Frankincense and myrrh have a new economic resonance for women in arid northern Kenya: global issues

Women display assorted gums and gum resins at a local market in Marsabit County. Women have benefited greatly economically through harvesting and selling non-timber products. Credit: Robert Kibet/IPS
  • by Robert KibetNairobi)
  • Inter Press Service

Shoulder to shoulder, they walk towards economic freedom armed with relevant tools up the hill to extract rubber and gum resins from acacia trees.

“We are faced with a myriad of challenges. First, we have to go fetch water before we collect gum from the acacias. We then sort and dry it before taking it to market for sale. From the sales of gums and rubber resins I can meet the needs of my family. There is no need to sell my sheep and goats at scrap prices,” says Caroline Sepina, a 47-year-old mother of six, as she carefully sorts the chewing gum, which retails for $5 (Ksh 550) per kilogram.

Gums and resins are hardened plant exudates obtained from Acacia, Boswellia and Commiphora species in African drylands.

In the drylands of Kenya, human survival is continually challenged with minimal alternative livelihood options.

There are no men among the manyattas in Ndikir, a town in Marsabit sub-county. Due to the drought, the men have had to move to nearby Samburu County, in search of pasture and water for their cattle.

Here, the women are left behind, but unlike in the past when they were unemployed, they now have alternative livelihoods that supplement their livestock.

According to Leuwan Kokton, deputy head of the Ndikir sub-location, the men often migrate with the cattle to nearby Samburu County to avoid a severe drought, with some animals remaining to help take care of children’s maintenance and sometimes medication.

“Through this economic adventure, I don’t have to sell sheep from my herds to meet the needs of my household. All I have to do is walk to the nearby trees and touch the non-timber products, then sell them at the market. This helps me preserve my sheep and goats,” Joseph Longelesh, a resident of Ndikir village, told IPS in an interview.

Commercially important gums and gum-resins harvested from Kenyan forests include arabic, myrrh, haber, and frankincense. Kenya has gum and resin resources with commercial production limited to the country’s drylands. Gum arabic comes from Acacia senegal or Acacia seyal, while commercial gum resins are myrrh from Commiphoramyrrha, agar from Commiphora holtziana, and frankincense from Boswellia neglect S.

Traditionally, Myrrh Agar resin is suitable for the treatment of inflammation, arthritis, obesity, microbial infections, wounds, pain, fractures, tumors, gastrointestinal diseases, snake bites and scorpion stings.

Tommaso Menini, managing director of the African Agency for Arid Resources (AGAR), told IPS that rubber and resin are directly related to environmental conservation. The idea is to make herding communities see an alternative source of livelihood besides ranching.

“Hagar is now an incredibly sought after product for most Chinese buyers because it is widely used in their traditional medicine. Having a Chinese population of almost 1.4 billion means that the demand is high,” Menini told IPS.

“In recent years, we have seen an increasing presence of Chinese buyers establishing a base in Kenya. Before, we had agents that sent several containers to China, but since they are settling in Kenya, now they are raising prices because there is more demand.”

For Janet Ahatho, deputy director of natural resources for Marsabit County, these non-timber products have existed. Still, the locals had not been exposed to its economic potential and how to exploit it for monetary gain.

“As the county government, we have mapped the areas and worked with the locals. The people who collect the products and sell them are the shepherds themselves. They have given that kind of importance to these trees, therefore, they help in the conservation of the environment”, says Ahatho.

In Marsabit County, these non-timber products are commonly found in Laisamis, Moyale, and North Horr subcounties.

“The destruction of the environment is reduced because we have environmental management committees in each sub-municipality, and they are the ones that involve the collectors and sellers of the product. They are trained to educate the community on why it is important to conserve tree species,” says Ahatho.

In 2005, the Regional Resource Mapping Center for Development, through the technical cooperation program of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), carried out a resource assessment and mapping of rubber and resins in Kenya.

For Ilkul Salgi, World Vision Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Arid and Semi-arid Lands (IMARA) field officer, locals residing in arid counties, including Marsabit, generally face drought, conflict and how to conserve the environment . environment in the midst of the climate crisis.

Engineer Chidume Okoro, president of the Network for Natural Gums and Resins in Africa (NGARA), says production is far from sustainable, particularly for incense, and debarking frequently damages or kills trees.

According to Chidume, the production of gum and resin in large quantities for commercial purposes must be done with great care, training the locals on how to do it sustainably while protecting the acacias.

“With too much emphasis on the export of bulk raw materials and poor management of the resource, export markets are underexploited. Gender inequalities and power imbalances exist and, in some cases, have led to unequal access and control over the benefits of these natural resources,” Okoro told IPS.

Since exploring non-timber products, Sepina says that her children have always had balanced meals and that she is able to pay her children’s school fees.

Report of the UN Office of IPS

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