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Gum Arabic– How Supply is Threatened By Conflict in Sudan

Gum Arabic– also known as Acacia Gum – is one of the most versatile ingredients used in the food, drinks, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical industries. It is a natural emulsifier, stabilising agent, a binder and a thickener in many foods in addition to being a source of rich dietary fibre. Most of the world’s Gum Arabic is produced in Sudan, Africa’s third-largest country. In light of the current Sudan crisis the country is facing, questions are being raised as to how will this impact the availability of this precious commodity and whether it’s time to start sourcing this product elsewhere or if there are alternatives.

Firstly, what is Gum Arabic or Acacia Gum?

Gum Arabic or Acacia Gum is a natural, gummy substance made from the exudate of the hardened sap of two species of acacia tree – the Senegalia Senegal and the Vachellia Seyal. These trees grow in the wild and mainly in the Sahel region of Africa, between the Sahara in the north and the Sudanese savanna in the south.

The gum is harvested by hand using a method called Gummosis, whereby workers make small incisions in the bark (called tapping), causing the gum exudate to accumulate in the wounds from where it dries out in the warm climate and can eventually be hand-picked from the thorny acacia trees. Selected raw gum lumps are then cleaned and forwarded for processing to a kibbled or powdered form, of various mesh sizes, before being used in everything from fizzy drinks and makeup products to health supplements and medicines.

Gum Arabic is primarily used in the food industry as an emulsifying, stabilizing, thickening and texture improving agent. It has unique functional polysaccharide properties, with high solubility and low viscosity, even at high concentrations, and is a much desired hydrocolloid. As an excellent emulsifier, it efficiently inhibits precipitation of ingredients in a suspension mixture. It is therefore used in products such as salad dressings to stop the oil and water from separating and it is used in beverages such as Coke and Pepsi to bind the taste and sugar ingredients for a uniform and enhanced mouthfeel. Being plant-based, naturally harvested, low calorific value and highly nutritious, makes it a much desired ingredient in food applications.

Infograhic describing the harvest if gum arabic from the acacia trees in the African Sahel .
Gum Arabic harvest a rare and fascinating process.

An infographic of how gum arabic is an emulsifier.
Gum Arabic is an efficient emulsifier that allows mixing of immiscible liquids.

What’s happening in Sudan?

In April 2023, fighting erupted in Sudan following a clash between the Sudanese armed forces (SAF) and parliamentary forces, known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The clash is said to have started at a military base north of the capital city of Khartoum, but has since spread across the city and to other areas across the country.

Despite the two sides coming together in 2019, frequent disagreements remain as to how the country is run. This time, the resulting conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, left thousands more injured, and, sadly, hundreds of civilians have died with the numbers rising.

While many hoped that talks between the two leaders would diffuse the situation, that is yet to happen. And even though the UK, the US, and the EU have all called for a ceasefire, the fighting is still ongoing, and many countries have been concentrating on extraditing their citizens from Sudan. Recent peace talks in Jeddah led by the USA and Saudia Arabia pave a way for a short-term humanitarian ceasefire between the factions. Although a permanent peace deal would be a favourable outcome for all involved, a prolonged war is becoming a real possibility as a result of this crisis.

Sudan’s role and capabilities in the Gum Arabic market

Around 70% of the world’s Gum Arabic, a $1.1 billion market, comes from Sudan. The country is heavily relied upon to supply the food, drinks, and cosmetics industries with this vital ingredient. Unfortunately, the violence and war as a result of the country’s political instability are nothing new. And some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Coca-Cola, have long been known to stockpile Gum Arabic in order to avoid supply issues in the event of reoccurring conflict.

