Pastoralist Turkana Embracing Gum Arabic Trade as Climate Change Bites

Some traditionally nomadic Kenyans found an alternative source of livelihood – the natural gum used as a stabiliser in soft drinks and food.

Text by: Anthony Langat
Photography by: Luis Tato

KAALING, Kenya — Over half a million people in Kenya’s Turkana county face starvation every year due to the effects of climate change. Yet the area, which the traditionally nomadic Turkana people inhabit, can annually produce 150 metric tons of Gum Arabic, a binding agent used in sodas, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, yoghurt and printing.

On a late afternoon in Kaaling in Kenya’s northwest, the small town is calm and cloudy. Residents hang around in groups on verandahs of tin-made shops and under trees, chatting. The town, accessible through an unforgiving rough road 100 kilometres from the nearest tarmac through punishing terrain, is made up of close to twenty shops and is the main shopping centre for many Turkana pastoralists in the area. It is close to two hundred kilometres to the regional administrative headquarters of Lodwar.

 

As the sun sets, Alice Amoani, 30, followed closely by her five-year-old daughter Nancy Ezra, walks briskly towards the shop of her co-wife, Margaret Ezra. They live in a polygamous family.

Both women bear carrier bags, laden with gum picked from a species of acacia tree that grows in the area. The two had been picking the gum the whole day.

At the shop, Amoani meets her step-daughter Jane Yopokori who runs the shop. 

Yopokori inspects the gum and advises Amoani to sort them for quality and dry it for a few more days to reduce the moisture content. 

In Kenya’s north, Turkana county is a largely semi-arid area inhabited by the pastoralist Turkana people. Due to prolonged droughts, many have lost their livestock, depriving them of livelihoods.

As trade in Gum Arabic, the gum collected from Accacia Senegal slowly takes root in the area, and other parts of Kenya’s arid north, more residents of Kaaling are embracing this alternative source of livelihood. Women and children traverse the rangelands braving the scorching sun and difficult terrain to collect the precious gum.

The natural gum that sparked the Soda Pop diplomacy 

Gum Arabic is extracted from trees such as the Acacia Senegal. Its fibre can dissolve in water and hence is used in sodas, pharmaceuticals, incense, printing, cake baking, among other uses.

Sudan is the biggest supplier of Gum Arabic globally, controlling 90% of the production. The country’s control over Gum Arabic’s trade is so essential that when the US placed sanctions on Sudan in the 1990s, they exempted Gum Arabic in what has come to be known as Soda Pop diplomacy. Other countries, including Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger supply the remainder. Kenya also exports the product though its market share is minimal as the potential hasn’t been tapped.

On that day in mid-June, Amoani and her daughter, like many other mothers, and their children, had spent the better part of the day in the bushes near Lonyamile village collecting the gum. 

She had intended to weigh the gum at Yopokori’s shop and share it out in two portions. She would sell one portion to Yopokori and keep the other portion to sell directly to the buyer when he comes around. This is because she would earn more if she sells directly to the buyer. “This way, I have some money to buy food for my children every day. Without the cash, my children will sleep hungry,” she said.

On the other side of the hills of Lonyamile, Amos Ekitala’s sons slowly drove their sheep and goats homeward. His nine-year-old son carried a staff, a yellow water jerry can and a small red bag containing gum Arabic he had collected that day. All of Ekitala’s sons collect the gum every day that they go out to herd their livestock.

In the morning, three boys between the ages of seven and fourteen head out to the rangelands before the goats get to the trees.

One flanks them with the sheep and goats. This is because the goats and sheep like the taste of the gum, so they have to compete with them. The monkeys eat the gum too. Sometimes, Ekitala herds the goats himself so that all his sons can collect as much gum as possible.

In May, Ekitala’s sons collected fifteen kilos of gum which he stored in his house not far from Kaaling centre. When the buyer came, Ekitala earned 2,700 shillings ($27). That was a good income for the family, which bought household items like sugar, cooking oil, and flour. He is also a member of the Kaaling Gum Arabic group. The group, formed in 2015, buys gum from collectors to sell to Acacia EPZ Ltd a Nairobi-based company that buys and exports Gum Arabic. The members also bulk their collection for sale to the buyer.

