Empowering rural women: the Gum Arabic Project in Sudan

by Sally McGrane

42 year-old Halima Agib lives in the remote Sudanese village of Demira, some 900 km from the capital, Khartoum. Demira’s climate is harsh, and in recent years, the area has been affected by drastically falling prices of gum, one of its natural products. As a result, farmers began cutting down the acacia trees that provide the gum, which is used in the food industry. Women, in particular, suffered: While harvesting gum is traditionally a man’s job, the drop in local incomes affected women disproportionately.

But Sudan’s women decided to take matters into their own hands. Now, Mrs Agib is one of thousands of women reviving the tradition of gum harvesting, thanks to funding and training provided by The Women’s Gum Association, founded in 2009 and sponsored by the Sudan Multi-Donor Trust Fund and IFAD-funded Gum Arabic Project. "One day I was listening to the radio, and I heard a talk about microfinance,” recalled Mrs Agib. “People in the village were also talking about financing ‘Gum Arabic Producers Associations’ to assist them in the production process.” The married mother of two decided to investigate the matter further, after discussing the issue with other women in her village. “The women in Demira sent me to Elnuhood," Mrs Agib said.

Mrs Agib travelled to Elnuhood and met with the local Gum Arabic Producers Associations (GAPAs) Union. There, she learned about the steps she would need to take to form her own Gum Association. These included signing up a critical mass of participants, determining the size of the local area still covered by “gum trees” (Acacia Senegal), and opening a bank account.

On her return, Mrs Agib and 52 women of Demira formed their own GAPA. They named their association Almakarim, and Mrs Agib was voted president.

Almakarim is part of a network of some 12 000 gum arabic farmers in five localities throughout Sudan. Twenty-five percent of these members are women; ten associations are, like Almakarim, entirely comprised of female farmers. Since the Gum Arabic Project began in 2010, the results have been impressive, with the volume of gum produced at the end of two years doubling. In some places, women pooled part of their profits to use for emergencies, or, in one case, to hire a village midwife.

The project also provides the women with intensive training in topics from gum tapping and agroforestry to financial and organizational management. Almakarim’s executive board, for example, received an intensive, five-day training course in microfinance and bookkeeping.

In November 2010, Almakarim received $ 20 000 in credit, which was disbursed among its members. Soon, both gum production and members’ incomes increased. Today, Almakarim has 190 members.

Mrs Agib enumerated the ways in which she benefitted personally from the Gum Arabic Project: She was trained in microfinance and agroforestry. She gained experience in trade. She acquired the experience of working in community organizations. She bought a piece of land and started building her house. She succeeded in getting a tractor through a loan system. While these GAPAs have faced some challenges, from members who do not repay loans to struggles with transportation and storage, the future looks promising: This year, thanks to her work with Almakarim, Mrs Agib was chosen as a member of the GAPA Union in Elnuhood.

The Gum Arabic Project is a Sudan Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF)/IFAD project implemented by the Forests National Corporation. In 2010, the Project provided direct support to participating GAPAs in the five localities in terms of microfinance, matching grants sub-projects, training and capacity building.