Gum harvesting uplifts women, helps them fight climate change

by Andrew Kasuku

Amid thorny acacia trees and bushes struggling to green, a smaller plant defies the environment to bloom, tolerating the harsh sun and aridity that has suppressed other plants to sprout red flowers.

A hundred metres away from the special plant are seven women who, like the flourishing plant, are seeking to beat the odds to change their lives for the better.

This is Nkiseu village, Wamba ward, in Samburu East, and women are sorting out gum arabic, a product obtained from acacia trees, which grow in plenty in arid and semi-arid lands.

When the bark of the tree is bruised, it produces sap, which then dries up to form gum, a natural product that has existed for years in the wild but whose real commercial viability only started being exploited in recent years.

It takes four to five days for the sap to solidify on the tree, and you have to withstand the pain of thorns while going for the gum at the tree branches.

Tapping the trees for the sap and waiting is an exercise that requires a huge deal of patience, which only women are willing to undertake, and they are now reaping the benefits.

The seven women are gathering outside Nkiseu General Shop, owned by Julius Lekolii and his wife Carolyn, which doubles up as a collection centre for gum in the area.

After seeing a gum story on television, Carolyn, 27, decided to start tapping and collecting it, and recruiting other women into the business.

“Less than 10 women initially bought the idea, but we have now grown to up to 70 who collect and bring gum here,” she says.

She buys the gum from the women and sells it to Acacia EPZ at a profit.

“Our shop was initially one room, but now we have expanded the building to four rooms courtesy of the money from gum. My husband didn’t know of the business initially but now he supports me after seeing there is cash in it,” she says.

The mother of three, who is a Form 4 leaver, now intends to continue with her studies and pursue a nutrition course and help solve the puzzle of malnutrition in pastoral regions.

Her husband Julius admits more women needs to be empowered to support their families.


Suporit Lekerpees and Mpitaiyan Lekerpees, both 44, were married to one man but widowed in 2011.

During high season, they both collect 35kg of gum in one week. They sell a kilo at Sh130 to Carolyn.

Suporit has six children while Mpitaiyan has eight.

“All my camels were killed by lions in the wild. I don’t have to sell the remaining cattle as gum money sustains us during droughts, when the animals are too emaciated to sell,” Mpitaiyan, who started gum collection in 2018, says.

Sikon Lekodei, 30, fetches at least Sh6,000 from selling gum and uses the cash to buy and sell airtime scratch cards.

Her husband stays home while the children herd cattle.

“My husband sells goats, buys only cooking flour and drinks the rest of the cash. With my gum money, I buy other foodstuffs and pay fees for my daughter, who is in Form 2,” she says.

I’m conducting the interviews using a translator as the women haven’t gone to school and can only communicate in Samburu vernacular.

The women say with money, their husbands can now listen to them and consult them in the decision-making process.

In Ndikir village, Laisamis subcounty, Marsabit, Ngulisia Arabolia says she cannot allow her husband to marry a second wife, a departure from the past when men didn’t require a discussion with wives on whether to marry again.

With her newfound wealth, Arabolia has her husband’s ear and can make other decisions at home without consulting him.

For instance, from gum arabic proceeds, she has bought 15 female and five male goats after droughts decimated her herd from 100 to only 20.

According to the Marsabit County Climate Risk Profile report, compiled by The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, adult males make most of the production decisions on all the livestock types except chicken, where adult females dominate.

Now she has set up a shop inside her manyatta, where she sells sugar, rice, teal, cooking oil and other commodities.

“In the past, we only relied on milk and meat, but now I can afford to buy vegetables and fruits for my family,” she says.

She says with her newfound autonomy, she will make sure to educate her two girls, one who is high school and another in college.

With training she got from Acacia EPZ and other agencies, she has trained other women who have in turn formed groups to harvest gum arabic.

At Lontolio, Laisamis, both Nawalker Seitalo and Ngalo Lenguya sit outside their manyattas during an interview with new floral dresses, bought by themselves from gum cash.

Lenguya now owns the only shop in the village


Kenya’s drylands, mostly found in Northeastern counties, host communities that have relied on pastoralism as the main source of livelihood for generations.

Droughts and lack of rains have seen communities between Samburu, Isiolo, Marsabit and Turkana clash in search of pasture and water for cattle, leaving both humans and cattle dead.

The CIAT report indicates that drought has resulted in losses of up to 60 per cent of the county’s livestock in recent years.

Analysis of temperature trends in the county over 25 years — 1980 to 2005 — showed that both first- and second-season temperatures have increased moderately over the years (approximately 0.5°C and 0.25°C respectively).

Analysis of rainfall over 35 years — 1980-2015 — showed a decrease in average first-season rainfall by about 30mm and a similar increase in second-season rainfall, the CIAT report says.

