Cash minting gum, resin trees offer golden hope for drought-hit areas

Wajir resins processing factory. [Paul Kangethe, Standard]

The aerial view en route to Wajir gradually changes from the densely populated Nairobi metropolis into green farming zones of the counties neighbouring Nairobi.

A few kilometres later, you are met with the dry and rugged terrain stretching hundreds of kilometres into Wajir County that appears to be largely inhabitable, barren and perhaps worthless.

The scorched earth, however, is a resource worth billions of shillings and holds the golden key to the social-economic transformation of the poor pastoralist communities of northern Kenya.

The waxing hot weather conditions of Wajir and neighbouring counties such as Laikipia, Samburu, Marsabit, Garissa and Mandera, coupled with the red soil rich in zinc create the requisite conditions for the growth and proliferation of the indigenous gum and resin-producing trees.

These precious trees are the source of livelihood for thousands of families that experience devastating drought - leading to massive loss of their herds of sheep and camels.

Gum Arabic is sourced from the Acacia Senegal variety, while the Commiphora, Sterculia and Boswellia varieties produce resins and essential oils.

Globally, the demand for these rare extracts dubbed Savanna Gold has skyrocketed owing to their increased use in the industrial production of food products such as chewing gum and beverages, medicine, beauty products and perfumes.

Commiphora, in particular, produces the sensual-smelling myrrh, making it a highly sought-after commodity for the crafting of incense, perfumes, and other fragrances.

It is estimated that the potential production of gum of Myrrh is 644.8 tonnes and for Opoponax it yields 1978.5 tonnes in Wajir County

For some years, pastoralists have supplemented their income by extracting the valuable gum and resin from the trees.

After harvesting, the herdsmen sell it to witty middlemen who then export it, making a minor contribution to the lucrative global gum and resin industry valued at more than Sh672 trillion.  

The popular markets for Kenya’s gum and resin exports are mainly China and Europe. China bought gum and resin worth $1 billion (Sh113 billion).

However, 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.

It is on this backdrop that the Ewaso Ng’iro North Development Authority (ENNDA) led by its Managing Director Ali Ibrahim Hassan initiated steps to commercialise the industry in 2011 through the establishment of the Wajir Gum and Resin factory.

Unfortunately, the industry stalled due to constraints of minimal funding.

This dream is now being realised with the injection of Sh400 million into ENNDA by the State through the Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of East Africa and Regional Development Adan Mohammed.

On Friday, Mr Mohamed commissioned the factory at Lanbib area of Wajir East Sub-County. The factory was designed and installed by Magnum Engineering

“This gums and resins factory is the biggest in East Africa and is a landmark project with the objective of providing the opportunity for value addition of the gums and resins, generating revenues, creating employment to our people and economically empowering local communities living within the seven gums and resins producing counties of Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu, Garissa, Wajir, Mandera and parts of Meru,” said the CS.

The CS said the factory’s location was due to its proximity to the Wajir International Airport and the neighbouring countries through the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (Lapsset) corridor.

He noted that the State will inject Sh100 million into the project next year to buy extra equipment, machines and fund personnel. Currently, a kilo of gum or resins goes for Sh800. With the completion of the factory, the CS said farmers' earnings will more than triple. 

Wajir Governor Ahmed Ali Muktar lauded the project, noting that it will offer employment opportunities to the locals. He urged the herdsmen and women to plant more trees to ensure an uninterrupted supply of raw materials for the factory.

He also called on the locals to form cooperatives societies to increase their bargaining power and requested ENNDA to increase the price of the resins from the current Sh800.

Also present were Senator Abdullahi Ali, MP Rashid Kasim, Nominated MP Nasri Sahal, Former Senator Abdirahman Ali, Rukia Subow, Frontier Counties Development Council Chief Executive Mohamed Gulleid, CEO and Directors from Ewaso Ng'iro North Development Authority led by Siyad Patni among other officials.

The factory has the potential to create thousands of jobs for locals and provide alternative sources of livelihood for the communities.

Plans are also underway to construct water bottles recycling and bottling plants on the vast land. It is estimated that 3,000 people are directly involved in gathering the products, but in total, it is a source of livelihood to more than 10,000 people.

The regional development body is targeting the establishment of two collection centres in the areas with the highest concentration of trees in Wajir County, in Tabach and Bulla and Wajir North.

Eventually, ENNDA intends to set up processing facilities in the other counties with the resources - in seven out of the 10 counties under ENNDA, including Mandera, Isiolo, Samburu, Marsabit, Garissa and Wajir.

Residents who have already ventured into the gum and resin trade say the most productive time is between May and September.

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.

Kenya makes up for 0.1833 per cent of the global Sh672 trillion industry, according to Ennda. However, with the expansion of the factory, the country could become more competitive.

While Africa produces 95 per cent of the world’s gum Arabica, ENNDA statistics indicate that Kenya is the third highest exporter of the Myrrh, Hagar, and Frankincense resins in the region after Ethiopia and Somalia.

By next year, 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 while the projected yield is almost ten times the current estimate of gum yield.

ENNDA is working with Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) to ensure a constant supply of raw materials.

“Through research and development activities, KEFRI has managed to establish demonstration plots are in Tawakal farm and Wajir Girls’ Secondary School. It has also established a Melia volkensii spacing trial in Wajir Kenya Defence Forces camp,” said Dr Jane Njuguna, an officer from KEFRI.

 KEFRI has also donated 5,200 seedlings to ENNDA.

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