Kenya's traders are flocking Isiolo and Marsabit town in search of camel skin for use in making drums, camel skin swords, seats, home and office ware, a trade that is fast rising in Kenya and regionally pushing the camel prices to a new high, even as government snails in embracing value addition in the leather industry.
The skin has lately received massive attention from traders who says it has unrivaled qualities like elasticity and ability to produce unique sound in drums, a unique selling point. Other uses at homes like making doormats and general home beautification have created heightened demand as buyers go for durability.
This new trend has now pushed prices of the once neglected commodity ten fold in the last four years with traders flocking Isiolo and Marsabit from as far as Mombasa, Zanzibar, Nairobi and Ethiopia. This has further cemented the growing belief that camel could be the livestock of the future as climate change takes its toll on cattle, goats and sheep with even the pastoralist communities abandoning their long treasured livestock for crop production.
Camel however has weathered the vagaries of climate to remain the most prized livestock of our times with its meat fetching double that of cattle or goat and with now a burgeoning demand for its bi product like its skin.
But the nascent leather industry is still grappling with stiff competition in the international market from dominant players like the United Arabs Emirates and with traditional poor drying and value addition methods robbing the country millions in the lucrative global market that has top exporters like UAE earning Sh50billion annually in camel skin alone. Most of the hides and skin only remain at home where they attract dismal prices.
The heightened local demand for the camel hide is however reversing the sorry state of affairs in the leather industry albeit in a small way. Guyo Walid a camel farmer from Merti area of Isiolo district says in the last one year he has slaughtered some 12camels which together has brought him some Sh1.3million in returns. “At first it was the meat. Traders would come all the way from Nairobi's Eastleigh estate where a big number of traders of Somali's origin operate and who have a huge appetite for the meat. Realizing the potential that lay in this business, we formed a camel farmers association to reap the highest returns,”he said.
The association would see Walid and other traders fetch some Sh150,000 per camel in meat alone especially when there was an acute shortage of the meat. “The beauty is, camel is not reared by many people as opposed to cows or goats which gave us an added advantage,” said Wima Derji the chairman of the association.
But they would have another field day when traders started coming to abbatoirs to book for the camel skin. Two months of observing the trend they realized an extra market for the beast of the burden.
In less than an year, Isiolo county alone has sold over 1tonne of the skin, with the pricing hinged on kilos. A kilo of the skin goes for Sh300. That's half the price of the animal's meat. A full camel has about 20-30kgs of skin which translates to about Sh9,000. That is enough to buy a small camel which in the area costs between Sh5,000 and Sh6,000.
But even as the skin becomes highly priced compared to that of a cow or a goat which goes for Sh100 a kilo, traders are willing to fork whatever the traders ask for with the full realization of the returns the end product attracts.
Jason Bosire a trader at Maasai Market specializing in manufacture and sale of artefacts and ornaments is one such trader. After two weeks he travels to Isiolo specifically to hunt for the camel skin. Citing camel drum which he considers his favourite among his wares, Bosire says a small drum the size of a 1kg Kasuku oil tin fetches Sh2,000.
This requires about 2kgs of camel skin to make. “And there are people who place huge orders for them. Majority are mothers who use the small drums as toys for their children but also kindergartens are also requesting for them for their music lessons,”he added.
Bosire is also sating the appetite of the camel drums from music schools and theater groups with the big drums going for between Sh5,000-Sh7000. “Camel drums have a unique sound compared to the others. As an artist you need a sound that will strike as unique in your performance and therefore create appeal. You need equipments that produce that sound that get everyone talking. Camel skin drums do which is why we would spend anything to have them,” said Johnstone Kibe the lead singer in Afro fusion band Satosato boys.
For Bosire, previously tied to drums from other hides and skin, the light bulb moment has been the 12 months he has been in the camel skin drum making business. He employs three labourers who not only make the drums but also necklaces and bangles that contain beads blended with well designed pieces of the camel skin.
Government under the ministry of Livestock development, has set aside Sh100m to tap into value addition of the promising leather industry which it estimates has the potential to earn the economy some Sh2billion annually and employ over 5,000 Kenyans while reducing the cost of leather products majority of which are imported. But the snail implementation of the venture has not deterred traders like Bosire to go it alone as more opportunities now beckon regionally.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter