The arid North Eastern Province is sitting on an agricultural potential that has received little attention until recently, but is now drawing a wave of interest, most recently as a Sh35m government investment in a factory in Wajir, due to open next year to refine local harvests of some of the world’s most precious gums and essential oils.
The oils, which include myrrh and frankincense, are being tapped from dry land shrubs and trees, with small, private processors, such as Lubanchem Limited and Benmah Products, now sourcing the gums in the region for processing essential oils for export.
Until now, Yemen, Oman, Northern Somalia (Puntland) and Ethiopia have been among the world’s largest producers of high quality frankincense and myrrh.
But the market is disorganised. Puntland Chamber of Commerce estimates that yearly 500 metric tonnes of Frankincense are harvested in the region, but represents only 40 per cent of the potential collection. Yet internationally, the prices of both oils are high, with a kilogram of grade 1 myrrh fetching as much as $20, while the lowest grade earns around $1 a kilo.
With the source trees spread throughout the North-Eastern Province of Kenya, Lubanchem has worked with a growing network of now more than 500 pastoralist families, who are collecting the gums to be processed into the myrrh and frankincense oils.
The collectors get the resins from trees like Acacia Senegal and Seyal, Commiphora for myrrh and Boswellia for frankincense.
Women make up the bulk of the collectors, and are taking the resins to local collection centres, says Sadqa Haq, the Managing Director of Lubanchem. The collection centres double as shops where they can exchange the gums for foods, as well as for money. “Pastoralists don’t need money like they need food,” said Sadqa.
Like the residents, shop keepers have low incomes, so Lubanchem gives them a float of Sh20,000 to enable them to buy the gums from the collectors. Before the gums reach Lubanchem, they pass through a chain of three. Collectors sell or barter them to shopkeepers for around Sh100 per kg. Shopkeepers sell them to Lubanchem agents for around Sh120 per kg, and Lubanchem agents on the ground sell them to Lubanchem for Sh140 a kg. Through that “it creates incomes for a wide range of people and empowers them,” said Sadqa.
Depending on the value of the resins and season, the collectors can even sell a kilogram for Sh180 to the shopkeepers.
After 4 to 5 months, Lubanchem organizes collection and by then the gums may accumulate to around 5 tonnes or more.
For the 13 years that Sadqa has been processing the essential oils, the local market has been non-existent, she says. What she processes, she exports to Europe, the USA and China. She has been able to access these markets through the commercial departments of these embassies. The exported oils are used by pharmaceuticals and cosmetic companies to make medicines and sprays.
Essential oils are highly sought after in the world cosmetics industry, as they don’t contain the synthetic elements that are increasingly viewed negatively by western consumers, in favour of ingredients extracted naturally from plants. In the past five years, Sadqa has seen the overseas demand for the oils rise steadily, some years by as much as 10 per cent.
Last year, Lubanchem partnered with USAID to train the arid communities on the benefits of conserving the dry land trees. The gum collectors were taught how to extract the gums from trees without damaging them in a way that causes drying, and cautioned from extracting gums from trees less than 5 years old.
Through the training, communities are beginning to attach more value to the trees as the source of ongoing incomes. Initially, the women used to chop them down for firewood.
To encourage more of the arid communities to be gum and resin collectors, “we also pay them on the spot,” said Waheed Chaudry, Lubanchem Director.
Some pastoralists groups are even beginning to shift to fulltime gum and resin collection, he says, and Lubachem is open to more people selling them the extracts, inviting groups interested for discussions.
Lubanchem gums and resins collection initiative has already extended to Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. In Kenya, the niche for these resins is in the arid North Eastern Province. The harsher and dryer the climate, the higher the quality of the essential oils extracted, says Sadqa.
Written By James Karuga for African Laughter
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