The dry and rugged terrain stretching for kilometres in the expansive Wajir County appears largely barren, worthless even.
Yet growing from the parched earth is a resource worth billions of shillings and one that promises to significantly transform the lives of the largely poor pastoralist communities of northern Kenya.
The blistering weather conditions of Wajir and neighbouring counties such as Laikipia, Samburu, Marsabit, Garissa and Mandera creates prime conditions for the growth of the indigenous gum and resin-producing trees, which line the dusty rough roads, forming occasional forest patches across the vast terrain.
Gum Arabic is sourced from the Acacia Senegal variety, while the Commiphora, Sterculia and Boswellia varieties produce resins and essential oils.
These extracts are in high demand the world over and are often used in industrial production of food products such as chewing gum and beverages, medicine and scents.
Commiphora, in particular, produces the sensual-smelling myrrh, making it a highly sought-after commodity for the crafting of incense, perfumes, and other fragrances.
In recent years, pastoralists herding goats and camels have supplemented their income by extracting the valuable gum and resin from the trees, which forms either naturally or after making small cuts on the tree barks.
After harvesting, the herdsmen sell it to middlemen who then export it, making a minor contribution to the lucrative global gum and resin industry, which is valued at more than Sh672 trillion.
The popular markets for Kenya’s gum and resin exports are mainly China and Europe.
But the full potential of the vast gum and resin resources in northern Kenya has gone untapped for years, with the harvesting process and sale of the extracts remaining largely informal. This is unlike the highly organised and formalised gum and resin trade in neighbouring countries, notably Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.
With what the Ewaso Ng’iro North Development Authority (Ennda) Managing Director Engineer Ali Ibrahim Hassan described as minimal resources, the agency initiated steps targeted at gradually commercialising the industry in 2011.
This was through the establishment of its flagship project - the Wajir Gum and Resin Factory.
But due to constraints of minimal funding, the development of the industry stalled.
Ennda Wajir Regional Manager of Northern Region Ahmed Abdi said the factory’s location was due to its proximity to the Wajir International Airport and easy accessibility from neighbouring countries that also produce gum and resin.
Ennda is now focusing on expanding the factory boosted by an injection of Sh80 million from the national government, which will be used for the installation of a second processing line by next year.
However, it will take until 2023 for the plant to be fully operational, according to agency’s Managing Director Eng Hassan.
He said they have huge plans for the factory, and they expect it to process and add value to the gum and resin by processing it into various products, including essential oils, a venture that is undoubtedly more economically beneficial than exporting the raw product.
The factory, which lies on 125 acres of land, has the potential to create thousands of jobs for locals and provide alternative sources of livelihood for the communities who are increasingly adopting more diverse economic activities.
“We estimate that 3,000 are directly involved in gathering the products, but in total it is a source of livelihood to more than 10,000 people,” Hassan told Financial Standard.
“The gum and resins project is an important step towards organised production and marketing of gums and resins from the area. The project will also improve the management of the tree resources, which form the basis for production of gums and resins as well as establishing plantations of tree species in suitable areas to improve stoking of these species,” notes a brief on the project by Ennda.
The agency also notes that the project is a sustainable alternative source of income in the semi-arid region, where poor weather and deficient soils make farming difficult.
Aside from creating an additional production line, the authority is changing the use of firewood to power the plant to the comparatively more sustainable diesel.
The regional development body is further targeting the establishment of two collection centres in the areas with the highest concentration of the trees in Wajir County, in Tabach and Bulla and Wajir North.
In the long run, Ennda intends to set up processing facilities in the other counties with the resources.
Board Chairman Mohamed Liban noted that the resources are available in seven out of the 10 counties under Ennda, including Mandera, Isiolo, Samburu, Marsabit, Garissa and Wajir.
“Eventually we want a factory in each of those counties to process different products but it depends on the availability of resources and sustainability,” he said.
Residents who have already ventured into the gum and resin trade attest to its profitability.
For five decades, Ali Sharif Idriss has lived off the trade of raw gum and resin, buying from herders who collect it from the trees in the wild as they graze their cows.
He then sells it to bigger traders, who either process it in their private factories or transport it to Nairobi before exporting it abroad.
“This trade has sustained me for 50 years. It is a very good business. The demand has always been there, save for the few disruptions caused by Covid-19,” Idriss told Financial Standard from his shop in Wajir Town.
Here, he collects and sorts the raw gum and resin brought by herders, before weighing and packing it in 50kg gunny bags for large scale traders, often from Nairobi and Mombasa.
Idriss’s Al-Hamdu Shop is just one of more than 30 collection centres in Wajir town.
Idriss, like many gum and resin traders in Wajir said he is excited by the expansion of the factory.
“If the factory is expanded we will access markets more easily,” he said.
Idriss has two employees and around two dozen regular suppliers, who go into the wilderness to collect gum and resin, often during herding.
He explained that he pays the herders Sh650 for a kilogram of the commodity. After packing, he sells a kilo for up to Sh1,200 to the season.
The most productive time, according to traders, is between May and September, when the cool weather allows herders to venture further into the rangelands, thus collecting more gum and resin.
Kenya is one of the top three global exporters of raw gum and resins, but its limited production capacity has prevented it from gaining a sizeable share of the highly profitable Sh672 trillion trade.
Currently, Kenya makes up for 0.1833 per cent in the global Sh672 trillion industry, according to Ennda. However, with the expansion of the Wajir Gum and Resin Factory, the first government factory dealing in processing of the product in northern Kenya, the country could become more competitive.
While Africa produces 95 percent of the world’s gum Arabica, ENNDA statistics indicate that in the region, Kenya is the third highest exporter of the Myrrh, Hagar, and Frankincense resins, after Ethiopia and Somalia.
By 2023, at full operations, the factory will produce one tonne of gum and resins a day, translating to 365 tonnes a year.
“The potential annual yield in the ENNDA basin is estimated at over 15,000 tonnes. The projected yield is almost ten times the current estimate of gum yield, implying that our potential is yet to be tapped,” says Hassan.
Kenya’s expansion of the gum and resin trade would be sustainable, in consideration of the yearly global demand of resins of 2,500 metric tons against a supply of 1,000 metric tons.
However, even as ENNDA looks to expand Kenya’s involvement in the gum and resin trade, ENNDA Board Chairman Mohamed Liban expresses concern over the growing threat facing the indigenous trees.
“The indigenous trees are under threat. The climate change effect, deforestation, and planned clearance for the LAPPSET Corridor will reduce the cover of the trees,” says Liban, adding that the authority is looking into ways to preserve the cover of the trees.
Already, Abdi tells Standard that the factory has planted the trees on sections of the 125-acre land.
Still, ENNDA is optimistic that the project will eradicate poverty and improve living standards in the marginalized and poverty-riddled northern Kenya if carried out sustainably.