Sudan’s exports of gum arabic, a key ingredient used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food, have ground to a halt since a conflict between rival military factions erupted last month, raising fears of a global shortage.
The North African nation supplies about two-thirds of the world’s gum arabic, which is used as an emulsifier, adhesive or binding agent in everything from Kellogg Co.’s Pop-Tarts breakfast pastries to sodas manufactured by PepsiCo Inc. Stocks are either stuck in warehouses or at production sites, said Ibrahim Abubaker, chairman of Quality House, a company that exports the tree sap to Germany.
“More than 50,000 tons, which is around half of Sudan’s annual production, cannot be exported due to the war” between Sudan’s army and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group, he said.
Extracted from branches of acacia trees growing in Sudan’s savanna, which ranges across 12 of the country’s 18 states, gum arabic is a natural emulsifier, binding substances that don’t mix well. Starches, the most popular alternative, don’t retain flavors as well and their use can shorten a product’s shelf life.
Most of Sudan’s storage facilities are located in the capital, Khartoum, and the adjacent city of Omdurman, two focal points in the conflict. And gum arabic produced in Umrawaba in North Kordofan state and Damazine in Blue Nile state can’t be sent to Khartoum or Port Sudan on the Red Sea for export because transit routes traverse areas that have been plagued by continuing fighting.
About 1,000 people have died and thousands more have been injured since the conflict erupted on April 15, after months of rising tensions over how to merge the army and RSF into a single force. While the warring sides agreed to a seven-day truce starting Monday to allow for the distribution of aid and restoration of essential services, the situation remains highly unstable and it’s unclear whether the detente will hold.
Gum arabic exports cant resume “unless this cease-fire is implemented,” Abubaker said, adding that the industry was also hobbled because banks weren’t operating.
Awad Musa, secretary-general of Sudan’s shipping chamber, said gum-arabic storage facilities in the main export hub of Port Sudan were empty.
“International prices for gum arabic will increase accordingly,” he said. Sudan’s central bank is unable to facilitate export, while producers and traders were battling to communicate with buyers from abroad, he said.
Sudan sought to bolster production of the gum as part of an effort to develop alternative sources of revenue after South Sudan seceded 12 years ago, taking with it three-quarters of the former united country’s oil reserves. Gum arabic’s importance to Western markets led the US to exempt it from a trade embargo first imposed on Sudan in 1997 because of the North African country’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
The Hamburg-based Association for International Promotion of Gums last month said it didn’t consider the supply of gum arabic to be at immediate risk as companies tend to keep sufficient stocks and producers in Chad and Nigeria could help fill supply gaps.