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Kenya loses out to Sudan on lucrative gum tree

By By BOB KOIGI | August 27th 2013


Kenya is losing billions of shillings to Sudan as local producers fail to master the packaging challenges and tap into the high-earning international market for gum arabic.

The gum tree, common in arid areas as a sand dune stabiliser and producer of gums earns Sudan more than Sh4 billion a year in exports.

Sudan’s success in commercialising the tree is defying local producers, with the few commercial ventures that have sought to exploit the tree returning grim results.

 The poor returns have been due to the rough terrain in the arid areas and poor packaging, which gives the gum impurities, including dust. “Once the dust is embedded, it becomes difficult to remove,” said a source.

Cleaning costs

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 produce.

US imports about 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 Southern Sudan expecting exports to reach 60,000 tonnes by the end of the year.Kenya exports  only 150 tonnes annually. Other States engaged in the gum business - ‘gum belt’ countries - are Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali and Chad.

 Even as Kenya fails to export gum, local consumption is rising. Nairobi, alone, is now consuming around 700 tonnes a year of 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.

New interest

But most of the locally consumed gum is imported from Sudan. However, new efforts to exploit the tree that occupies huge chunks of land in part of northern Kenya, is now gaining momentum.

The training of farmers in harvesting and transporting of gum is slowly improving the crop. Early this year, two companies Dimtonoc Gum and Flevapet, set up shop in Northern Kenya to redefine gum extraction and marketing.

 This saw pastoralists in North Eastern region receive their first batch of payments for successfully harvesting the gum and delivering it to the companies in September 2011.

The pastoralists are paid Sh80 a kilo for the gum. The two firms started with four months of aggressive training involving local elders to mobilise the community for gum collecting as a venture.  “We realised that if we inculcated the culture into the pastoralists, then the commercial value of this venture will be huge. That is why we are recording good turn up at the moment,” said Zack Obino from Dimtonoc.

The mature trees are five to six metres high. This is when they grow for  between five to 25 years. They are then 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.              —FarmBiz Africa

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