According to the UN, in Africa, female illiteracy rates were over 55 per cent in 2000 compared to 41 per cent for men. This, coupled with inaccessibility to resources and decision-making processes, makes women disproportionately affected by climate change.

All interviewees in Samburu West and Laisamis admitted to having lost cattle in droughts.

Most of them use the cash from gum to replenish livestock herds, killed by extreme weather conditions or stolen by bandits.

Kenya loses 2.0–2.4 per cent of its gross domestic product annually due to effects of climate change, such as drought and floods, according to a 2018 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics study.

The study also showed droughts cost Kenya 8 per cent of GDP every five years.

Seitalo says before venturing into gum collection, she had cut down hundreds of trees for charcoal to sell and sustain her family.

Sam Nyamboga, founder of Acacia EPZ, says harvesting gum has given the community a reason to conserve the trees.

“When resource owners get more money, they are motivated to conserve. Effective conservation has to be incentivised conservation. You need to be able to give communities a reason to conserve trees, and an economic reason is the best,” he says.


Gum is used in the food industry as a stabiliser, emulsifier and thickening agent in icing, fillings, soft candy, chewing gum and to bind the sweeteners and flavourings in soft drinks.

It is also used as a binder in making paints and in the printing industry.

While there are many species of acacia, gum arabic is found in Acacia Senegal of variety kerensis.

Nyamboga says the main challenge in the business is getting the right quality of gum, and so his company and other actors in the industry have been training collectors on tapping and collecting clean gum arabic, sorting, storage and transporting the product.

The training also includes financial literacy, record-keeping and forming of producer groups.

Nyamboga’s company has helped organise and register 16 groups in Samburu, four in Isiolo, 22 in Turkana and eight in Kitui.

“Together with Self Help Africa, we are doing decentralisation. We want most of the things done in the field so that what comes here in the EPZ is for advanced value addition. We want this labour to stay where the product is to make sure the collectors benefit more,” he says during an interview at his office at Athi River EPZ Centre.

Acacia EPZ is also distributing equipment to help collectors tap the trees with ease, and gloves to keep the hands from getting hurt by acacia thorns while collecting the gum.

The company is developing the gum arabic value chain curriculum in partnership with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) and Laisamis Technical Training Institute.

Acacia EPZ, which exports the product to Germany, is the main buyer at the Laisamis Gums and Resins Marketing Cooperative Limited, which has about 400 members.

Kefri’s National Forest Products Research Programme tests quality standards of gum for gum-exporting companies.

Laisamis subcounty cooperative officer Irana Casmir says the centre, which started operating in 2015, came in as alternative source of livelihood for residents, especially women, who form three-quarters of the total membership.

Marsabit Trade executive Amina Challa says plans are underway to put legislations, embrace partnerships and set aside a budget to help communities benefit from the gum.

Self Help Africa (SHA), which gets funding from the European Union through its Agrifield Challenge Fund, is financially supporting small and medium agricultural enterprises to help them expand and achieve optimum results.

SHA seeks to address food security and nutrition challenges, and link farmers to markets through farming as a business approach, says Karaya Karugu, a portfolio manager.

He says SHA is seeking to create more than 10,000 jobs and linkages for more than 100,000 rural poor farmers and pastoralists in Kenya.

Partnering with Acacia EPZ, SHA plans to establish more than 70 bulking centres, which they intend to act as a ‘one-stop shop’ where gum harvesters can deposit their produce and at the same time purchase essential food, medical and farm supplies.

“By helping Acacia EPZ penetrate in harsh areas, it helps encourage investments, hence streamlines the value chain. By knowing where they can sell their gum, community members have an additional income stream,” Karaya says.

Kefri director Joshua Cheboiwo says Kenya has the potential to produce 24,000 metric tonnes of gum arabic per year worth Sh6 billion, which is yet to be fully exploited.

When Annmarie and Nancy Kathendu – the two sisters – walked to Nakumatt in 2014, they were attempting to disrupt a grocery market largely dominated by men. Armed with a cumulative four-decades of knowledge wealth in the C-suites across 30 countries, and insatiable desire to develop the community around Kieni Kia Ndege, in Meru County’s Igonji, the sister-couple has managed to penetrate the elusive club of Kenya’s biggest players in the supply chain ecosystem.

Annmarie and Nancy are the owners of Pick and Packed. PnP, as it is identified, is an agritech that works with farmers across the country by offering them a chance to market their produce. For that to happen, they must uphold the highest level of integrity in food production – the export quality level. PnP works with the farmers that adhere to these standards and offers them value addition options and ready market.

