Can trading in tree gum & resin save drought-hit northern Kenya?

The collection of gums and resins for commercial and domestic use is a centuries-old practice in the Horn of Africa, and in northern Kenya in particular. The importance of this activity takes precedence during the drought period when the income from livestock diminishes and few alternative income generation activities are available. Dry land tree species (mainly Acacia, Commiphora and Boswellia) are abundant in the area and are a source of a variety of commercially exploited gums and resins.

The recent recurrent drought in northern Kenya has disrupted traditional income-generating activity, with the majority of households losing their herds; and others migrating with livestock to distant areas in search of pasture and water. Pastoral communities in the Garba Tula area are actively involved in the collection and trade of the gums and resins. The practice is widespread among both poor and wealthy households, although the poor pastoralists depend more on the sector than their wealthier counterparts. In some villages, entire households participate in the collection and trade of the commodities.  The income gained from gums and resins is mainly used to buy subsistence goods, while others use it to buy livestock, medication for livestock and to pay for school fees. The main domestic uses of the gums and resins in the Garba Tula area are: acaricide to kill and control ticks infestation, treat foot wound and mange in livestock, as a medication for chest congestion, for lymph node swellings, and to treat snake and scorpion bites.

The gums and resins sector currently operates below its potential and there are a myriad of challenges that are hampering its development. Major challenges include a lack of financial capital, an under-developed market, lack of access to quality market information for collectors, and a lack of shared knowledge on ways to boost production and insecurity as a result of inter-tribal conflicts. Also, the government has not shown commitment to develop the sector. There is currently no policy on gums and resins in place that will facilitate the development of the sector.

The potential exists to upscale the current level of production and put in place proper marketing and value addition to make the gums and resins sector a fully fledged sector that can meaningfully contribute to sustainable development rather than acting as safety net during drought.

The workshop “Strengthening pastoral livelihoods in northern Kenya: Exploring the potential of bio?enterprises takes place on February 23 in Nanyuki, Kenya. It is organised by the Future Agricultures Consortium, The Ministry of State for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands and Desert Edge Bio-trading Company.