In the 1990s, Gum Arabic was made exempt from US trade sanctions against Sudan, which again shows how important this commodity is. Plus, it’s one of Sudan’s primary exports, and as one of the poorest countries in Africa, the money it brings in is vital to the economy. While it's not the biggest source of income to the economy, it's the flagship export commodity for which Sudan ranks as a global leader. The international recognition and attention that Sudan gets on the back of Gum Arabic trade is a sign of the criticality of this ingredient to the global consumer goods industry. This was evident recently when, in the midst of the biggest crisis that the country has seen in recent history, many news and media organisations only gave the April 2023 war attention after risks to the supply chain of Gum Arabic affecting fizzy drinks availability came to light.

Bar chart of the Sudan total exports over the years 2018 to 2923
Sudan's Total Exports In The Last 5 Years ($M per month). (Source:

Within Sudan it is estimated that approximately 80% of Sudan's gum comes from North Kordofan state, home to the best quality Hashab grade (or Kordofan lumps) of Gum Arabic. In the vast savanna of North Kordofan as well as North Darfur, Gum Arabic production is an intrinsic part of the livelihood of farming communities and a major source of income to millions in the country. North Kordofan state is also home to respected scientific and research institutes specialising in the development of Gum Arabic, as well as the Damokeeya forest. This is a 7,500 acre forest full of acaia trees, established mainly for scientific research into Gum Arabic.

Gum Arabic can be found in many countries in the African Sahel belt that covers a vast african landscape. However the best quality grade Acacia Senegal, with its unique functional properties, is found solely in Sudan. This gift could be attributed to the unique climate and habitat of the region and in particular that of North Kordofan and North Darfur.

A gum arabic worker and raw gum acacia lumps
Gum arabic nodules are hand-picked selected and cleaned before processing. Gum Arabic trade is a source of vital income to millions in the region.
Raw gum arabic Acacia Senegal Hashab lumps nodules on a palm
Raw Gum Arabic nodules of Acacia Senegal. A natural gift worth its weight in gold.

A gem hidden behind an E number

It's fair to say that many consumers are not fully aware of what Gum Arabic is. This is despite the ubiquity of this versatile ingredient and that it can be found in many everyday household items from fizzy drinks such as Pepsi and Coke, to confectionery such as M&Ms, Kellogg's cereals, to medicines such as Ibuprofen. It's usually mentioned only in the small print of the ingredients list or referred to just by its E414 code. The use of food agents with emulsifying, stabilising and thickening properties is subject to European Commission Regulations 1333/2008 on food additives and EU 1129/2011. Approved additives under these regulations are given E numbers. Gum Arabic is approved as E414. Furthermore, liquid Gum Arabic solutions are popular watercolour mediums that improve pigment brilliance, glaze and gloss.

Gum Arabic as a natural product has been used by humans for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, it was called "Kami" and was used as a traditional medicine, a food, as well as an ink medium used in hieroglyphs. Thousands of years later and Gum Arabic is still being used for these applications and a lot more. With the rising popularity of vegan, gluten-free, clean-label and "free from" foods, coupled with increasing demand for sustainable and ethical sourcing, the demand for Gum Arabic can only go up.

Yet despite its ubiquity and the significant contribution of Gum Arabic to our food, medicines and even hobbies, it remains a largely unknown ingredient to many and receives a recognition that is far less than what it deserves.

Gum Arabic featured in the FAO WILDCHECK report that was commissioned to shed light on the most ubiquitous wild-harvest flagship plants, dubbed the "Wild Dozen", that feature in much of our daily lives but are often obscured from the customers. The report raises awareness of the origins of these plants and how they are prevalent in our everyday lives, yet most people are not aware of them.

Gum arabic acaica gum lumps nodules and kibbled
True Gems: Raw Gum Arabic lumps of different sizes.

How has Gum Arabic supply been affected?

Due to the crisis in Sudan and the resulting road blockages and widespread violence across Sudan, it has become near to impossible to transport acacia gum out of the rural areas where it is produced. Lines of communication have been cut off, too. The knock-on effect of this means that exportation of the product has temporarily come to a halt.