Amoana wakes up early and heads out with her daughter and son to collect the gum. She often goes to the neighbourhood of the Ngutumait hill. The morning after, Yopokori told her to sort and dry her gum some more; she wasn’t able to get up early to go gum-collecting because she had lost her goats. She feared that wild animals might have attacked the goats. She was lucky to find them unharmed. However, she was late for the gum collection.

That afternoon, with her one-year-old son strapped on her back and her three-year-old daughter closely following her, she set for the hills near Lonyamile, not far from town. Across the dry Kaaling river, past her village of Nyangamunyen and finally, to the hills of Lonyamile, she got to work. Armed with secateurs, she inflicted wounds on the Acacia Senegal’s barks. “This ensures that the tree bleeds, and I can then collect it a few days later,” she said.

 

After almost an hour of the back-breaking and dangerously prickly affair, she was ready to head back home to cook dinner for her family. She prays that the gum will survive goats, sheep, monkeys and other collectors. The land is held communally by the Turkana. Therefore, anyone is free to graze their livestock anywhere and, in this case, collect gum from anywhere.

 

These are among the challenges that gum collectors like Amoana face in their quest to earn more from the gum. Sam Nyaboga, the Executive Director of Acacia EPZ, agrees that this is a challenge. However, through their collectors’ training in groups, he hopes that the groups will organise themselves to better benefit from the gum Arabic resources.

Other challenges facing the Arabic gum trade, according to Nyaboga, include the accessibility of the vast Turkana and other parts of the country’s north where the gum is collected.

Insecurity brought about by inter-tribal conflicts over resources like water and pasture for livestock is also another challenge. “However, if we scale this up like we are doing, then the better for the people living in these areas,” he said. He said that gum Arabic is providing an alternative source of livelihood away from depending on livestock alone.

Early the following day at six, Amoana left for Ngutumait hills. She collected gum from the area for a few weeks before the baboons started to forage and the goats were let out to graze. At seven, she was moving from one tree to the next, picking a blob of gum here and there. She straddled from one slope to the next, avoiding loose rocks and thorns. Three hours later, she called it a day after collecting half a bag full of gum.

 

In May, Amoana had collected 45 kilos of gum, making her one of the biggest collectors in her group. Her group, Lomuria Gum Arabic Group, had collected a total of 220 kilos. Lomuria is one of the three gum Arabic groups in Kaaling. Apart from collecting, the group also buys gum from other collectors for sale to Acacia EPZ.

These groups sell gum to Acacia EPZ at 180 shillings ($1.80), but their buying prices differ from one group to another. They are constantly seeking a profit of around 20 shillings (20 US cents). Ekitala and Amoana say that this price is low. So does Felistas Nalila, the chairlady of Lomuria Gum Arabic. “We want a price of 250 shillings and above,” she said.

Despite the poor price, Amoana believes that the gum Arabic is a saviour. She runs a shop within Kaaling centre where she sells household items like sugar, salt, and cooking fat. She, however, avers that she makes more money from gum Arabic than from her shop. “I have to wake up early every day to go and collect gum together with my children because I won’t make enough in the shop to cover our daily expenses,” she said. Amoana and her husband also have 40 goats which she said they sell to pay school fees for their children. They no longer have cattle since the drought has gotten direr in recent years and goats seem to be more resilient than the cattle.  

Acacia EPZ, the gum Arabic buyer, is supported by Self-Help Africa through its Agrifi Kenya Challenge Fund, which seeks to integrate more farmers into the value chain, create more jobs and have more hectares under climate-smart agriculture. According to Karaya Karugu of Self-Help Africa, the fund hopes to reach 100,000 farmers, create 10,000 jobs and put 20,000 hectares under climate-smart agriculture. Acacia EPZ is a private business and among 34 companies being funded through Agrifi Kenya Challenge Fund.

