For years many pastoralists in remote villages in Turkana West Sub-county have been subjected to abject poverty and starvation due to perennial drought and banditry attacks.
Efforts to introduce rainfed farming to address vulnerability and eliminate reliance on relief food have further proved unreliable.
However, Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) and other non-governmental organisations have given the residents a reason to smile following the production of aloe vera products.
Edward Samal is one of the pastoralists who, after losing his livestock to bandits and drought, grabbed the opportunity to make money through the sale of Aloe turkanensis.
Together with 29 other members of the Nalapatui Community Based Natural Resource management committee, they harvest Aloe turkanensis to extract the sap, mix it with chemicals to make liquid and solid soap, as well shampoo.
“As much as our main goal is to earn income, we want to conserve the plant from extinction. We have Kakuma Tree Nursery where we specifically propagate aloe and transplant them on our farm,” he says.
The group harvests Aloe turkanensis, which they locally call Echuchuka, from a nearby lush green natural forest that has different species of indigenous trees.
Samal said Turkana County’s Directorate of Natural Resources trained them on how to conserve the aloe vera species after harvesting to protect them from extinction.
Each member is well versed with the process of making products, and there is a readily available manual with guidelines on the process of harvesting the crop, extracting raw materials and measurement of the different ingredients.
Samal said the soaps from their aloe vera were the most sought after in Kakuma Town, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement and Lokichoggio Town because they last longer and are more affordable compared to those sourced from Nairobi, Mombasa, Eldoret or Kitale.
The solid soap goes for Sh50, a litre of soap and shampoo at Sh200. Their affordability has made aloe products popular in the village and the nearest centre, Kalobeyei.
Each member is a salesperson who banks on small groupings and local administrators to market and sell the products.
The group is seeking to expand its market to Lodwar and each of the sub-counties in the county.
“I don’t regret joining the group. The proceeds have helped me establish a kiosk in the village, where I sell the products to residents,” Samal said.
Boaz Ekiru, the sub-county natural resource officer, noted that besides medicinal value, the villagers had taken a responsibility to conserve the plant for its aesthetic value besides preventing soil erosion.
“With increased income, the group has embraced sustainable utilisation through conservation of the environment,” he said.
Jesse Owino, a scientist from KEFRI, said aloe gel or aloe gum demand was on the rise globally, especially in cosmetic industries.
Dr Owino said enterprises relying on Aloe turkananensis business in Turkana County needed to be supported to have easy access to raw materials for making various aloe products to boost income generation.
He, however, noted that despite the species being in remote and isolated areas, aloes, like all plants in the region, had been affected by increased human population coupled with commercial exploitation.
“The projection is that aloes are generally on the decline in the county, as they are being over-harvested by unscrupulous business people and is thus an endangered species,” Owino said.
He suggested that Turkana gets a framework on aloe vera management that must be adhered to during utilisation.
This, he said, would be achieved through the formation of Aloe Management Units spearheaded by the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Another scientist, Patrick Mwenja, said there was need for expansion of the existing commercial plantations if the community was to reap benefits from the sale of the aloe gel.
Nanaam village is said to have 10 acres, Napopongoit village 12, Letea six and a half acres while Oropoi has three and a half acres of aloe.
Turkana Bio Aloe Organisation was reviving Kalemngorok group to produce aloe gum for sale at Sh100 per kilogramme, with three harvests annually.
Already the women-owned group is producing aloe herbal soaps, aloe special multi-purpose detergents and aloe sanitisers.