Looking for sweet life in aloe bitterness

Mrs.Veronica Ekuam was just another woman in Kalemngorok division of Turkana district, north-western Kenya struggling with whatever meagre earnings she could get, to cater for her family. At one point, she tried harvesting sap from the aloe plant walking deep in the dangerous terrain to make a decent harvest. She knew what she was doing was illegal and at the end of the day she would then sell the hard toiled sap for a throw away price, to the first middle man she would meet.

Then Practical Action, an international development agency working with poor communities to help them choose and use technology to improve their lives today and for generations to come came knocking. Practical Action which has been working with the people of Turkana on different development aspects saw a gaping hole between the gold mine that is aloe in Turkana and those who are meant to benefit from it 5o per cent of Turkana”s depend on relief food.

Turkana though is more than just relief food-it is well endowed with commercial aloe, aloe turkanensis and aloe secundiflora, which have been found to have compounds similar to those in aloe vera, and have comparable leaf sizes making them good candidates for commercial exploitation. Currently, this succulent is highly prized for medicinal and dietary properties, and is harvested extensively from the wild for its medicinal properties and for export.Practical Action seeing that the community can indeed find sweet life in the aloe bitterness embarked on an ambitious project, putting communities together in groups to make use of the plant and elevate their life status.

Veronica is in the Kalemngorok Women Group. The group has more than 200 members who converge in a temporary makeshift structure in the heart of the centre every day and in an intricately detailed procedure make soaps, shampoo and lotions.

Though currently the aloe products are only sold around Turkana district, Practical Action, the technical sponsors of the project through funding from CORDAID, a Dutch NGO plans to make the sale regional extending to neighbouring countries including Southern Sudan and Uganda.

There are two processing centres: Kalemngorok and Namoruputh. Many pastoralists seeing the benefits of aloe products are dropping their hardline stand of entirely relying on animals in a largely unpredictable land, one that has seen its share of catastrophic phenomenas standing out like a sore thumb-drought and conflict over cattle. Currently, there are 320 members in Kalemngorok, 572 in Namoruputh and 480 members in Komera. Aloe trade is becoming more profitable than livestock here. Each community each has planted the plant in 10 acre pieces of land. There are 21 such farms in Turkana district.

Practical Action did not just step in to help reduce poverty in the Turkana aloe community, they also came in to legalise what has essentially always been carried out back door denying communities the share of this resource. For many years, it has been the scandal of black diamond perpetuated by the mighty.

In Kenya, about 59 types of aloe species have been identified, 26 of which are endemic species. Trade in Kenyan aloe begun in the early 50″s at the Coastal region, spreading to Taita, Samburu, Baringo, Laikipia, Turkana and West Pokot districts. For many years, the aloe plant has been growing in the wild and did not benefit much the local communities who were always underpaid after harvesting palms and processing the bitters.

In 1986, there was a presidential decree banning exploitation of aloe; the decree only drove the trade underground, basically hindering investment in commercial processing, at a time when the global demand for aloe products continued to rise. Following the danger of over exploitation, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) imposed restriction on Kenyan aloe.The listing of Kenyan aloe species under CITES Convention Schedule II meant to protect potential endangered species. Kenya had only a number of options, to domesticate international treaties for national interest. A Kenya Aloe Working Group was launched in 2004 to guide in the formalisation of aloe production as well as facilitating sustainable harvesting and processing for commercialisation.

At present, Kenya appears to be the main source of aloe extracts traded internationally from the East African region. Its products: sap, bitters and crystalline jelly for many years have been exported mainly to Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, France, Singapore, Thailand and Italy. The Kenya Wildlife Service, main custodian of CITES, encourages partnerships and community based ventures in conducting an inventory of the plant and establishing the necessary structures to enable its commercialisation in poverty alleviation.

In 2005, Practical Action and its partners Kenya Gatsby Trust and Traidcraft Exchange through a pilot project on Fairer Terms of Trade in Herbal Products carried out an inventory for commercial aloes in Kacheliba, West Pokot district, which informed the implementation of the Regional Integrated Pastoralists Programme funded by CORDAID in Turkana district.

Now, people like Veronica and her group of friends who joined hands two years ago can go smiling all the way into their pockets. At the end of the day, not only is she tired from a long, tedious but worthwhile activity-she will also almost always be certain of having something in her pocket, something that can feed her children, take care of home expenses-take care of herself, generally, make life a little bit better than it was before-making life a little more bearable.

(SOURCE: AFRICA NEWS, 27th April 2007)


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