By the 1980s, the Sudan had become the world's exclusive gum-acacia supplier, offering the only world-class quality product, the infrastructure, experienced producers, and stable system of gum cultivation and processing.
Market stability, however, was torn apart as the Sudan fell into a civil war — a conflict that over the past 20 years has cost up to two million lives and displaced millions more.
So, in the early 1990s, TIC Gums began a search for alternatives. It took company representatives to Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Niger, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and Chad — where they methodically mapped growing regions and obtained gum acacia samples for processing and evaluation. The focus eventually zeroed in on Chad, a landlocked country three times the size of California, rumoured to have large concentrations of untapped acacia trees.
This past summer, the Belcamp, Maryland, firm cemented its membership in the National Chadian Association of Gum Arabic Exporters with the gift of two wells, and the promise of more to come (gum acacia is known as gum arabic in Africa).
Before the wells were dug, a process that took almost two years to complete, the collective of 35 villages that make up the association had to walk nearly 10 miles to the nearest water source. Completion of the wells was cause for celebration, for Chadians look at water as the world's most precious commodity.
For TIC Gums, the ceremony formally marked the end of a Sudanese monopoly over gum acacia production. Chad not only proved a reliable source of quality gum acacia, its rural population provided the growers and harvesters TIC Gums could depend on in terms of future development. Meanwhile, the people in those 35 villages who make up the National Chadian Association of Gum Arabic Exporters are enjoying a better quality of life, with a place to work and earn a living, a place to live in peace, a place that is blessed with two wells, and a plentiful supply of water.
Chad is one of the poorest nations in the world for export earnings. Today gum acacia is a cash crop that has grown from 3,000 metric tonnes in 1993/94, to an estimated 17,000 metric tonnes in 2001, and a potential of 100,000 metric tonnes.
"The process of finding and nurturing new suppliers of gum acacia has been long and arduous, and at the same time most gratifying," says TIC Gums' vice president of science and Technology Scott Riefler.