Aloe vera adds up as precious weed

At 37 years, social worker Gerald Ganja is one of 300 farmers from Kilifi County growing the wild plant Aloe Vera and harvesting it twice a year for its lucrative sap. With now more than 160 acres assigned for the plant, the farmers are now upgrading into processing, turning the sap into cosmetics that are earning more again, and moving towards exporting.

In 2003, farmers in the area began growing Aloe Vera after suffering repeated crop losses from purchased seeds that couldn’t make it in the arid conditions. By contrast, Aloe Vera was growing all around them, in the wild, so they began setting aside portions of land to grow it. Ganja set aside half an acre piece to plant the Aloe Vera. “It doesn’t need much tending,” he said.

To plant it, the farmers sourced the cuttings from those growing wildly and transplanted it to their lands. For 2 years they waited for it mature before starting to harvest its sought-aside sap. On the side they continued subsistence farming on other land portions.  

From his half acre of land, Ganja gets 300 litres of sap per harvest. To get a better bargain when selling to oil processors like Pwani, Ganja is in a group of 79 farmers who sell their sap at Sh200 to Sh300 a litre. Farmers who sell individually to brokers get Sh45 to Sh50 a litre.

The farmers’ group, Nuru Processors is also now moving into value addition with the sap. Some of the products they are making manually from homes are soaps, creams and liquid gels. “This is more profitable,” said Ganja.

From 1 litre of sap mixed with elements like glycerine the farmers are making 10,000 pieces of soap, each selling at Sh6. However the manual process is laborious and making such much soap takes days. “The production is low,” said Ganja.

To counter this, the group now plans to get a machine that processes 5000 pieces a day and costs over Sh150,000.  That will position them to approach bigger supermarkets and marketing outlets. “Now we are selling locally,” said Ganja. However, their products are bar coded and have Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS) Diamond Mark of Quality.

For each piece of soap made manually they make a profit of Sh3 after deducting production costs, but demand has kept moving upwards, and they now avhe the supply to make far more.

At optimum the group is capable of producing 10,000 litres of sap per harvest. The prospects of selling it at higher price per litre also looms with enquiries now coming from countries such as America, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Pakistan and India.

At the much larger Baringo Aloe project in Rift Valley, with donor funded  industrial processing already in place capable of processing a minimum of 20 tonnes of aloe harvest, farmers cannot yet meet demand, with orders from China already placed for  20 tonnes of processed aloe.

“People need to plant it in plenty for economic sustainability,” said Oscar Mayunzu of Kenya Forest Research Institute (KEFRI). But the obstacles are many. In Baringo, there are 30,000 acres of idle communal land suited for aloe planting. But the expansion in growing is being hampered by issues around communal land ownership, with the rule of communal land that farmers share their proceeds even with those who have put in no effort.

Yet the incentive to find workable payment systems is substantial. International prices for a kilogram of aloe gum range from $5 to $8, or more. In Uganda, 130,000 farmers are now actively growing the plant, which is being manufactured into toothpastes, gels, animal feeds, soaps and cosmetics that are being sold to Japan and Korea.

In addition to the gum, Aloe Vera flowers are highly sought in Sudan, where they are used to make Aloe Vera herbal tea.

World Wide, the largest producer of Aloe Vera products is Aloe Vera of America, which has 7.5 million distributors in 105 countries for the Forever Living brand. Of its annual sales of $2 billion, Aloe Vera drinks account for 60 per cent.


Written by James Karuga for African Laughter