The dry and rugged terrain stretching for kilometers in the expansive Isiolo County appears largely barren, worthless even. Yet growing from the parched earth is a resource worth billions of shillings and one that promises to significantly transform the lives of the largely poor pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya.
The blistering weather conditions of Isiolo and neighbouring counties of Wajir, Marsabit and Garissa creates prime conditions for the growth of the indigenous gum and resin – producing trees that line the dusty rough roads, forming occasional forest patches across the vast terrain.
Tapping this rare resource that is in high demand the world over is Abdi Somo through his company, Inter-Africa Investment Holdings Ltd. The company’s main activities include harvesting and processing Gum Arabic, a natural product derived from hardened acacia tree sap.
The non-timber forest products consultant says that extracts from these precious trees are raw materials in the industrial production of food products such as chewing gum and beverages, medicine and scents.
The company is encouraging pastoralists to diversify their economic activities by extracting valuable gum from trees as a supplement for their income. These gums and resins form naturally or after making small cuts on the tree barks.
“Before I started my company, herdsmen could sell the extracts immediately after harvesting to middlemen who then exported it to global markets. The local communities made minor profits from this lucrative commodity that is valued at more than Sh 672 trillion,” Abdi explains.
Abdi further notes that the full potential of the resource has gone untapped for years in northern Kenya. “The harvesting process and sale of the extracts in this region remains largely informal. We hope to commercialise the industry through value addition and local manufacturing of end products,” he adds.
Transforming Gum Arabic into processed export goods not only promotes economic development but also secures rural livelihoods, empowers vulnerable groups and promotes synergies with natural resource management and climate change mitigation.
However, Abdi says the constraint of minimal funding is a great challenge to the realization of this dream. Setting up a manufacturing factory in the Northern region of Kenya, an area that is prone to droughts, would greatly encourage the local communities to value non-timber forest products.
Abdi says the company has huge plans to process and add value to the Gum Arabic and resin by processing it into various products, including essential oils, a venture that is undoubtedly more economically beneficial than exporting the raw product.
Currently, Abdi is working with more than 300 women and youth who are directly involved in the gathering of the products. The company, according to Abdi, has the potential of creating more than five thousand jobs for the locals as well as providing an alternative source of livelihood for communities who are increasingly adopting more diverse economic activities. Besides the economic value, forest conservation will be at the heart of the local community members because of the value they get in return.
The gum business is an important step towards organized production and the management of the tree resources which are the basis of the production of the gums and resins. The company has partnered with Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC) to ensure the establishment of plantations of tree species in suitable areas to improve their stocking. KCIC onboarded the company in its commercial forestry sector, a project that seeks to ensure the sustainable growth of Kenyan commercial forestry and provide access to quality inputs and technical support across the timber value chain.
The institution is supporting this great innovation as it bridges the wood gap through responsible forestry harvesting, afforestation and reforestation while reducing the felling of trees.
“KCIC has provided me with mentorship, business planning, management and capacity building that has helped me turn my technology into a sustainable business venture,” Abdi says. “I have the vision to set up a manufacturing company to process the Gum Arabic products here in Kenya. The partnership with KCIC is a great step towards achieving this vision.”
Abdi is optimistic that the project will eradicate poverty and improve living standards in the marginalized and poverty-riddled Northern Kenya while at the same time helping Kenya meet the 10 per cent forest cover if carried out sustainably.