construction grade material that is ultra strong, moisture resistant, extremely durable, low maintenance and resistant to wood borer.
Stott has a small but growing operation in Briardene where he employs five on the manufacturing side and a team of between three and four installers.
He values not only having grown his business but also creating jobs for employees that have learnt with him during the journey.
Stott explains that a 12 year career as a professional paddler had advantages over and above winning multiple medals. “The advantage was that I didn’t have to go into the first thing I found. I could look for the right opportunity. Lots came my way, but when I saw the bamboo, it was too good to let go by,” he says.
He started the next day.
Initially, he threw himself into his new business whilst still paddling competitively. But the combination of a growing business and paddling in the dark eventually lead to burn out and he realized that he needed to find a balance.
“I decided to step into the business world. Growing my business and the love for bamboo became my main focus. It meant a massive adjustment. Up until then, my life had been about training, traveling and racing,” he explains.
Stott’s own success depended on both getting into the market and building awareness of the benefits of bamboo. His greatest challenge was re-establishing the credibility of the product. A lot of fly by night operators had brought in bamboo that was of a poor quality and had failed giving the product a bad reputation.
“I had to overcome this. I’ve had to sway people’s opinions and get them to believe in the product,” he says.
Stott took to carrying bamboo products around with him wherever he went. His main mission was to introduce them to any interior decorators and architects that he encountered. As his converts began using and appreciating bamboo, he began to benefit from word of mouth recommendations and referrals.
He also stepped up the marketing, exhibiting at Decorex in Johannesburg and Durban.
He believes that it is as important to grow the market for bamboo as it is to push his company. Ultimately, one will feed off the other.
Looking back, Stott admits that he started his business during one of the most difficult periods – the 2008 global recession. Although he describes this as a “tricky and challenging time” he was also encouraged by the fact that if he could do well then, things could only get better. “Guys were dropping out of the market while we were growing. It was exciting,” he admits.
Stott is now up for his next business challenge – finding new applications for bamboo which include products for structural timber work. This, he says, could even create a value chain that could reach to agriculture. With sufficient demand, it could be grown here and products such as bamboo lumber, bamboo sheeting and flooring could be manufactured locally.