Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Sudan taps into gum arabic growth

By James Copnall
Africa Business Report, BBC World News, Sudan

Farmer Abdel-Magid Gadir in front of an acacia tree
Farmer Abdel-Magid Gadir says he has planted 34 million acacia trees

To the great annoyance of its rival Pepsi, Coke is one of the most well-known words in the world.

But both drinks make use of a little known ingredient found in Africa - and in particular in Sudan.

Gum arabic, which comes from some types of acacia trees, puts the fizz in your drink, carries flavour in foods, and can even be used as a lickable adhesive for postage stamps.

For years Sudan had a virtual monopoly on it; now the authorities are trying to revitalise an industry hundreds of thousands of Sudanese depend on.

To get gum arabic you have to head out into the central belt of this great agricultural country, in inhospitable land on the edge of the desert.

Acacia trees, which produce the gum, flourish in this unlikely setting.

Gum arabic is particularly important in the areas of Kordofan and Darfur.

The farmers work when the scorching sun is at its peak, cutting into the acacia trees to leave a gaping wound.

Each tree takes up to four years to recover from this process.

Not profitable work

Over the next 45 days or so gum seeps out of the wound, forming a hard bubble the tapper will come back to collect.

Gum arabic does not mean the Arab people - the word arabic comes from a local word that means good or transparent

Abdel-Magid Gadir, Sudanese Farmer

The skill, handed down from father to son, is in knowing when the tree is ready to be cut, and how long to leave the gum to get the most possible.

After it is removed from the tree, the gum arabic is laid out in the sun so some of the water it contains evaporates.

But it's not profitable work. In a good year a tapper might earn 3000 Sudanese pounds ($1350; £878).

"This is not enough for all my needs, but it does support me," says Yashir Bashir, a tapper.

"I am a farmer too, and the gum arabic helps me support my family."

For decades gum arabic has made some rich, and there remain Sudanese who hope it will make their fortune.

Abdel-Magid Gadir says he has planted 34 million trees, but has not yet made his millions.

He is quick to clear up misunderstandings about his passion.

"Gum arabic does not mean the Arab people", he says.

"The word arabic comes from a local word that means good or transparent."

Gum arabic's almost colourless and odourless form is one of its advantages: it can be added to food or drink or medicine, adding benefits without changing the taste.

Gadir's eyes shine when he lists gum arabic's virtues, which he believes include medicinal properties and aphrodisiac qualities.

But he does admit the sector is in trouble.

Industry liberalised

Banks don't often loan enough to farmers, he says, and the political context in Sudan has been difficult too.

Farmers cut into acacia trees, leaving a wound which seeps gum arabic
Cut are made in acacia trees, leaving a wound from which gum arabic seeps

The country has suffered through a succession of civil wars.

Sudan is something of a pariah state. The US has sanctioned Sudan and its president is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

But gum arabic is so important to big US firms like Coca Cola and Pepsi that it is one of the few things exempt from the US sanctions.

Sudan's turbulent recent history has hurt the confidence of foreign buyers of gum arabic.

Abdel-Magid Gadir can see why buyers would worry that this would affect continuity, timing and pricing of the gum arabic they buy.

He worries that "maybe some of the Europeans try to find alternatively suppliers to replace Sudan, maybe the neighbouring countries".

Back in the capital they are trying to overcome obstacles like these.

The industry has been liberalised, and a new regulatory board set up.

It estimates exports are at only 10% of the possible maximum, though Sudan remains the world's biggest producer.

One plan is to target new markets in Asia and the Arab world. At the moment almost all the gum arabic is bought by the West.

But first the sector needs to be modernised, to allay the fears of buyers nervous about Sudan's lack of stability.

Feudal system

Dr Mustapha Abdulsalam Tagelsir, head of the Gum Arabic Board, is trying to establish a new international electronic trading system connecting local markets with the international buyers.

A farmer lays out gum arabic in the sun to dry
Gum arabic is laid out in the sun to dry

He says this will enable "the international market to get all the information promptly from the local markets. As well as this our producers can access information and know prices".

But some Sudanese experts point to other improvements necessary to make the industry more fair.

"There is a type of feudal system where some people go and take a big chunk of land because of their position in the government or state, and they have a monopoly", explains former head of the forestry commission M K Shawki.

"And the actual producer is only a hireling, and so they just pay him subsistence, and even that is very little."

He also suggests the environmental impact of planting so many trees outweighs the benefits received by Sudanese farmers.

The Gum Arabic Board estimates 5 million people depend at least in part on gum arabic income, as each tapper supports a large family.

They will be desperately hoping the efforts to boost the industry work.

Africa Business Report is a monthly programme on BBC World News. The next programme will be on Saturday, 20 February, at 0330 GMT and 1830 GMT, and on Sunday, 21 February, at 1130 GMT as well as 1830 GMT.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific