- Accept no substitutes -
The Gum Belt has the potential to supply all the world's requirements for gum arabic, but investment is required to process more of the raw product.
From east to west across a substantial strip of Sudan south of Khartoum lies the Gum Belt, which produces a commodity for which the country is the top exporter in the world. This is gum arabic, a substance obtained by tapping the branches of the Acacia Senegal tree and closely related species.
Gum arabic has a wide range of applications, from cosmetics to paper coating and sizing, but it is probably best known as an ingredient in confectionery; it renders the product soft, but firm, long-lasting in the mouth and gives it a clean-tasting, non-sticky chewiness. Wherever film-forming and emulsifying properties are needed - without affecting taste or viscosity - gum arabic is ideal.
Top-quality gum arabic is colourless, although an aver-age sample is a pale straw colour. Completely soluble in cold water, it is regarded as 95 per cent 'soluble fibre' by nutritional experts. It is generally defined as a polysaccharide dietary fibre with few calories, and studies have shown that it can help reduce cholesterol levels. It is therefore a pity for Sudanese farmers that many of the world's food producers have turned to substitutes for gum arabic.
The Gum Arabic Company (GAC) produces the majority of Sudanese gum arabic and is the country's main exporter. General manager Musa Karama says: "There is no other product that is produced in Sudan which is as unique as gum arabic. But we have not competed internationally in the way we should because Sudan suffers from a number of circumstances that affect this." He adds: "We are the owners of the majority of the Gum Belt, both in terms of area and in terms of the most extensive tree population.
The existing potential can meet world demand four or five times over, but the fact is that today we are only exporting about 50 per cent of what the world was consuming 40 years ago. About 10 years ago the world was using around 70,000 tonnes of gum arabic every year. Today, it is using about 42,000 tonnes despite the increase in population, incomes and so on." Mr Karama says the GAC has taken a number of measures since 1998 to stimulate demand. "We have followed a reasonable pricing policy that takes into consideration the quality of the product, the product environment, the producers and their production costs, and the huge market size of the modified substitutes," he says. "But today we are trading at prices that are almost a third of their level seven years ago."
GAC is placing strong emphasis on gum arabic as a natural, organically-produced ingredient. "We are trying to provide the product in a different form because so far we have been trading most of our supply in its simple, raw state." The company is investing in plants which will process gum arabic into a powder form. Mr Karama would like to join forces with an established European company to establish processing plants that meet international standards. "Distribution would ideally be run in a joint venture with European companies dealing with gum arabic," says Mr Karama. "But we also want to stimulate demand in Sudan to cut costs and to make use of the distribution channels that are already in place."
He sees potential in using gum arabic in pharmaceuticals - it is one of the oldest and best-known ingredients in cough syrup, and in its spray-dried form it is used as both a carrying agent in capsules and a binder in tablets. Mr Karama says: "We have about five million people who are involved in the harvesting and production of gum arabic - about a sixth of the population. Greater trade would enable us to invest in rural areas and educate people on the benefits of the gum. Farming creates stability and helps prevent people leaving for the urban centres. Therefore the gum trees have other social and economic benefits, and we are trying to preserve this environment." GAC is building a research institute in the Kordofan region. "It is exclusively for gum research and it will also serve as an international contact point for universities and for all the people who want to conduct research in Sudan," adds Mr Karama.
At Port Sudan, the Khartoum Gum Arabic Processing Company (GAPC) maintains a fully-equipped laboratory and warehouses, smoothly ensuring quality-tested supplies for export. The company, which is 60 per cent-owned by the GAC, operates a modern processing plant at the port, providing powdered and kibbled gum arabic to order. Babiker Tom, chairman of GAPC, says that although Sudan is the world's prin-cipal supplier of gum arabic, it is not used directly in the country itself, but ironically it can find its way back to Sudan in foreign-manufactured soft drinks and confectionery.
Dr Tom says that, despite GAPC's high standard of processing, many com-panies still prefer to buy the raw mater-ial and process it themselves. He says this attitude prevents third world countries from advancing their economies by adding value to raw materials. "We process according to European standards of hygiene," he explains. "The processing issue is more political than economic because the industrialised countries will not give the third world the technology that will upgrade the processing of gum."