Without a magical little ingredient called gum arabic, all the sugar in your soda would sink to the bottom of the can.
Made from the hardened sap of the acacia tree, gum arabic is a little-known additive and adhesive critical in foods, medicines and cosmetics. It keeps sugar suspended in soft drinks, makes marshmallows chewy, adds firmness to ice cream and makes postage stamps stick to envelopes.
Farmers who grow gum arabic should be benefitting financially from producing such a widely used crop. Instead they suffer at the base of a supply chain that faces an incredible spread of challenges.
Gum arabic is sourced from some of the poorest and most unstable areas on Earth. Sudan, Chad and Nigeria produce 95 percent of gum arabic exported to the world market. Sudan is the globe’s foremost producer at an estimated 88,000 tons per year, equivalent in weight to 550 blue whales.
Sudanese gum arabic is so vital that it was the only exemption when the United States brought trade sanctions against Sudan in 1997.
Although gum arabic is one of the most important agricultural export in Sudan, the estimated 5 million Sudanese farmers who depend on the crop for their livelihood receive only a tiny fraction of the income generated by it. The sap usually leaves the country in its raw, unprocessed form, allowing processing centers in Europe and the United States to double or even triple the gum’s value, and keep the profits. And middlemen abound--government officials collect duties and taxes, and the foreign processors grow wealthy. Even smugglers, who sneak gum arabic out of the country, capture enormous profits.
For producing such a ubiquitous and valuable product, Sudanese farmers are hit hard on all sides.
One obvious solution to increasing incomes and employment is to stop exporting raw gum, and build processing centers to dry, age and powder it directly in Sudan.
A few local companies are trying to do just that by establishing processing centers where the gum is grown. The Gum Arabic Company, which had a government-supported monopoly over the export of raw gum arabic from 1969 to 2009, is now investing in factories to process the gum into powder for export. They are currently 60 percent owner of the Khartoum Gum Arabic Processing Company, which runs a processing plant in Port Sudan.
Despite the high quality of processing done at the Port Sudan plant, many companies still prefer to buy raw gum and process it themselves, Babiker Tom, chairman of the Khartoum Gum Arabic Processing Company, told the World Report International. “We process according to European standards of hygiene,” he insisted.
Continuing instability in Sudan is the likely culprit scaring investors away. Ethnic fighting between rebel groups and the government is approaching its twelfth year in the infamous region of Darfur, a key gum arabic producing area. Meanwhile, millions of Sudanese have been displaced from this and other civil wars over the last 40 years, including current unrest along Sudan’s new border with South Sudan.
In May 2013, more than 60 people died fighting over gum arabic land in Darfur, in a conflict that involved four-wheel drive vehicles, horses and guns. Would processing centers end up as the next targets for violent conflicts and smugglers?
Putting more of the gum arabic value chain in Sudan could bring enormous benefits to Sudan’s low-income farmers. But continuing civil conflict, fueled in part by the high demand for the gum itself, keeps farmers vulnerable and investment slow.
Watch a World Bank video about the latest major improvement for gum arabic producers in Sudan--the end of the government-supported monopoly in 2009:
Read about Mercy Corps' work in Sudan: