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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.