Gum arabic, a key ingredient in soft drinks or chewing gum, was a flagship export from Sudan before the war. Since mid-April, its stocks have been at the heart of the fighting, foreigners who bought it have been evacuated and prices have fallen.
“It’s a real disaster for the producers”, alarmed Adam Issa Mohammed, a trader in El-Obeid, one of the main gum arabic markets, south of Khartoum. And not only for the producers: 5 of the 45 million Sudanese derived directly or indirectly an income from the production of these crystals of hardened acacia sap.
Yet Sudan’s gum arabic, which accounts for 70% of the world’s gross exports, had withstood everything from conflict to global warming. A sign that this natural emulsifier is essential, Washington, which imposed years of embargo on Sudan, granted it a special exemption. The agri-food and pharmaceutical industries cannot do without it: without gum arabic, there are no carbonated drinks, chewing gum or medicines.
But today, after more than five weeks of war between soldiers and paramilitaries, nearly a thousand dead, more than a million displaced persons and refugees and the evacuation of most of the foreigners linked to its trade, the gum Arabic is no longer safe. The majority of the fighting is concentrated in Khartoum, where most of the production is generally centralized before being exported, and in Darfur (west), where some of the gum is produced.
If the clashes have not won so far Gedaref, near the Ethiopian border, another sector where acacia fields are located, they have already changed the course there. “As there are no longer any buyers, the ton has gone from 320,000 to 119,000 Sudanese pounds”or from 580 to 200 euros, reports to AFP Ahmed Mohammed Hussein, a producer.
“We have large quantities to sell, but no one is buying because exporters and distributors can no longer find any trucks”, adds Adam Issa Mohammed. In Khartoum, many trucks were destroyed in the crossfire and truck drivers were killed, residents report. And reckless drivers face another obstacle: in gas stations that are not dry, the price per liter has increased 20 times.
Faced with concerns on the world market, the International Federation for the Promotion of Gum (AIPG), which brings together producers, importers and manufacturers, ensures that its “companies have enough reserves imported from Sudan and other countries in their warehouses to absorb possible interruptions in supply”. The AIPG adds that Chad and Nigeria can also “contribute significantly” to global sourcing.
But Othmane Abdessalam, an employee of a shipping company in Sudan, notes that “exports from Darfur and Kordofan via Khartoum, and particularly gum arabic, have been strongly affected” since the start of the war.
By 2022, the country had exported 60,000 tonnes of gum, according to Mostafa al-Sayyed Khalil, head of Sudan’s Gum Arabic Council. With the war, it is difficult to say how much the country exports today, and even to estimate the real production of gum, according to him. “Much of it is produced in areas that are beyond state control”rural or desert, held by armed groups, he told AFP.
In Sudan, the acacia gum tree grows naturally in the middle of the fields over a long belt of 500,000 km2 – almost the size of France – which goes from Gedaref to Darfour. Because it is one of the trees that best adapts to drought and climate change, international donors and African countries have relied on it to afforest the “Great Green Wall”. This megaproject is supposed to cover the Sahel strip up to the Horn of Africa with trees to slow down desertification.
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Acacia cultivation could become an important source of income for shade-growing farmers growing peanut gum, sorghum and millet, but even before the war the local price of the gum was so low that many between them preferred to transform their acacias into coal or work in the surrounding gold mines. The war could deal him a fatal blow. Today, warns Mr. Khalil, “if the acacia belt disappears, everyone will dive with it”.