Sudan’s Acacia Senegal trees are the source of around 70% of the world’s supply of gum arabic, a key ingredient in everything from fizzy drinks and sweets to cosmetics and pharmaceutical products for which there are few substitutes.
The golden beads of sap from the tree branches are processed to then act as emulsifiers and stabilizers in fizzy drinks. Without it, all the sugar in sodas would fall to the bottom of the bottle and crystalize. Gum arabic, or gum acacia, is also used in baked goods, plant-based foods, health supplements, printing inks and more.
Since Sudan’s civil war erupted across the country in mid-April, the supply of the sought-after product has been threatened. And although there are gum arabic replacements to be found for products like cosmetics and printing inks, there is no alternative for fizzy drinks.
"Most of the gum manufacturers and distributors in Europe and other countries, including Morouj UK, have stock of gum acacia that will last for a few months," Osama Idris, a general manager at Marouj Commodities, a gum arabic supplier based in the UK, told Al-Monitor. “The concern is if this war continues, the supply chain of gum acacia will be severely affected.”
Acacia senegal (cadaad) is small tree with sharp curved thorns. It's used to treat many medical conditions. Somali herders associate the edible gum with higher libido. After all, it didn't start with Vega. pic.twitter.com/XeliY3QFbJ
— Nur Absame ELG (@AbsameNur) May 21, 2022
“The good news is that Port Sudan is open, but the concern is how to bring the gum to the port, as most of gum acacia factories — where the gum is cleaned, sorted, kibbled, or granulated and packed — are in Khartoum,” he added. “Currently, none of these factories are operating due to the fighting and the risk for their laborers’ lives.”
Dani Haddad, marketing and development director at another supplier, Agrigum, said that the company’s Sudan-based partners are reporting no electricity, a shortage of water and a paucity of some essential foods such as wheat flour and other staples.
Many people have also evacuated Khartoum and the country to neighboring countries for their own safety.
“This has caused knock-on effects, which means there is no processing of gum arabic as there is no one to process it or even the electricity to run the machines,” Haddad said. “To export gum, it needs to be processed from lump form to kibbled, i.e., hammered into smaller pieces, then bagged and containerized for shipping from Port Sudan.”
He continued, “So far, this situation has created a shock to the supply chain, and all companies involved in gum arabic are hoping that there is a swift resolution to the conflict so that the country can get back to some form of normal and people are fed and able to work and look after their families.”
Haddad added that Agrigum is in constant communication with its partners in the region and is assessing the current situation.
🌳 Gum Arabic is a crucial stabilizer in the production of carbonated beverages, derived from the hardened sap of two species of the Acacia tree. It enables the addition of carbon dioxide to soft drinks, providing the characteristic fizz and refreshing taste. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/EpPy6nqJw3
— Foodchem International Corporation (@Foodchemcn) May 12, 2023
With no timeframe for a resolution to the conflict, it is increasingly hard for Agrigum to make plans to source the product, Haddad said.
Asked if there is a risk that stockpiles may run out in a few months due to the fighting in Sudan, he said, “This is a hard question to answer as we do not have views on what stockpiles are held and by whom."
“Agrigum is working closely with all our customers to keep their businesses supplied with gum arabic, and we will continually support them throughout this supply shock created by the conflict,” he added.
Idris is also concerned that some of the gum arabic farmers, including tappers and collectors, who lived in the gum belt area of West Sudan fled the area to neighboring countries such as Chad.
“If the fighting continues beyond October when the acacia trees need tapping to exude the gum, the yield of the next gum crop will be negatively impacted,” he said.
The Coca-Cola Company and Pepsico did not respond to requests for comment asking about their gum arabic stocks. Citing industry sources, Reuters reported in April that some beverage companies keep between three and six months' worth of stock to avoid running out.
Gum arabic pickers in Sudan had already faced challenges before the violence erupted in mid-April, with warmer weather due to climate change causing water scarcity in areas dense with acacia trees. Now, with the country in the throes of a brutal civil war, being able to tap the trees to find the golden sap has become even harder.