Sudan: Halima Lazem, a passionaria to save gum arabic

When we meet her, in mid-January, Halima Lazem has just lost her sister

Sudan: Halima Lazem, a passionaria to save gum arabic

When we meet her, in mid-January, Halima Lazem has just lost her sister. A neighbor walks into her cream carpeted living room to offer her condolences. But, as soon as she remembers the first hours of her association, the face of the forties lights up again. The idea germinated in front of cups of spiced coffee shared between gum arabic producers. Once processed, this sap exudate is essential for many food, cosmetics and even pharmaceutical industries. Sudan provides 70% of world production, while France is the leading importer of raw materials. "We decided to create a 'box' system to help each other as Ramadan approached," recalls Halima Lazem, offering, on a braided rope tray, these famous diamonds to which gum arabic dries. . The inhabitants of his region, Kordofan, in the south-west of the country, have the habit of chewing this relatively tasteless substance but with recognized probiotic properties.

The women farmers' project led by Halima Lazem thus began with a few Sudanese pounds pooled in order to group their purchases of oil, onions, dates and other dishes traditionally consumed to break the fast of the holy month of Islam. Gradually, the ranks grew to include 180 producers working around the village of Tallib, in the state of West Kordofan. While a second branch, formed more recently, has 80 additional gum arabic pickers working in neighboring hamlets. The objective is to help each other among professionals, while contributing to the rehabilitation of the gum arabic belt.

This immense forest covers 520,000 km² in Sudan. It also crosses the entire continent from west to east, from Western Sahara to Somalia. However, this natural barrier against the desert is proving to be threatened both by climate change and human activities, in particular the felling of trees to obtain charcoal, which is highly prized in Sudanese kitchens. "These trees, the acacias of Senegal, constitute a shield to prevent desertification and fires", summarizes Halima Lazem, in her toub, this long cloth in which the Sudanese wrap their bodies and cover their hair. Twice since its official registration in 2009, the association has organized distributions of gas cylinders. Unfortunately, the common kitty is not enough to sustain the use of this alternative to the ravages of charcoal. Therefore, the favorite vector of producers remains awareness.

Halima Lazem's collective has established itself as one of the pillars of the national plan launched in the 1980s to restore the belt. "We organize courses to learn how to plant the trees and protect them until they produce gum arabic," says the president, who works in concert with the National Forestry Company. Since 2021, this government body has been responsible for implementing a project initiated by the French Development Agency with European funds. "We have planted millions of trees and we are continuing! insists Halima Lazem.

The choice to remain among women was imposed to resist the deeply rooted patriarchy in this society whose law is still based on Sharia, despite the official end of the military-Islamist dictatorship in 2019. "We wanted to make our own decisions" , describes the founder. Like her, most of the members are widowed, or divorced or from very modest backgrounds. Each must nevertheless have its own plot to join the association.

Her teammates from the start, and especially the new recruits, benefit from the expertise of Halima Lazem. For good reason, she was barely 10 years old when she first harvested. The schoolgirl, educated until her fourteenth birthday, then helped her parents who both lived from this seasonal culture, stretching between November and June. Since that time, the situation has hardly changed for producers, who receive less than 10% of the price of the final powder used by manufacturers. "It's a tragedy", comments the producer of Kordofan in reference to the "shell system" which remains predominant. And which allows intermediaries to set a price at the start of the season, without taking into account the increase in this value which has sometimes more than doubled seven months later.

The women's spokesperson does not lose hope, however. Since 2017, some exporters have agreed to sign contracts directly with producer associations. This evolution makes it possible in particular to adapt the purchase price to that of the market. It therefore represents a decisive step towards ending the abuse of power that keeps the first level of the sector in extreme precariousness. Most gum producers currently have no access to running water or electricity. Very few can treat themselves or send their children to school. Discouraged, many end up turning to charcoal sellers or rushing to the gold mines.

While waiting for an exporter to agree to sign with them, Halima Lazem and her colleagues continue to activate the levers within their reach. To increase their income, they regularly contract loans from banks, which are increasingly receptive as the earnings generated by their "box" swell. In parallel with the collection of rubber, they resell expensive goods such as televisions and household appliances. The women then reinvest these sums to diversify their economic model by planting peanuts and raising sheep. This progress aims, finally, to attract the youngest generations often tempted by the exodus towards the cities, concludes Halima Lazem. His five children have already joined the family business.