A gum tree common in Kenyan arid areas as a sand dune stabiliser and producer of gums chewed by local people, is earning neighbouring Sudan Sh4bn a year in exports, but Kenya next to nothing, as local producers fail to master the packaging challenges to tap the high-earning international market for the gum, known as gum arabic.
Sudan’s success in commercializing the tree is defying Kenyan producers, with the few commercial ventures that have sought to exploit the tree returning grim results thanks to the rough terrain in the arid areas and poor packaging at the point of harvesting, which gives the gum impurities, including dust, which becomes embedded and difficult to remove.
As a result, exporters must spend at least 20 per cent of their costs cleaning the gum, which has seen them instead buy the easily accessible gum from neighbouring Sudan.
Sudan dominates world trade in gum arabic, the dried sap of the tree, controlling 60 per cent of the global market and producing about 80 per cent of the world’s gum arabic. The United States imports approximately 25 per cent of Sudan’s gum arabic, which is exempt from trade sanctions.
In 2010, Sudan's gum arabic export reached 34 800 tonnes, with the government of Southern Sudan expecting exports to reach 60,000 tonnes by the end of this year, compared with the 150 tonnes that Kenya exports annually. Other countries engaged in the gum business, labeled as the ‘gum belt’ countries, are Nigeria, Cameroon, the Sudan, Mali and Chad.
Yet even as Kenya fails to export the gum, local consumption is rising. Nairobi, alone, is now consuming around 700 tonnes a year of the gum. The paint industry is the biggest consumer with 560 tonnes, followed by the food industry at 86 tonnes and the ink industry, which consumes 20 tonnes. But most of this locally consumed gum is likewise being imported from Sudan.
However a flicker of hope has appeared recently on new efforts to exploit the tree that occupies large swathes of land in northern Kenya, with recent efforts at training farmers in harvesting and transporting the gum now gathering momentum.
Early this year, two Kenyan companies set up shop in Northern Kenya in an effort to redefine the gum extraction and marketing. This saw pastoralists in North Eastern receive their first batch of payment for successfully harvesting the gum and delivering it to the company in September 2011.
The pastoralists are getting Sh80 a kilo for the gum.
The companies, Dimtonoc Gum and Flevapet, started with four months of aggressive training involving local elders to mobilise the community into gum collecting as a venture. “We realized that if we inculcated into the pastoralist the commercial value of this venture from get go there would be no turning back, which is why we are recording good turn up at the moment,” said Zack Obino from Dimtonoc.
The mature trees, 5 to 6 m high and 5 to 25 years old, are tapped by making incisions in the branches and stripping away bark to accelerate exudation. The gum dries into shiny, amber-coloured globules, which are manually collected.
Collection takes place at intervals during the dry season with the gum used in pharmaceutical, industrial, and food products, including soft drinks and confections. It keeps sugar uniformly suspended in carbonated drinks, binds newspaper ink to paper, and is used as a coating on medications
Once the pastoralists harvest the gum, they bring it to a makeshift warehouse where the companies’ staff receive it and sort it, packing it in special paper bags and transporting it from town to town until it gets to Nairobi.
“The gum is highly sticky and catches dust so easily, which is why majority of exporters reject it, which is why we have to transport it in stages and from town to town. At the moment we have limited resources, but we intend to be hiring a cargo chopper to evade the rough and dusty terrain,” said Zack.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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