Gums and resins giving Samburu, Rendille women a new lease of life

Rendille women sort gums collected from acacia trees at Ndigir Village in Laisamis, Marsabit County. 

Photo credit: Nicholas Komu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Women’s role in nomadic communities including e Samburu and Rendille would traditionally be reduced to raising children, a handful of goats and getting a daily meal.
  • Bidii Women’s Group is spearheading not just a switch to alternative sources of livelihood, but also mind-sets, and the  international community is  beginning to notice their potential and strength.

On the foothills of Ndikir Mountains in Laisamis, Marsabit County, societal and gender roles are being redefined.

For a society considered predominantly patriarchal, women in the Samburu and Rendille communities in Laisamis, Marsabit County were not allowed to hold any influential roles.

This meant matters that affected their livelihoods were left to men. Traditionally, culture and the men at the hierarchical helm led their communities on the path of nomadic pastoralism as a way of life.

Women took a back seat, leaving crucial decisions to the men, some which have been rendered either illegal or obsolete by modernisation.

Today, women in the rural and quiet villages of Ndikir and Lontolio hold the key to the posterity of their people and possibly Kenya’s next big entry into global trade.

A key practice among the Samburu and Rendille people that is fast losing viability is nomadic pastoralism. In nomadism, women would be left behind in manyattas as the men went hunting for the next home near water and pasture sources.

Women’s role would traditionally be reduced to raising children, a handful of goats and getting a daily meal.

“Women were not allowed to make decisions on land matters and whenever we try to do so, some feel we are stealing their land from them,” Rose Lepasele, a resident of Ndikir says.

Ms Lepasele is the chairperson of Bidii Women’s Group, which is spearheading not just a switch to alternative sources of livelihood, but also mind-sets. With the support of Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (Imara), a consortium under World Vision, women here are converting an arid wasteland into a goldmine.

The group has adopted apiculture and farming of gums and resins. It all begins with environmental restoration and conservation. Geographically, Laisamis is an arid land incapable of naturally supporting much vegetation except acacia trees and shrubs.

A woman samples gums collected from acacia trees at Ndigir Village in Laisamis, Marsabit County. 

Photo credit: Nicholas Komu | Nation Media Group

However, the women have adopted a regeneration technique, Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) that helps the trees thrive optimally.

The technique entails caring for and regrowth of existing trees. Select trees are identified and competition around them reduced by pruning excessive branches. Weak trees are supported to ensure straight and steady growth.

This reduces competition for water and nutrients for the selected shoot, giving it optimal conditions to grow into a healthy tree.

To the untrained eye, the acacia tree is useless, but to the people of Laisamis, it holds the pathway out of poverty.

“We did not know we were sitting on treasure until Imara came in and trained us on the benefits of the acacia trees,” Ms Lepasele says.

Over the last three years, Bidii Women’s Group has managed to grow a forest of acacia trees, the lifeline of their newly found business ventures.

Apiculture is one of the major projects they have adopted, setting up hives around manyattas in the area. The flowers from the acacia trees provide nectar for the bees, while the women keep a constant supply of water to keep bee colonies in the area.

Since the inception of the bee keeping project, the group has harvested more than a tonne of honey. A kilogram of the honey retails at Sh800. It also serves as an alternative food source for the communities.

While the honey business is financially appealing, it is the gums and resins venture that sweetens the deal. Trade in gums and resins is a multi-billion dollar venture with potential to not only uplift these communities, but also introduce Kenya to the next big step in global trade. They are in high demand among global firms that manufacture soft drinks, paints and cosmetics.

Samples of gums and resins products at the African Agency for Arid Resources (AGAR) offices in Isiolo. 

Photo credit: Nicholas Komu | Nation Media Group

They are also an important component in the making of pharmaceutical drugs.

The products of immense value both in the international and local markets, are fetching more money for locals than major export products such as tea and coffee. These products are basically dried sap from the acacia trees and are usually collected by making small cuts on the trees.

Even though women initially took the frontline in this venture, the men have also joined in owing to its lucrative appeal.

Still, women play the key role of collecting and sorting them into marketable qualities.

In Lontolio village, Meyagari Women’s Group has also adopted cultivation of pasture alongside acacia trees.

Using the shade of the trees to their advantage, they plant grass on the forest floors to be fed to livestock during dry seasons.

“When the pasture runs out in the grazing fields, we have some in storage, which we feed to our animals and sell others to locals,” Nturupwa Lemowanapi, the group’s chairlady says.

A bale of the grass can go for up to Sh400 each, on dry days.

Over the last three years, these projects have transformed the arid area and the men in these traditionally patriarchal communities are beginning to notice.

“At first our men did not support the ideas but now they are even asking to join us. Our lives are changing because we are much more stable now,” Ms Lepasele says.

Moreover, the communities are beginning to adopt a more stable way of life.

“Communities that were quite nomadic are settling more. That means children are more settled and can access healthcare, food and education because their families are not constantly on the move,” World Vision Kenya National Director Lillian Dodzo says.

The international community is also beginning to notice the potential and strength of the women here.

The Swedish government, which funded the training of the projects has pledged future support for the women owing to the already evident potential.