Gum arabic, also known as acacia gum, is a natural gum derived from hardened sap obtained from two species of the acacia tree (Senegalia senegal) and Vachellia (Acacia) seyal). It is regarded as a versatile emulsifier that is used as a thickening, binding and stabilising material across several end-user industries including food & beverages, pharmaceuticals, textiles, cosmetics,ceramics, inks, paper, ceramics, paints,adhesives among others. Renowned for its ability to ensure even distribution of sugar in liquid, the gum is one of the major emulsifiers used in the production of syrups for soft drinks, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
In the healthcare sector,the gum is used in various pharmaceutical formulations for holding the ingredients together in the drug. In addition, it contains medicinal properties and can be consumed with water to treat stomach problems as it is rich in dietary fiber.It is also used as a laxative and helps in reducing cholesterol levels in patients.
A gum arabic report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted that the major producing and exporting countries in the world are located in Africa and include; Chad, Eritrea,Kenya,Mali, Nigeria,Senegal,Sudan and Tanzania, while it is produced in smaller quantities in South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.
In Nigeria, the drought-resistant arabica tree from which the gum is sourced,thrives best in the arid zones, particularly the northern region and major producing states include; Adamawa, Bauchi,Borno,Gombe,Jigawa,Katsina,Kebbi,Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau, Sokoto,Taraba, Taraba,Yobe and Zamfara. Borno and Yobe states account for about 80 per cent of an estimated 2.5 million hectares of land in which the gum tree is grown.
Economic relevance of gum arabica
According to IndustryARC, a leading provider of market research reports, the worldwide gum arabic market buoyed by high demand across global industries,was valued at $250.11 million in 2020 and is forecast to reach $603.25 Million by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 6.17 per cent.
Highlighting the economic benefits of the commodity, UNCTAD, in a report titled “commodities at a Glance”, noted that gum arabic is a promising commodity for producing countries due to its potential to generate foreign exchange, promote sustainable agriculture and forestry, and combat desertification and climate change.
An economic analysis of gum arabic production in Yobe State conducted by researchers of the department of Forestry and Wildlife management, Federal University Dutse (FUD), Jigawa State, showed that gum arabic production was highly profitable in Yobe state and it can be produced at commercial scale to diversify the state’s economy and to counteract the excesses of desertification.
Alex Akpa, immediate past director general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), said gum arabic sells for over $3,000 per tonne, adding that increased production in Nigeria would translate to creation of more jobs across the value chain,boost economic growth, and also support the country’s oil diversification plan.
Challenges in Nigeria’s gum arabic production
Despite being rated among the leading producers and exporters of arabica gum with annual output estimated at 22,000 tonnes, market analysts observed that the country’s output does not reflect its factual potential. They identified factors such as quality inconsistency, poor market organisation and production disruptions due to the Boko Haram insurgency as a major hindrance to the country’s gum arabic sector.
It was also noted that the activities of the insurgents, particularly in Borno, a leading producing state, led to a sharp decline in Nigeria’s production and caused Nigeria to drop from second largest producing country to fourth position.
Bernard Okwutie,an agriculturist,explained that a bulk of the gum arabica produced in Nigeria is abundant in Sambisa forest and some other dangerous zones where the insurgents are located.
“Sambisa forest is virtually gum arabic. Right now,farmers can’t go to Sambisa or all these dangerous places to harvest gum arabic. This is why we are insisting on organised planting,” he said.
Mario Jales, economist at UNCTAD’s Commodities Branch,bemoaned that many African countries including Nigeria, export crude gum arabic at low prices and re-import the processed gum at substantially higher prices to meet local manufacturing demand. This, he noted, is due to poor investments in processing of the raw gum into finished products,placing local producers at a disadvantaged position in the global market.
Dwelling on this, Mustapha Shehuri, minister of state, Agriculture and Rural Development, said Nigeria exports over 95 per cent of its gum arabic in raw form to Europe, Asia and United States of America, while only five per cent is utilised locally.He added that focusing solely on exporting the commodity at the detriment of local processing and value addition causes the country to lose about $215 million dollars annually in form of revenue and employment opportunities for local investors.
Shehuri also attributed the country’s slow output to the worrisome insecurity situation in many of the arabica gum producing states.
Strengthening production and revenue sustenance
According to the minister of state for Agriculture and Rural Development, increasing Nigeria’s gum arabic production from its current status of about 23,040 metric tons by 20 per cent will create about 500,000 jobs estimated at $43 million additional income. This can however be achieved through implementation of sustainable and innovative measures and also, tackling the insecurity issues in the NorthEast region where the crop thrives best.
Commenting on how Nigeria can improve gum arabic production, Alex Akpa emphasised an increased adoption of biotechnology to encourage mass production for Nigerian farmers. He also called for more research and increased implementation of biotechnology using tissue culture techniques and other inventive methods to produce thousands of seedlings and develop new varieties for improved quality and mass production of the commodity.
Mario Jales recommended reforms ranging from improving workers’ skills to increasing product differentiation and value addition, enhancing marketing and finance solutions and fostering political stability to ensure all stakeholders get a reasonable share of the total value generated along the gum arabic global value chain.
Dwelling on how it intends bolstering gum arabic output, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) recently announced that two additional gum arabic processing centres would be established in Kano and Borno States this year to enhance local processing of the agro-commodity.
Karima Babangida, FMARD director, who made the disclosure while addressing gum arabic farmers at a capacity building workshop tagged, “Good Agricultural Practices for Gum Arabic Farmers”, in Dutse, Jigawa State, further noted that the ministry had earlier refurbished the gum arabic testing laboratory at the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria (RRIN) in Edo State for quality assurance and also, established a cottage processing centre in Damaturu, Yobe State.
The FMARD director pledged the ministry’s continuous support for farmers to improve production through provision of improved seedlings,colour sorting machines,digital moisture metres and other implements to spur more revenue for stakeholders in the value chain, and promote projects towards creating export opportunities for the commodity.
Market analysts however argued that the agriculture ministry needs to be more proactive in its approach towards gum arabic production in the country particularly in the aspects of engaging more farmers and facilitating Public Private Partnerships (PPPs); granting access to funds, providing modern farming implements for farmers at subsidised rates; empowerment of research institutes; and implementation of intensive empowerment programmes,marketing strategies and reforms in the sector.
Gimba Gwayo, a gum arabic farmer emphasised the need for greater awareness on the economic potentialities of gum arabic production to stimulate high participation of individuals, particularly the youths who make up a large percentage of the country’s populace. He also pointed out that the existing land use act needs total and comprehensive review to ease land acquisition process,particularly for commercial production.