By Paul Ndiho
Sudan is beginning to diversify its economy by cashing in on a rise in global demand for gum Arabic, a natural edible gum produced by acacia trees growing in the most parts of the country. Gum Arabic is used to bind ingredients in food, pharmaceuticals and adhesives.
More than a decade ago, Sudan’s economy boomed on the back of increases in oil production, high oil prices, and to a larger extent, inflows of foreign direct investment. But agricultural production remained the backbone of the economy, because it employs more than 80% of the work force and contributes a third of GDP.
Most of the oil was coming from the south Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in 2011, becoming Africa’s newest nation. Since then, oil production and export has suffered greatly and now Sudan is trying to diversify its cash crops and gum Arabic as its major agricultural exports.
Gum Arabic is a natural and edible gum taken from these trees. It takes four years for each tree to fully grow; a small cut is then made on the bark, which causes a glue-like resin to seep out. This resin or gum Arabic is collected once a year.
On a plantation outside En Nahud, in western Sudan, Mohammed Adam harvests gum Arabic from his acacia trees. He belongs to one of 3,000 gum Arabic associations in Sudan. He makes about 6,500 us dollars a year from his crop, but says he wishes he could benefit more like the exporters.
“We know that when gum Arabic is exported abroad, the traders make a lot of profit, we do not benefit like the do. We hope that we can make more profits in future.”
Analysts say there are so many middlemen who buy the produce at a cheap price and sell at higher prices abroad, leaving farmers struggling to get their share of the profits.
The u.N. World food program and World Bank provide aid to small farmers in Sudan but the industry also faces another problem – a shortage of workers.
Gum Arabic is produced in Sudan’s savannah belt, which stretches from the western border with chad to Ethiopia in the east.
En Nahud lies in the main farming state of north Kordofan, which alone is expected to produce 40,000 tons in the current season.
Business is booming here thanks to rising global demand for gum Arabic, used as an emulsifier to prevent sugar from crystallizing in fizzy drinks, as a thickener in confectionery and as a binder for drugs, cosmetics and postage stamps.
Fatima Ramli is the national coordinator of the gum Arabic producers association.
“We have markets in east Asia, japan, china and gulf states. All people import the gum Arabic besides the United States and Europe. Because of that the prices increases in the last three years and there are incentive to the producer who works hard to produce as much quantity as he can.”
It is a rare export success story for Sudan because gum Arabic is so important to the soft drinks industry and other products; the United States has exempted it from a broad trade embargo, which Washington originally imposed in 1997 over Sudan’s human rights record.
This has allowed Sudan to remain a world power in gum Arabic. It hopes rising demand, especially from fast-growing Asian countries, will help to soften an economic crisis triggered by the loss of three-quarters of its oil production when south Sudan seceded in 2011.
Fighting between rebels and the army in three farming regions of Sudan, Darfur, Blue Nile and south Kordofan, has also hit production.
But Sudan’s gum Arabic is still first choice among many consumers because of its high quality.
“The total of the gum Arabic sold in En Nahud market during 2012 amounted to 9000 tones. Compared to last year amount it is too small because we exported in 2011 13000 tones and this represents a great percentage of Sudan export of gum Arabic.”
Sudan earned more than 85 million us dollars from exporting tones of gum Arabic in 2012 and Sudan’s association of gum Arabic producer’s estimates farmers will produce up to 80,000 tons of gum Arabic in the coming seasons.