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Building community resilience with gum arabic in Sana Karaw village, North Darfur

A truck loaded with groundnuts leaving Sana Karaw village (©FAO/Koen Joosten)

Sana Karaw is a village of just over 30,000 people, located in the Kalimindo locality and approximately 3 hours’ drive from North Darfur’s capital of El Fasher, on rough and sandy roads that are challenging even with a 4x4. The area is remote and the climate harsh, and the community relies on a single rainy season for crop and livestock production. Infrastructure is almost non-existent, with the mobile phone network patchy at best, and there is no access to the national electricity grid, nor running water. During the hot months, temperatures easily surpass 40 degrees, and a good rainy season is never a guarantee. Next to livestock and agriculture, gum Arabic is a key source of income for the Sana Karaw community. Since it is tapped and harvested between November and March – which is the off-season – it does not compete with other livelihood activities, in particular production of cash crops such as groundnuts, sesame, and the ever-important staple food crops sorghum and millet.

The Umda of Sana Karaw, who has been actively supporting the FNS-REPRO programme from the start (Photo ©FAO/Koen Joosten)

FNS-REPRO’s engagement in Sana Karaw started in 2020, when it was incorporated in the programme as it has a high gum Arabic production potential, and there are clear needs for livelihood and agricultural development, with a community eager to engage. As of November 2022, it is still the only longer-term development programme active in North Darfur in this field, a feature that has not gone unnoticed in the village. The community, led by their native administration leader (Mr Ibrahim Banaga, the “Umda”) has enthusiastically taken on the objectives of the programme. Over time, the number of beneficiary households targeted by FAO has increased gradually: from 400 in the first year, 600 in the second, while in 2022 the programme has reached 1050 beneficiaries including youth and women. This support has consisted of a range of tools & inputs (including improved seeds and hashab seedlings), rehabilitation of the village water yard, establishment of community structures including NRM committees and women associations, provision of extension services, opening of fire lines and particularly training and capacity building.

Over the last three years, communities have been trained on: Gum arabic production, harvesting and marketing; Agroforestry practices, so that they can combine gum arabic production with cash crops; Natural resource management; Conflict mitigation and resolution, including dialogues between youth, women and traditional leaders and elders; and Improved cookstove production

With FNS-REPRO active for three years, the impact and benefit to the Sana Karaw community are becoming visible. With the availability of improved seeds and the adoption of good cultivation practices, groundnut and sesame production has increased by approximately 80% and 75% respectively in 2021 compared to 2020. In November 2022, truckloads of groundnuts could be seen leaving the village daily. Such groundnut seeds - but also sorghum, sesame and millet seeds – were not available in Sana Karaw before 2021, according to the Umda. And since farmers keep some of the harvests as seed for the following year, only a one-time distribution per beneficiary is required.

Sabah Mohmoud Hamdan, FNS-REPRO beneficiary in Sana Karaw, shows part of the sorghum harvest she is keeping as seeds for 2023 (©FAO/Koen Joosten)

Through the use of backyard gardens (or “jubraka” in Arabic), supported by FNS-REPRO through the village’s women association, women are now producing a range of vegetables, pulses, grains, and have started growing fruit trees like guava and lemon. Although still at a small scale, this has improved the nutritional status of targeted families (and to a smaller extent some beneficiaries). However, the number of women – selected based on their interest in agriculture, low-income levels, but with access to a small piece of land – will grow in number as the programme progresses, as they are becoming “nutrition champions” for the rest of the community.

Outside the village, the Hashab forest is now being protected and growing with the support of FNS-REPRO. Seedlings provided by the programme planted in 2020 are now half a metre tall, and will already be partially tapped in 2023. The hashab seedlings are so resilient that when planted at the start of the rainy season, they will not need any irrigation after. Five years after planting they will be in full production, contributing to much-needed income for the village of Sana Karaw, while protecting the soil, sequestering carbon, and helping to reverse desertification happening in many parts of Darfur. However, challenges remain that need to be addressed to contribute to an improved gum Arabic sector in Darfur. Although the production of gum arabic is on the rise, the price for which producers in villages like Sana Karaw can sell their products remains low.

The lack of infrastructure and roads, lack of modern means of transport, poor access to markets, and the strong position of middlemen and local traders drive prices down significantly. In addition, a lack of access to water in the Hashab forests means that tapping and collecting of gum Arabic is difficult. Lastly, a lack of pre-finance for production and relatively limited other income opportunities means that people often have to sell their produce at the start of the season – when prices are the lowest – or cannot even engage in gum Arabic production at all.

Important lessons can be learned in Sana Karaw:

One of the seedlings provided by FNS-REPRO in 2020, now almost ready for partial tapping (©FAO/Koen Joosten)

It is extremely difficult to implement a large-scale resilience and livelihood programme in North Darfur, due to the remoteness of the area, characterized by a lack of facilities and infrastructure combined with a harsh climate. For any programme in this environment to be successful, it needs local on-the-ground support and mentoring of beneficiaries can make or break an intervention: without close collaboration with FNC, the State Ministry of Agriculture, and other local actors including knowledge institutions – in turn, supported and capacitated by FAO – it is almost impossible to implement a project in North Darfur. Localization is key in FNS-REPRO!

Community engagement, consultation, sensitization and capacity building are key – without an engaged and ambitious community supported by local government (including native administration), FNS-REPRO would not be delivering the results that are becoming visible now.

Gum Arabic post-harvesting, processing and marketing is key to improve prices – production is happening at a large scale, but the lack of proper post-harvesting, local processing and marketing (including access to the right markets/auctions) is essential to the further development of the gum arabic sector – and to make it a sector that provides decent incomes and opportunities for the people of North Darfur.