Diversifying Pastoralist Livelihoods with Gum Arabic

By Ann Njeru

Acacia EPZ Limited CEO, Sam Nyamboga and members of Nkiseu Self Help Group at Nkiseu village in Samburu County. © Self Help Africa

Two thirds of Kenya is arid or semi-arid land (ASAL). This area is of particular interest to the AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund, a Euros 24 million programme implemented jointly by Self Help Africa and Imani Development. When Sam Nyamboga, a visionary and business entrepreneur, learnt of this Fund, he saw the enormous opportunity that an award could create for the realization of his dream. He had grown up in Kajiado, an ASAL region just south of Nairobi. Acacia trees which ooze a clear sticky liquid are a common sight in dry regions. Walking home from school Sam would see this liquid dried into gum and with his friends, used to rip off some of this from the tree bark and chew it. It was when Sam worked in Germany that he realized the economic value of this gum, Gum Arabic. Therefore, he applied to the AgriFI Fund and when selected for a grant, he ramped up the operations and output of his company Acacia EPZ Ltd  .  

Meanwhile to the north of Nairobi, in Marsabit, Ngulisia Arabolia also walked along seeing baboons and elephants, and young children enjoying the gum from the Acacia trees. She had not realised its value or potential until Acacia Ltd. reached out to her and others in her community. The business partnership that her community forged with the company, has transformed life for this 54-year-old mother of six and many others like her.

Ngulisia Arabolia and her friend, Sikon Lekodei sort gum arabic at Ndikir village, Laisamis, Marsabit County. © Ann Njeru, Self Help Africa

A new business

After returning from Germany, Sam set about finding out all the information he could on Gum Arabic production in Kenya. He knew that this gum is used as a stabiliser, emulsifier and thickening agent in foods and beverages as diverse as icing, confectionary, soda, beer, cough drops and lozenges. It is also used in the pharmaceutical industry as a suspending and emulsifying agent for shampoos and syrups; in the adhesive industry to make glue; in the paint industry to increase viscosity; and in the printing industry to prevent oxidation of plates. He connected with the Kenya Forest Research Institute to learn more and with their guidance, he set up his business in 2015 – Acacia EPZ Ltd – which sources, processes, analyses and exports Gum Arabic to the European market.

Sam reckons that running a niche business came with its fair share of challenges and soon the business was faced with a disorganised and inefficient value chain, resulting in poor production and trade. In the early days, the quality of the collected gum left a lot to be desired.

Enter the AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund

When Sam learnt of a call for business proposals to the AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund, which is funded by the European Union and SlovakAid, he applied and won a grant of EUR 749,155, which he has matched with EUR 752,999.

With this support, Acacia EPZ is implementing a two-year project to streamline the Gum Arabic value chain in five Kenyan counties. To date, Sam’s company has established two county warehouse facilities for primary processing and 19 mobile collection hubs. Acacia EPZ has trained 2,566 collectors, mostly women, to collect and store the gum and provided them with tools to prevent injuries.

Currently, Kenya produces and exports 200 tonnes of gum Arabic annually, against a potential of 12,000 tonnes. With support from the AgriFI Challenge Fund, Sam is confident that the country will soon be the leading gum producer in the region. “After training the collectors, we are now receiving 90% pure gum, compared to previous years when the purity level was at 40% to 50%. As at October 2021, we have exported over 500 tonnes and are looking at doubling this in the coming year. The turnover for the business has grown five-fold!” Due to the better quality of gum received, Sam is now able to pay the collectors more, as he is saving on processing costs. This means that the collectors of whom the majority are women, are now getting more money into their pockets.

Transforming pastoralist communities

The Gum Arabic trade is offering an economic lifeline to pastoralist communities that are increasingly faced with drought due to changing climatic conditions.

Ngulisia is one of the 2,566 gum collectors trained by Acacia EPZ. When drought wiped away all her family’s livestock (100 goats) in 2018, the family was left without any source of income.

Harvesting of Gum Arabic in Marsabit County. © Ann Njeru, Self Help Africa

Ngulisia began gum collection in 2019 when an NGO introduced the practice in her county. But she did not understand its value until Acacia EPZ came calling, offering her and hundreds of others money in exchange for the gum.

From the proceeds of selling Gum Arabic to Acacia EPZ Ltd, Ngulisia has been able to buy 20 goats. She has also improved her family’s diet. She says “We now eat vegetables like spinach, cabbage, tomatoes and fruits like mangoes and oranges. During the rainy season, I buy seed and grow watermelon and vegetables for my family’s consumption and for sale to my neighbours.”

Ngulisia has used proceeds from gum sales to set up a shop inside her compound where she trades in basic commodities. In the coming seasons, she hopes to build a permanent house for her family. “I am happy that I now have my own money and I can now provide for my family and pay school fees for my children. Drought can kill my livestock but not the gum and I am thus assured of money all year round.”

Ngulisia Arabolia carries a kid, a part of her new flock of goats that she has bought with proceeds from gum arabic. © Ann Njeru, Self Help Africa.

Innovating in the Present and Conserving for the Future

Not only has Gum Arabic brought economic benefits, but it has also given pastoralist communities a reason to conserve acacia trees that produce this gum.

“We’re creating social value, commercial profits and environmental conservation because we are giving communities a commercial reason to conserve the trees,’’ Sam says.

Acacia EPZ has also been innovative in engaging some collector groups to make biomass fuel from an invasive species called Prosopis Juliflora, an invasive species that is destructive to grazing lands, using second-grade Gum Arabic as a binder. This species has ravaged Kenya’s arid lands and choked acacia trees. The initiative will provide communities with fuel and an alternative source of income.

In addition, Acacia EPZ has partnered with Laisamis Technical Training Institute to develop a gums and resins training curriculum to structure the value chain and create sustainability.