UAB business students hoping to find treasure in Black Belt bamboo

UAB students search for hidden treasure in area known for poverty; it is their 2nd year looking for economic answers in Black Belt region.

University of Alabama at Birmingham Collat School of Business students are searching for hidden treasure in Alabama’s Black Belt Region — and hoping to find it in the form of bamboo.

They are working as team members on a project called One Tank Treasures, a name given because the area can be reached from most major cities in the state with one tank of gas. In this, the second year of the project, the students are conducting an independent research study on the feasibility of cultivating moso bamboo. They hope to show the people of Wilcox County, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau nearly four out of 10 residents live below the poverty level, that bamboo can grow twice as fast as pine trees – and provide a return on investment up to threefold per acre.

“Many people feel this area would be the ideal place to grow bamboo,” said Nathan Oliver, M.B.A., instructor in the UAB Collat School of Business. “There are many uses for this product, and it has much commercial potential.”

The UAB students have done their research work. They learned bamboo is a renewable, or green, source in demand around the world. It can be used in a range of ways from fibers for clothing to hardwood floors. And bamboo, able to withstand 52,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, is stronger than graphite and can be used as a concrete reinforcement. However, the students also learned there are two barriers to its growth — the physical that keeps bamboo from spreading after it’s planted and the mental that stops it from being planted.

Bamboo is a renewable source in demand around the world. It can be used in a range of ways from fibers for clothing to hardwood floors. And bamboo, able to withstand 52,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, is stronger than graphite and can be used as a concrete reinforcement.

“Farmers are hesitant even to consider bamboo because they think it as an aggressive and invasive species,” says Cliff Goolsby, a UAB senior who is from a farming family in Florala, Ala. So the UAB project is working to counter those misperceptions with research that reveals moso bamboo is expansive, but not aggressive or invasive.

Goolsby’s classmate Emefa Butler, a UAB senior raised in Uniontown, Ala., also recognizes the mental barriers and wants to make sure she and her classmates are not misperceived in the same way as bamboo.

“People in this region have been taken advantage of in the past because we thirst for opportunity,” Butler says. “As outsiders, it is important to build relationships and trust, and I hope my presence comforts people here a little bit.”

The students involved in the study were selected for their expertise and their backgrounds. It is an alliance of talent in four areas: farming, factory, fulfillment and marketing. This is the second summer a UAB team has spent two weeks in Wilcox County and met with many of the same people and eaten at many of the same places. And, once again they are mentoring four students from Wilcox Central High and four students from Wilcox Academy.

“We work to get them engaged in the product so they can be the ambassadors and pioneers of this initiative in their community,” said Olu Ogunbi, a senior from Montgomery who also was a member of the inaugural UAB Wilcox County team this past year.

They are asking a great deal of the local students. They not only want them to accept the project – they want them to accept each other. Most of the high-school students didn’t know each other before the project even though their schools are less than two miles apart. The sharing of laughs, meals and text messages throughout the two-week period has been a step toward building an alliance.

“One need the Black Belt has is for greater collaboration among the different people who live here,” said Jacob Gelber, J.D., M.B.A., UAB instructor. “A greater willingness to work together and to spot business opportunities will benefit the whole community.”

The UAB students who were part of the inaugural Wilcox County project included Ogunbi, Lewinale Harris and Daniel Owens. The first-time students, in addition to Butler and Goolsby, were Aubree Perkins, Terence Shoulders and Christopher Wilson. You can find details of their experiences on their blog at one-tank-treasures.blogspot.com.

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