The US Food and Drugs Administration’s (FDA) decision to reclassify Gum Arabic as a food ingredient — not only an additive — will have far-reaching implications and provide a new business opportunity for those interested.
One possibility is hundreds of millions of consumers in the cereals market could easily be tapped.
Gum Arabic, also known as acacia gum, came to be known in ancient Egypt as early as 2000 BC as a non-timber forest product with usage in confectionery, pharmaceutical and beverage industries, mainly as additive.
It is a product of Acacia trees, namely the Acacia senegal and Acacia seya, known in Sudan as Hashab and Talha trees respectively.
These two trees are found in the Sub-Saharan Africa in what is known as the Gum Arabic belt that extends between 12-16 degrees north.
Though some countries appear in this belt as Gum Arabic producers, Sudan occupies a commanding position as the world largest producer, followed by Chad and Nigeria.
In Sudan, Gum Arabic is produced in areas exceeding more than half a million square km across the country’s center.
Because of its importance and Sudan’s commanding position in its production, Gum Arabic has been exempted from the US economic sanctions against Sudan enforced in 1997 and were being renewed continuously since then.
The latest FDA resolution, not only confirms such exemption, but it was accompanied by more procedural relaxation to export Gum Arabic to the US market.
This move opens the way for increased demand regionally and internationally that requires a concerted effort to increase supply and that is one of the business and investment opportunities provided by such a move.
In fact, there are many features that are associated with the Gum Arabic and could be of attraction to media, politicians, regional and international organizations interested in issues to do with poverty alleviation, women empowerment, environment protection and help in providing organic and natural prebiotic food.
In Sudan alone, an estimated five million people live in the Gum Arabic belt.
Their engagement in tapping, collecting and selling the product provides them with anything between 20-50 percent of their income.
Any improvement in price will increase that percentage and help improve the living conditions of these people.
Moreover, an estimated 60 percent of the work force active particularly in collection, cleaning of the product is women.
These women are to gain more empowerment opportunities in economic fields with their growing involevement.
Increasing production to raise the volume of supplies requires not only planting more trees, which is a must, but look also at the organizational side.
Already both the World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have pushed for an initiative to establish Gum Arabic producers’ association, where an average of 50 producers is grouped into an association.
This association will be able to act as an institution and tap on finance on behalf of its members.
This is an opportunity for microfinance that can really impact positively on grassroots farmers and overcome one of the biggest hurdles facing the sector.
Much more important is that this growing interest could push eventually for improved tools in tapping and collecting Gum Arabic.
Simple technologies could be applied to change the traditional tools used for decades for something more efficient, able to increase production that will reflect into better income for the producer.
An increased demand will definitely reflect on price and that in itself could be a driving factor to get new and younger generation in the business.
One of the main concerns is that workers in the Gum Arabic tapping and collection are getting older and older, and that is due mainly to low income generated by such activity.
Profit-taking is a human reaction and improved income can attract more and newcomers as gold did with many who took their chances in a wild and remote environments looking for their fortunes.
It is clear that this development was made possible because of the liberalization and removal of monopolization exercised by the government on the Gum Arabic commodity.
Still a political will is needed to provide the conducive environment in terms of policies and regulations needed to allow the private initiatives to thrive.
Opportunities are usually accompanied by risks. And the main risk here seems to be inability to act reasonably and quickly.
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