Paraded as a leading herbal medicine with a large global trade, the aloe vera plant is now being grown by 1000 Kenyan farmers, and locally produced juices and cosmetics are being sold nation-wide at a fraction of the price of international competitor products.
Aloe vera has long been used as a traditional herbal medicine for conditions such as heartburn and irritable bowel. The few clinical studies into its properties have often been inconclusive and contradictory, but research suggests it is useful in the treatment of diabetes, elevated cholesterol, external burns and wounds.
And cosmetic and alternative medicine producers have long marketed it for its soothing healing properties and moisturising benefits, with a large amount of testimonial evidence in agreement.
The resulting $120m global trade in aloe vera includes end products such as juices, lotions, gels, yoghurts, desserts, make-up, tissues, soaps, sunscreens, moisturisers, incense and shampoos.
An aloe vera plant
Kenya has been cited as an ideal country to grow aloe vera, which is currently produced primarily in the USA, Venezuela and Mexico in arid and semi-arid regions. However, Kenya’s blossoming aloe vera industry is still in its infancy, after years under a 1986 medical export ban imposed by former President Daniel Arap Moi.
The reasons for producing the plant are plentiful, says Peter Otieno, the General Manager of Kenyan aloe vera supplier, Herbal Garden Limited. Aloe vera juice can augment immune system defence for HIV sufferers, he claims, as well as help those with liver and blood conditions, and skin conditions such as eczema.
The billing of aloe vera as a wonder-cure has certainly fuelled interest in the industry.
Mr Otieno estimates there are now over 1,000 aloe vera farmers in Kenya, scattered across 19 districts in the Rift Valley, Eastern, North Eastern and Coast provinces.
Yet, progress has been slow. Most of the aloe vera products on sale in Kenya come from imports, mainly South African and Brazilian products with a tight hold on the cosmetics and health industries.
International beauty product manufacturers such as Beiersdorf East Africa, makers of the Nivea brand, buy all their raw aloe vera materials through its overseas mother company, leaving no room for local farmers.
“A lot of aloe vera in Kenya is imported and there is a lot of exploitation in the market as it is so expensive. We need the benefits of doing this locally,” said Otieno.
In the shops, cosmetics with ‘aloe vera extracts’, such as mass marketed shampoos and soaps, cost the consumer around Sh50-Sh90 each, whether locally or internationally sourced.
However, higher end gels and juices, which use up to 100 per cent aloe vera, cost far more if imported.
Local producers who only use Kenyan aloe vera and process it in the country, such as Herbal Garden, are undercutting many of the upmarket internationals.
A litre of Herbal Garden aloe vera juice sold in the Uchumi supermarket chain costs Sh650-Sh750, compared to the Sh1,800 price tag from international competitors such as Optima and GNLD.
Admittedly, Kenya’s own grown and marketed aloe vera products have only made it into a handful of supermarkets and health stores, due to the relative immaturity and lack of investment in the industry.
To process raw aloe vera to trade standard Kenya’s farmers need to face the financial hurdle of importing on average Sh20m worth of equipment.
Kenya’s only aloe vera processing factory in Baringo, a Sh4m European Union funded facility built in 2004, has been fruitless. “There is nothing there, it is just a warehouse with a tractor,” claimed Otieno.
Therefore most farmers only sell raw aloe vera. Manufacturing is outsourced within Kenya to those who have managed to invest in the processing equipment. “We won’t go outside Kenya to manufacture as the import taxes are so high,” he added.
However, steadily, Kenyan aloe vera is starting to penetrate the local market. In the last two weeks, Herbal Garden has employed a number of network distributors. “We want to create employment and we want to stay 100 per cent local,” said Otieno.
As well as expanding their range of cheaper home grown products, Herbal Garden is also looking at the overseas market for growth.
“We are negotiating with New Zealand and China to export raw aloe vera products. We are hoping to do a fair-trade collaboration, rather than compete and bring the market to chaos.”
Written by Chris Kay for African Laughter