While stockpiles should keep manufacturers afloat for several months, supplies may run out if the conflict continues. So, food manufacturers in the UK, the US, and elsewhere could start seeing supply gaps or delays in the second half of the year. It also is likely that those who are able to get their hands on acacia gum may have to pay more for it due to decreased supplies of this trendy ingredient.

Some manufacturers, particularly in the cosmetic industry, may look to alternative – often pricier – ingredients if their supplies get drastically low. That could mean we the consumers start seeing everyday products getting more expensive.

At this point, it’s too early to tell how the war in Sudan will develop, and how long it’s likely to go on for.

What’s next for the Gum Arabic industry?

The current conflict in Sudan is not the only thing that’s threatened industries reliant on acacia gum in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic made exporting the product more difficult, and Sudan’s volatile political past has caused several blockages in the supply chain before. Some suppliers have learnt lessons from the COVID-19 experience and have already stored significantly higher amounts of Gum Arabic than in previous years, taking advantage of another desired feature of Gum Arabic, its very long shelf life. However, Gum Arabic demand has been rising at a much higher rate than anytime before and even stockpiled amounts will start diminishing.

With this in mind, could it be time to seek out alternative producers of Gum Arabic? Even though many other countries do produce it, doing so might be easier said than done. Even other countries in the African ‘gum belt’, like Chad, Nigeria, and Senegal, still have some way to go before they can even come close to producing the volume of acacia gum that Sudan does. What’s more, the gum produced in countries other than Sudan and Chad is considered to be of a lower quality, so it is less desirable to many manufacturers.

Gum Arabic does have superior natural functionality when it comes to acting as an emulsifying, stabilising or thickening agent, in addition to being regarded as a clean-label, nutritious and fibre enriching ingredient. Finding an alternative with such functional qualities will not be easy or quick.

Alternatives to Gum Arabic include Xanathan, Guar and Agar gums, as well as Locust Bean gum and Psyllium Husk. Although each of these has desired characteristics, no single alternative ticks the blend of properties and features that Gum Arabic exhibits such as solubility, viscosity, low calorific index, unflavoured, and the ability to enhance texture and mouthfeel. All whilst being naturally harvested and fully plant-based.

It’s also vital to consider the huge impact that Gum Arabic production has on Sudan’s economy. The gum is ‘tapped’ from acacia trees by seasonal workers who would otherwise have little to no income. Not only that, but the trees themselves contribute to soil fertility in once-barren areas, encouraging other crops to grow and, in turn, helping boost the country’s food supply. Acacia trees also play a vital role in thwarting desertification and in nitrogen fixation. This raises another question – would it be unethical for distributors to cut back on how much acacia gum they import from Sudan?

A mixture of gum arabic raw and powder acacia senegal
Gum arabic is used in different forms, from raw to powders of varying mesh size. Finding a similar substitute has been challenging for researchers.

The bottom line

The current conflict in Sudan poses a serious threat to the world’s Gum Arabic supply, and it’s not the first time something like this has made the exportation of this vital resource difficult. Acacia gum is one Sudan's most prized natural gifts however it's people remain to be its most invaluable treasure. The ultimate priority is to end the war and the ensuing loss of innocent human lives across the whole of Sudan.

As Sudan continues to produce top-quality acacia gum in such huge quantities and qualities, finding a long-term solution to the problem is not straightforward. This is mainly due to Gum Arabic possessing some superior functional properties required for food and drink applications. Previous attempts to find alternatives did not yield a substitute, which is not surprising when all the features of this versatile ingredient are weighed up.

Perhaps the answer could be that we the importers, suppliers and consumers of Gum Arabic should accept that fluctuation of supplies is just a feature of sourcing commodities from Africa. It is a challenge to doing business with this wealthy and generous continent, just as all other supply markets have their own challenges.

As one of the quotes attributed to Mo Ibrahim, arguably Africa's most prominent entrepreneur and philanthropist, says ‘There is another way of doing business. Yes, business is about profits, that is the first objective of business. But it also should be about people and about the planet.’

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