Two thirds of Kenya is arid or semi-arid land. This area is of particular interest to the AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund, a programme implemented jointly by Self Help Africa and Imani Development. When visionary entrepreneur, Sam Nyamboga, learned about this fund, he saw the enormous opportunity that an award could represent.
Sam grew up in Kajiado, a semi-arid region just south of Nairobi. In dry areas in Kenya, acacia trees, which ooze a clear sticky liquid, are a common sight. 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 moved to Germany for work that he realised the economic value of this gum, ‘gum arabic’.
The true value of gum arabic
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 various foods and beverages.
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. Sam reached out to the Kenya Forest Research Institute to learn more and with their guidance, in 2015 he set up his business - Acacia EPZ - which sources, processes and exports gum arabic to the European market.
Sam reckons that running a niche business came with its fair share of challenges and in the first period the business was faced with a disorganised and inefficient value chain, resulting in a poor quality product.
The AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund
When Sam heard about a call for business proposals to the AgriFI Kenya Challenge Fund, an initiative funded by the European Union and SlovakAid, he applied and won a grant.
With this support, Acacia EPZ is implementing a two-year project to increase production and streamline the gum arabic value chain in five Kenyan counties. To date, Sam’s company has established two warehouse facilities for primary processing and 19 mobile collection hubs. Moreover, Acacia EPZ has trained 2,566 collectors, mostly women, to collect and store the gum, and has provided them with adequate tools to prevent injuries.
With support from the AgriFI Challenge Fund, Sam is confident that the country will soon be the leading gum producer in the region. Sam says “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.
A new hope for Kenyan pastoral communities
The gum arabic trade also offers an economic lifeline to pastoral communities that are increasingly faced with drought due to changing climatic conditions.
Among the beneficiaries of the project is Ngulisia Arabolia, a 54-year-old mother of six from the town Marsabit in the north of Kenya. She had not realised the value of the acacia gum until Acacia EPZ reached out to her and others in her community to propose to them to become collectors. Working for Acacia EPZ has changed Ngulisa’s life. In 2018, a drought wiped away all her family’s livestock, leaving them without any source of income.
Thanks to the profits earned from selling gum arabic to Acacia EPZ, Ngulisia has been able to buy 20 goats and to improve her family’s diet. She says “We now eat vegetables like spinach, cabbage and 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 also set up a shop where she trades in basic goods. In the coming years, she hopes to build a permanent house for her family.
I am happy, now I have my own money and I can 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, a collector taking part of the project
Not only has gum arabic brought economic benefits, but it has also given pastoral 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.