If you have eaten a banana, a mango, passion fruits, avocadoes, cabbages, watermelons and pawpaws from any supermarket around you in Kenya, there is a high probability Annmarie and Nancy sanctioned it. At PnP, onions are dressed, and tomatoes polished. “We make sure every fruit and vegetable that reaches your dining table has the highest safety standards,” shares Annmarie during a physical interview in Nairobi.
Caption: PnP-labelled banana. If you have eaten a banana, a mango, passion fruits, avocadoes, cabbages, watermelons and pawpaws from any supermarket around you in Kenya, there is a high probability Annmarie and Nancy sanctioned it. Photo/ JRN

Annmarie has worked with Ernst&Young, PwC and IBM, while Nancy has lent her skills in civil engineering and banking industry for more than two decades across the world. “We are farmer-centric duo. When we retired, we decided to work with farmers around us by streamlining the supply chain challenges our farmers were going through,” says Annmarie.

That was in 2012. They initially did a two-year research, and after amassing data practices in the fruits and vegetable industry they launched operations in 2014 at their 10 acres farm in Igonji. So, when Annmarie and Nancy approached Nakumatt with a proposal to supply groceries – a proposal sauced with a powerpoint presentation – PnP walked out with a 50Kg order per two weeks. “Our first order was 50 kilos of grocery per every two weeks,” she recalls, a tinge of nostalgia evident on her face. Presently, PnP supplies 20 tonnes of produce daily to major retail outlets, marking it one of the largest players in the Kenyan agricultural supply ecosystem that contributes approximately 33 percent of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product, and employs more than 40 percent and 70 percent of the total and rural population respectively.
IFC Study on Women Entrepreneurs

Annmarie and Nancy – the two phenomenal women with grit and amiable persona – may have managed to penetrate the private sector supply chain system in the country. For women, this is not a walk in the park. The two sisters are part of the 3 per cent of the gender that the corporate Kenya is willing to outsource their services from. In a study published by IFC, women face unique barriers in outsourcing their services to private market that include limited access to capital, lack of access to resources to enhance operational capacity, limited access to networks, and having no platform on getting timely information on tenders.
Caption: Annmarie Kathendu shares her insight on the processes of ensuring that the groceries designated for the local market are export-quality. Photo/ JRN

When they surveyed 571 SMEs in Kenya, IFC found out that a third of the businesses were women-owned. Still, procurement opportunities tend to tilt towards men, and the women are left subcontracting and feeding on the crumbs. Researchers interviewed 14 Kenyan corporations and found they spend just 3 percent of their total procurement budget on women-owned businesses—and that women entrepreneurs are mostly represented in low-value sectors, such as catering, printing, and cleaning.

“Many face unique barriers that prevent them from achieving full potential, such as access to markets and critical assets such as finance, insurance and technology. IFC is working with partners to reduce this gender gap in Kenya and other markets,” says Amena Arif, IFC’s Country Manager for Kenya.

IFC commissioned the study – dubbed Sourcing2Equal Kenya: Barriers and Approaches to Increase Access to Markets for Women-Owned Businesses – as part of its wider efforts to connect women entrepreneurs to new markets. According to Ms Amena, women-owned business can play a key role in supplier diversity strategy. “It can potentially help firms access wider supplier base, improve quality of goods and services delivered, support competitive pricing, and manage other procurement related risks.”
Amena Arif
Amena Arif, IFC’s Country Manager for Kenya. Photo/ Courtesy

The IFC study estimates that there is 41 per cent credit gap for Women SMEs (WSMEs) in Kenya, and only 20 per cent compared to 33 per cent of men are using internet, limiting their participation in e-commerce, which has gained much more importance since the pandemic. Most private institutions have existing regimes procurement policies and procedures that can sometimes create unintentional constraints for new women owned businesses that compete with large or already established existing suppliers. This can range from contractual payment terms to lack of public information available on the corporate’s binding processes. Also, firms find difficulties in finding compliant WSMEs in the market for direct tenders, and there is a perception by corporate buyers that women-owned businesses do not deliver on contracts once they are given the opportunity.

The study recommends that corporate buyers should deliberately partner with local financial institutions to facilitate access to working capital, implement supplier development initiatives, increase outreach to women-owned businesses, and advertise tender opportunities on digital platforms. To help advance gender-inclusive sourcing in the private sector and increase women’s access to procurement contracts, IFC has launched Sourcing2Equal Kenya program that will initially help 10 companies increase their sourcing from women-owned businesses and build the capacity of 1,300 women-led smaller businesses to make them procurement ready in the next five years. Eight firms have already joined the program: Unilever, KenGen, Safaricom, Bidco, Stanbic Bank, Absa Bank, Line Plast Group, and Tropikal Brands.