One of the focus areas that the fund was looking at the proposal level was environmental management. According to Karugu, the people of Turkana and the entire northern part of Kenya are pastoralists and who have been affected by climate change, drastically altering their livelihoods. “What is the alternative? Their predominant income-generating activity is livestock, and without that, the alternative is firewood, charcoal and wood posts. Gum Arabic is environmentally friendly because they are trained to conserve and tap sustainably,” he said.

The Kenya Forest Research Institute, a government institution, has helped Acacia EPZ map areas with the Acacia Senegal trees and the collectors’ training. It was perfect for the development of trade of gum Arabic as a source of livelihood since studies have shown that the trade has mainly remained informal due to inadequate marketing arrangements attributed to a non-conducive business environment.

In 2016, the Kenya Forest Research Institute, The Kenya Forest Service and the Gum Arabic Association prepared a report on the promotion of gum Arabic and frankincense as an alternative source of livelihood in Turkana. Their report stated that the annual world demand for gum Arabic was 100,000 metric tons against a supply of about 70,000 metric tons. They had predicted a rise in demand to 150,000 metric tons by last year. They also stated that Turkana County is estimated to have the highest potential for gum Arabic production in Kenya at 150 metric tons.

According to TrendEconomy, global imports of Gum Arabic in 2019 exceeded $319 million. France, the USA, and India were the three largest importers with a share of 20%, 9% and 8%, respectively. While Sudan is the biggest producer, it is France, however, that is the biggest exporter upon processing the Gum Arabic. According to the World Bank, in 2019, France was the most significant exporter trading in gum worth $131 million. Nevertheless, Gum Arabic still is one of the most significant export products for Sudan.

However, despite these vast resources, Turkana County, which has an area equal to Ireland at 68,680 km², is yet to tap into the gum Arabic and frankincense trade meaningfully. The county has a population of 926,976, and over half of them are always facing starvation due to drought and other consequences of climate change. It is because a high percentage of residents of Turkana depend on their livestock for a livelihood.

With the development of an alternative source of livelihood, however, this could change. According to Karugu, Acacia EPZ’s proposal to train more people in collecting and handling gum Arabic stood out. Acacia EPZ promised to reach out to 7,000 collectors of gum Arabic. So far, it has close to 3,000 collectors supplying it with the gum, and the number is growing, and so is the quantity of the gum. Karugu believes that the company’s model would change fortunes for the people of Turkana and the other places in which it is working. “This is because it is working in areas which are underdeveloped and neglected. It is engaging in value-chain development and improving quantities and quality of its gum Arabic,” he said. Acacia EPZ also collects gum in neighbouring counties of Samburu, Marsabit and Isiolo.

An integral part of the trade in gum, like in frankincense, is the quality. It depends mainly on how it is collected and handled before being off-taken by the buyer. Despite having been trained on the handling of the gum, collectors still use crude methods in their collection. The majority still depend on the goats to cause injury on the barks of the trees instead of using secateurs to ensure that the tree bleeds and that in a few days there will be gum. This may have been caused by the model that the training took as they trained a few community members and hoped that they would disseminate the same to other collectors.

The communal holding of land may also be a factor that discourages members from incising the barks of trees for a better collection of gum. Suppose one takes their time and energy to do it. In that case, another community member will collect from the same area as no one lays claim individually to a particular area. “If I cut many trees and gum comes out, other people or even goats or monkeys will benefit from it. So it will all be for nothing,” said Amoana.

Apart from the teething problems which Nyaboga said will be addressed as the project progresses, the benefits of gum Arabic can be witnessed. “I believe in incentivised conservation, which means food on the table; strategies for conservation and not abstracts. Are we addressing the issue of putting food on the table when we are talking about conservation?” posed Nyaboga. He said that his company’s goal is to make sure that the people they deal with understand the economic potential of the resources in their area. In Kaaling, there are three bulking stations set up by the three gum Arabic groups and collectors can be seen carrying small bags of gum to these centres where they get weighed, and the collectors get paid. Yopokori can get up to a dozen collectors delivering gum in a day. Many of them would deliver the gum in exchange for maise flour, cooking oil or sugar. “One can bring even as much as five or ten kilos of gum sometimes. It depends on how long they have been collecting,” she said.

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