The growing demand for camel milk, especially within the Somali community in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area, has benefited a group of enterprising women from Isiolo County, the Anolei Womens’ Group, who have cashed in on the growing market by buying milk from individual camel owners and setting up a supply and distribution network across Kenya.
Their success comes amid a clamour of reports pointing to camel milk as a product with massive growth and earnings potential.
Camel-owning culture traditionally places the man as the owner of the camel, which has given men a route to high earnings through selling camels to neighbouring Ethiopia, where they are shipped to more lucrative Middle Eastern markets. But the milk belongs to the woman, and is itself now fuelling an avenue of commerce that has seen some of the women out-earning their men.
The Anolei Womens’ Group hires a Land Rover, which moves through the unforgiving terrain collecting the milk from farmers, which it then delivers to the group in Isiolo. The milk is put in a freezer until the following day, when it is put in buses and transported to Nairobi.
The women sell the camel milk by the litre, for Sh60 in Isiolo and Sh100 in Nairobi.
The venture has been so lucrative that the members of the group, who have mobilized farmers to sell their milk, themselves earn up to Sh60,000 a month, which has meant a complete change in lifestyles.
Some, like Sophia, now own rental houses in Isiolo town built from the proceeds of the milk enterprise.
It is estimated that the county produces up to 40,000 litres of milk a day earning Sh19m annually.
However, the cost of transport to Nairobi has limited the returns for the group. Currently, it spends some Sh450,000 a month in low season and Sh750,000 a month in high season on hiring trucks to ferry the milk to markets. However, the group is now in talks with financiers to assist them in owning their own truck.
The women’s group has been running the camel business for now 15 years in an informal fashion, but their fortunes started changing dramatically two years ago when the collapse of the Somali government triggered to mass movement of Somalis to Nairobi and other major Kenyan towns, forming a much larger market for their milk.
But industry specialists now say the camel milk market has huge potential for expansion. According to a study commissioned in September 2008 by the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) and conducted by consultants from Resource Mobilisation Centre, 12 percent of camel milk was marketed mostly in raw form, 10 per cent to rural consumers and 2 per cent to urban consumers.
Out of the rest, constituting 88 per cent, 38 per cent was used by producing households while the other 50 per cent, or 170 million litres, was ‘wasted’ or could not be accounted for.
“This roughly means an opportunity for increasing the incomes of camel-keeping communities by Sh4 billion every year is lost,” said the SNV report.
Experts estimate that the daily supply could be doubled without further investment, so long as there were better collection and storage facilities.
There is also potential for international development. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the international market for camel milk is estimated at an annual Sh800bn ($10bn) with consumers concentrated mostly in the Middle East, Europe
The international market is highly sensitive to quality and international food safety meaning local producers must raise standards to penetrate these highly lucrative outlets.
However, camel milk has become increasingly popular due to its reported medicinal value. Regular consumption is said to help in managing diabetes and in controlling high blood pressure. The milk also has anti-bacterial and anti-viral qualities that assist the body in keeping diseases at bay.
The recovery of patients with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis is faster when they consume camel milk. It also has high levels of lanolin, which slows down aging by providing the skin with a smooth touch.
By Bob Koigi
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