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August 05, 2008

Kenyan aloe vera industry to receive government support

The Kenyan government’s recent launch of a scheme to conserve and manage aloe vera as a commercial enterprise marks official commitment to the quest to gain a foothold on the $65 million global medicine and cosmetics industry.

Earlier attempts at bridging the policy gap in order to kick-start commercial planting of the dry land crop, most memorably the 1986 decree banning harvesting of the plant from the wild issued by former president Daniel Moi, fell by the wayside in the absence of official follow up mechanisms.

“Given the importance of this species and the fact that it is widely spread in most parts of Africa, there is urgent need for countries to cooperate in conserving, managing and sustainably utilising the crop, and in enhancing its value chain,” Forestry and Wildlife minister Noah Wekesa said during the strategy launch at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) headquarters in Nairobi.

It is estimated that the global trade in aloe vera raw material and derived products is worth about $110 million. The Agriculture ministry has already prioritised aloe vera as one of the emerging crops in the country.

The crop, which grows wild and is also commercially cultivated for its gel, has gained popularity with the USA being the major producer, followed by Venezuela and Mexico. In Kenya, large plantations of aloe vera are quickly emerging in highland areas of the country.

However, Africa is well endowed with a wide range of indigenous aloe vera species, among them scabrifolia, secundiflora, cadilophila, rivae, and turkanensis, which produce sap that is processed into gum and traded as bitter gum for use in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry.

On the international market, South Africa is the largest source of the bitter gum, followed by Kenya. Due to lack of an official policy framework, say experts, the trade in the crop has been vaguely regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an instrument that has failed to stop smuggling of the commodity at low prices.

While international prices have been ranging between $5 and $8 per kilogramme of gum, Kenya’s aloe vera is smuggled out of the country (often by middlemen) at $2 a kilo for farmers.

The newly published Aloe Utilisation Guidelines and Strategy seeks to remove middlemen from the crop’s distribution chain altogether and provide opportunities for better market access to both producers and processors.

“I am informed that some countries are interested in buying our aloe gum, but I urge them to link up with local communities through established government structures in order to access the product at sustainable quantities and fair prices,” said Dr Wekesa. The new strategy also seeks to brand Kenyan aloe vera gum to compete in both the regional and international markets, as well as develop a business plan for sustainable exploitation of the crop.

It will also push for the domestication of regional and international agreements, treaties and conventions in respect to the crop’s utilisation, improvement of stakeholders’ capacity through education and awareness campaigns, and facilitate transfer of appropriate technologies to traders and farmers.

To implement this strategy, KWS projects that an initial budget of Sh180 million will be required in the first five years to help operationalise the Aloe Species Regulations Act, 2007. The money will also be used for product development, training and research as well as monitoring and evaluation of aloe vera projects.

At the moment, the only aloe vera processing facility that the country has is the four million shillings Baringo Bio Enterprise Factory, constructed in 2004 by money advanced to Kenya by the European Union.

However, as matters stand now, the government has its duty well cut out if it has to persuade more people to begin planting aloe vera on a commercial scale. Among immediate tasks is to ensure that farmers get good returns on their investments.

For instance, the Baringo factory is yet to make any significant impact on the way farmers look at the crop as it only pays Sh35 (US 50 cents) per kilo of aloe gum, only Sh15 more that what middlemen used to offer before the plant was constructed. Farmers have been calling for the factory’s privatisation to make management responsive to market dynamics and their needs.

Kavaka Watai Mukonyi, a KWS researcher, said that Uganda and Kenya have high potential for producing aloe sap which, if fully exploited, could see the two countries dominate world markets.

But unlike Kenya, which has taken too long to draft a national policy on commercial exploitation of the crop, Uganda had long recognised the role that the dry land crop can play in transforming lives in marginal areas such as Karamoja. The county’s aloe farming project is now run from President Yoweri Museveni’s office.

“Besides its role in diversifying marginal areas’ economy beyond livestock, this crop could be the lasting solution for the incessant conflict among pastoralists living along the Kenya/Uganda border,” added Mr Kavaka.

The fact that Kenya is looking westwards to the landlocked country for a role model for its infant aloe vera commercial farming became apparent in July when it turned out that among the distinguished guests invited to attend the launch of the scheme was Mr Aston Kajara, Uganda’s Minister of State under whose docket aloe commercial farming lies. Uganda has since set up a Sh30 million aloe vera processing plant.

In an interview with Business Daily Aloe Growers Association chairman Sospeter Njenga, who is also the technical director of Herbal Garden — an aloe products manufacturer — said the new strategy was a good reflection of what farmers have been yearning for. “The fact that the government now recognises aloe as an emerging crop means the Agriculture ministry will now provide us with quality seeds and knowledgeable field extension officers who we lack at the moment,” he said.

The association is optimistic that the government will now fight unauthorised imports of aloe products that have, over the years, tilted competition against local manufacturers. The association, Mr Njenga added, expected the government to cut duty on importation of aloe vera juice extraction equipment.

It costs manufacturers around Sh20 million to bring such equipment into the country. Besides KWS, other government agencies such as the National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), Kenya Forestry Service and Kenya Revenue Authority have well defined roles to play in promoting the commercial exploitation of aloe vera.

“We hope that by including Kebs in the strategy, the government will significantly cut down on red tape that has been the hallmark of trade in aloe products,” Mr Njenga said, adding that a local aloe products manufacturer had to wait for long, after paying the Sh20,000 fee to Kebs, before getting the mark that allowed him to sell in the local market.

A recent aloe vera resource mapping exercise indicated that commercial farming has already taken root in 19 districts in the Rift Valley, Eastern, North Eastern and Coast provinces. Farmers in Western and Nyanza provinces, where the plant grows naturally, are yet to try their hand at commercial exploitation of the crop.

Business Daily Africa

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