Jeremy Awori, Managing Director of Absa Bank Kenya, says that the lender conducted a similar study and found out one of the main issues plaguing women-owned businesses include accessing the supply chain financing such as credit. For example, he says, women only own 10 per cent of title deeds in Kenya, and it being a key consideration as a financing collateral shuts out 90 per cent of the women from competitive biddings.
Absa Kenya CEO Jeremy Awori
Absa Kenya CEO Jeremy Awori addresses the Media on 10 Feb 2021 when the bank celebrated one year after transition from Barclays brand

Absa is seeking to empower a million women over the next five years through access to credit, deliberate setting aside some procurement for women, mentoring and coaching businesses, and enabling ease of access for information on tenders it is floating. “When we look at our gender agenda, the first priority is that this is something that has to be done. It is not a nice-to-do initiative. It is a must-to-do initiative. Half of the population are women, and by not looking at that in an economic perspective we are missing out,” says Mr Awori.

Annmarie says they built PnP with their savings, and communal support from the local leaders. It was not easy to access credit then, even worse for women due to societal norms. PnP’s success was also attributed to starting small and gradually scaling the brand. “There was no income pressure. In fact, at the very beginning we would encourage our women partners in the village to open bank accounts in order to build their credit capacity,” she says.
Annmarie Kathendu in PnP’s Nairobi offices shares her insight on the local grocery market. Photo/ JRN

In October 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government introduced a policy that stipulates that 30 percent of the value of all government procurement contracts be awarded to small businesses owned by either women, persons with disabilities, or young people between the age of 18 and 35. Rebecca Miano, Managing Director, KenGen says women account for 55 per cent of procurement set aside for this category in her firm as a measure of supporting inclusivity and diversity. KenGen is the Kenya’s largest electric power producer, producing over 65 per cent of the electricity consumed in the country, and is owned by the government. “Over the years, this category has supplied tenders worth less than a billion, and for the 21/22 financial year, it stands at Kshs6 billion. If women continue to partake 55 per cent of this, KenGen expects Kshs3.3 Billion to go to women suppliers,” she added.
KenGen MD Rebecca Miano
KenGen MD Rebecca Miano

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of buyers to build diverse supply chain to mitigate operational risks dependencies on a handful of suppliers, says Mary Porter Peschka, ESG Sustainability Advice & Solutions Director at the IFC. By enabling women to participate more in the economic health of a country, it aids in resilience and recovery from the pandemic.

“When women have equal opportunities as men, companies are able to strengthen their supply base, improve human capital, and unlock growth and innovation. Building a diverse supply chain is even more crucial for business sustainability, resilience and growth post-crisis,” says Ms Peschka.

It is easy to see why. Since PnP was introduced in Igonji, Annemarie says they have introduced a circular economy model where the waste becomes an input, minimising overall waste. Women staff used to tag along their husbands during pay day, as it was not a common sight for a woman to have a bank account. This is not the case anymore, as they are well versed in all matters independence. “We insisted for the women to open the bank accounts and create a healthy credit score. Other businesses grew as women became empowered and were able to optimally support their respective households,” she adds.

Through a grant from the AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund, a programme by Self Help Africa – an international development charity with an expertise in farming – and funded by the European Union and SlovakAid, PnP has set up a Centre of Excellence in Embu. The facility offers farmers access to agronomists, pesticide management experts, irrigation experts and modern farming techniques for the local market. In the near future, PnP seeks to set other centres in Kiambu and Machakos counties. “There is a local deficit for quality vegetables and fruits, and through these facilities, we are able to empower local farmers,” says Annmarie.

According to Self Help Africa, women produce up to 70 per cent of the food grown on small farms in Africa. In spite of this, an average African woman will receive just a fraction of the support available to men. As a result, their farms can be 20-40 per cent less productive. “Through the Centre of Excellence, we are able to help farmers diversify their farm activities in some way, increasing households ability to cope with shocks – climatic, social, environmental or economic. Over 55 per cent of all of the people we have supported in our projects are women,” says Fredrick Wanzala, a Portfolio Manager at Self Help Africa.

Since 2020 – when the vagaries of the Covid-19 virus were largely felt – the economic gap between men and women was exacerbated, which threatens decades of progress for gender equality. Before the pandemic, the world was losing $172 trillion because of differences in lifetime earnings between women and men, according to a Worldbank study. Businesses owned by women lost over 50 per cent of their revenues during the pandemic, and according to IFC estimates, this was significantly larger than men.

If the private sector deliberately enables inclusion in supply chain, the market will foster innovation and agility as diverse suppliers bring diversity of thoughts. It also complements the country’s sustainability and diversity inclusion initiatives by enhancing the livelihoods. “We need to be more deliberate both as government and the private sector, civil society to ensure we are realising and making diversity and inclusion an integral part of the fabric of the society,” signs off Eva Muraya, the Director of Gender and SMEs at the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA).