Acacia SAP: riches that grow on trees

Gum Arabic, a natural commodity made from the sap of acacia trees, has a wide variety of uses.  Hisham Yagoub (HY), Managing Director of the Salih Yagoub Group, tells us how its mother company, Afritec, became the country’s leading exporter of this traditional Sudanese product




LE: Can you give us an overview of the activities of Afritec, how it got started and where you see it headed in the future?

HY: Afritec Gum Arabic is a partnership with a French company called Nexira. We started the business in 2001-2002 with a small company called Natural Products of Africa (NPA) and a factory that could produce about 4,000-5,000 tonnes of gum Arabic per year. In 2003, we decided to increase capacity, so we set up the Afritec Ingredients Factory for gum Arabic products, with a bigger factory in Soba.
This plant had a new machine that could produce 17,000-18,000 tonnes per year. In 2008, we exported 16,000-17,000 tonnes. Today, the average annual export is between 12,000-14,000 tonnes. We deal with many farmers, companies and agents in Darfur and we have a warehouse in Buram (South Darfur). We also have a warehouse in Daein and cleaning centres in Omdurman, Umm Rawaba and El Obied. We have a collection point in Damazin. So, the entire amount collected in Darfur is sent for cleaning and drying. You have to collect the gum Arabic from the trees, dry it in the right way, clean it at the collection centres or warehouses and then send it to the factory in Soba Khartoum for processing.
The season starts in October or early November; production comes in mid-December and continues until the rainy season in May. The main area of the gum Arabic belt is in Kordofan, where the producers work from December until May. From May onwards, they start raising sheep, because water and grass are available during the rainy season. At the end of October, they sell the animals and use the money for peanut farming, which runs from October to December. After that, they start collecting gum Arabic again. So each year, one producer does three cycles in three different sectors.

LE: There is an increasing international demand for gum Arabic. How is the company looking to expand production?

HY: Whatever profit we have, we use it to build warehouses. The most important thing with gum Arabic is the storage; if you don’t store it correctly, you will lose the gum. So, we invest in warehouses everywhere.
We established another joint venture in 2011 with a French company, Nutriset. This new joint venture is called the Samil Industrial Company and it specialises in manufacturing ready-to-use therapeutic food for children who suffer from severe malnutrition, both in Sudan and in neighbouring countries such as Syria, Turkey, Yemen, Pakistan, Uganda and Chad. The business is going very well. At first, the French company was afraid to come to Sudan, but I convinced them to come and made the partnership and the investment easier for them.
Then I convinced them to make a bigger investment in Darfur. We created a second company called Darfood — ‘dar’ means house, so ‘house of food’. This company will produce high-quality shelled peanuts free of aflatoxin (a cancerous toxin produced by certain moulds and found in peanuts, cassava and other agricultural products) as an ingredient for many industries such as edible oils, animal feed and others. The project is being implemented now and will start production this year. The business consists of sorting handpicked, selected peanuts and then roasting them. We export those roasted peanuts to France and the rest of the production is crushed, to be turned into oil.
At Darfood, we’re also working on another project that will be ready next year. We want to improve peanut agriculture in Darfur, and we’re going to use peanuts shells as a green energy (biomass) source. We have ordered a feasibility study and we’ll receive it by next month. Hopefully, within the next five years, we’ll have a crusher to produce peanut oil and distribute it to the neighbouring countries.

LE: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

HY: We have a meat-processing factory called Al-Nakheel. The factory, which is in Khartoum, is 37,000m2. The Yagoub Group had the first meat-processing factory in the country. The brand is very famous, called Looli. Now, it is establishing the largest factory for meat processing. Again, the material, which is the cattle, will be sourced from Darfur which has so many resources. And once again, we are trying to get a partner from Europe because of our experience with the existing partners, and in order to get the latest know-how. Our target markets will be the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt), Africa and Europe.
The livestock must come from Darfur and it takes two to three months for them to walk to Khartoum. The animals get fattened along the way, but then most of them can’t be exported, because they don’t meet international standards. I’m planning to order another feasibility study for this project from a European company, because I want investors from Europe. So I’m looking for a company that can do a feasibility study for feedlots and for raising the cattle and setting up a slaughterhouse in Daein. This slaughterhouse will have high European hygiene standards, and we’ll export directly by plane from Darfur to Doha, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, and maybe to Europe. We might start it next year; it takes three to six months to do a feasibility study, and then we’ll be ready to find an investor for this project, which is going to need $15 to $18 million (US).
The World Bank is very interested in this project, as is the United Nations Development Programme. All these people want to invest in Darfur, but they need assets here, and now we are going to have the assets, because they need the peanuts. So they pre-financed all the farmers. We will collect the peanuts from the farmers and give them money. So, the money will be circulating. Hopefully, we’ll be able to export to Europe and to China. Some of the production will be organic, although not the entire amount.

LE: What makes you most proud to be Sudanese?

HY: I’m really proud to be Sudanese, I’m really proud to be African and I’m really proud to be a Muslim. I like our Arabic language. I like the social life of Sudan; you will never find anything like it anywhere else.
I studied and lived in the US, in England, and also in Europe. But life in Sudan is so different; it’s perfect, very social. We don’t have many clubs or discos, but our social life is better. It’s a safe country.
In Sudan, there are so many natural resources. In addition to gum Arabic, we have water, virgin lands and animal resources. We also have fisheries and industry, and educated people. We can only wish that the country grows steadily, because it used to be number one in Africa and we hope to get it back on track.