Gum Arabic: Sudan’s Hot Commodity

April 4, 2013

World Bank Group

  • In Sudan, gum Arabic exports have increased by 120 percent
  • Sudan has liberalized its gum Arabic market to benefit small producers
  • Village-based groups are bringing microfinance services to rural communities

Hilat Ismail Village, North Kordofan State, April 4, 2013- Hamed Adam stands patiently in the sand under a scorching sun as a laborer gathers gum Arabic from the skinny Acacia Senegal trees. The laborer reaches up into the tree with a long pole and cuts the golden-colored gum Arabic ball, which drops into a basket affixed to the end of the rod. Unassuming in appearance, the gum Arabic on these petite acacia trees in Sudan is a highly coveted commodity.  

Hamed is a small farmer in Hilat Ismail Village in North Kordofan State, on the edge of the Saharan Desert in western Sudan. Home to 115 households and some 500 people, Hilat Ismail is located in one of the largest gum Arabic fields in the world. But Hamad says he didn’t always harvest gum Arabic from the acacia trees.

“Harvesting gum Arabic didn’t bring enough money. So we began to cut the gum Arabic trees to use as coal for cooking,” Hamed says.

But this is no longer true. Today, with the profit from the sale of gum Arabic Hamed says he can not only pay a laborer but also afford a donkey cart for his family.

Sudan is the world’s largest producer of gum Arabic. The dried sap is a natural emulsifier and is prized throughout the world by the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and ink manufacturers. It is found in soft drinks, chocolate candies, gummy candies, and marshmallows; it coats medicine capsules and helps cough syrup sooth a scratchy throat. 

Hamed is one of over 12,000 people in Sudan who have benefited from a Multi-Donor Trust Fund-National’s (MDTF-N) Revitalizing the Sudan Gum Arabic Production and Marketing Project. Designed to help increase the income of small-scale gum Arabic producers, the project established pilot programs in four regions of Sudan: Blue Nile State, Sennar State, South Kordofan State and north Kordofan State.

Since 2010, the MDTF-N Revitalizing the Sudan Gum Arabic Production and Marketing project has supported a rise in average annual incomes by as much as 65%, or from 5,105 SDG (~ $US1, 157. 00) in 2010 to 8,416 SDG (~$US1, 907. 00)  in 2011. From 2009 to 2011, gum Arabic exports have seen a remarkable increase of 120 percent.

Saving and sharing the wealth

Hamed also sits on the village Gum Arabic Producers Association (GAPA), a collective organized by the villagers whose aim is to improve the daily life of the community. Any villager can join a GAPA, Al-hadi says.

GAPA members are trained in gum harvesting and the harvests are now healthier. For example, the gatherers are shown improved tapping techniques, or how to slash the bark that opens the way for the tree’s watery sap to ooze. The sap is left for weeks to harden into roundish crystal balls. Thanks to GAPA, sales are up and small farmers can also sell their produce directly to companies without having to rely on middlemen.

The GAPA, with the support of the MDTF-N, provides loans to villagers and allows them to repay in installments over time. “Hilat Ismail has 52,000 SDG (~ $US 11,785.00) in our treasury as profit,” Al-hadi says.

Women are key players in the GAPA scheme, and constitute about 25 percent of all of the members. Ten GAPAs spread throughout the four regions are comprised of only women.

Fatma Hamed also lives in Hilat Ismail and shares in the profits from the sale of gum Arabic owned by families in her village. “I borrowed money from the community group, and was able to use it to take my father to the hospital in Elobeid City for treatment,” Fatma says. My father is much better. Before, people didn’t have enough money to send their relatives to the hospital for medical care,” Fatma adds.

GAPAs also make decisions about how to spend the collective funds in ways that benefit the entire village. MDTF-N provides partial grants for a GAPA, allowing the community to purchase tractors, gum Arabic stores, artesian wells, and water reservoirs.

Quenching a pervasive thirst

The village of Hilat Ismail is located just outside En Nuhood City in western Sudan, and sits amid acres of thriving gum Arabic trees in an area that has very little water.  Al-Hadi Ismail Mohamed Khalil, executive manager of Hilat Ismail, says that the villagers spent an average of 60% of their income buying water to drink, cook, and to bath.

With the support of the MDTF-N, the community received a matching grant to build an underground cement reservoir to hold water purchased and brought to the village. Completed in 2012, the reservoir uses a diesel generator to pump the water through pipes so villagers can simply walk to a faucet at the community’s entrance and savor cold, clean water, says MDTF-N project manager Mohamed Ibrahim Abdelkarim.

 “There is no doubt that the water resource is one of the best additions to our village and a good benefit of the project,” says Maria Ibrahim, who also lives in Hilat Ismail. “We used to spend a good part of our income just to have water to drink. Now, the water is clean, healthy, and free,” Maria says.

With support from MDTF-N 46 sub projects have been completed, benefitting 4,210   GAPAs’ members, with a total cost of $US 898,000.  

GAPA members were also offered agroforestry training. The combination of microfinance, harvesting, and agroforestry training strengthened the GAPAs to such an extent that several sold their produce to companies and the middlemen were once again excluded from the chain.

Opening the market

In 2009, with the help of World Bank analytical research, “Export Marketing of Sudanese Gum Arabic,” the government broke the monopoly that provided one company with sole power to set the export price of raw gum Arabic, says Stéphane Forman, project Task Team Leader with the World Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development, Africa Region. Soon after, the government created the Gum Arabic Board. Today, as many as 30 companies vie for the price of gum Arabic at Sudan’s markets and auction houses.

The Ministry of Finance and National Economy has also simplified or abolished most of the taxes on gum Arabic production, meaning that more of the profit can go directly to the rural producers.  “The gum Arabic market in Sudan has been liberalized, and now anyone who wants to get into the market is allowed,” Forman says.

In Hilat Ismail, Al-hadi, the village executive, points toward the acacia tree scattered across the sandy soil.  “Now we look after this tree very carefully,” he says.  “Because of the interest from the government and this project, we have seen an increase in profits and in progress for all of us.”

The Revitalizing the Sudan Gum Arabic Production and Marketing Project is one of 15 projects funded by the Multi-Donor Trust Fund-National (MDTF-N). The MDTF-N is a means for countries to contribute to the reconstruction and development needs of war-torn areas of Sudan. The MDTF-N ends on December 30, 2013.