Camels rise as Kenya’s livestock industry of the future

Drought is changing the face of Kenya’s livestock industry, as farmers turn away from keeping cattle and build up their camel herds as demand moves from beef to camel meat, further driven by its power in relieving the widespread conditions of diabetes and tuberculosis.

The difficulties of raising cattle when rainfall is scarce have seen farmers across the entire country, and not only in the traditional arid areas of North Eastern Kenya, move to camels in the last two years.

The Ministry of Livestock now puts the camel population at more than five million, compared to seven million cattle, with the cattle population having declined 30 per cent, from 10 million, just three years ago.

“The prediction is that camel is the animal to watch in coming years if recent history is anything to go by. The camel population has grown by over 1 million in the last two years, which have equally seen a huge dip in cattle population, thanks in part to drought,” said Daniel Kutu from the Ministry of Agriculture.

The Kenyan Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) estimates that camel will surpass beef to become the most common type of meat eaten in the country by 2015.

The uptake is being attributed to the camel’s ability to withstand droughts, through being able to survive without food and water for up to three weeks. The hump of the camel stores fluids, preventing dehydration and allowing it to transport people and goods over long distances. By contrast, cows require daily access to water and pasture.

At the same time, camel farming has become more lucrative, with a camel now worth three times the value of a cow. This has driven the marked uptake of camel beyond the traditional North Eastern part of the country to the rest of the country.  The Kenyan government has also launched several initiatives to encourage camel rearing, such as providing loans to camel breeders to expand their herds and developing potential markets.

“More and more people are responding to these incentives with time and the roll out is happening across the country. At the moment, Kenya is among the top five camel breeding nations of the world,” said Daniel.

Typical of the newxomers is the Mwihoti farmers group in Central Kenya’s Nyeri area, which is rearing 200 camels mostly for commercial purposes, and has found a lucrative local market in surrounding hospitals, where the demand for the milk and meat has grown due to its higher nutritional value.

Leading scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) detected a protein similar to insulin in the camel milk in Kenya, and in Germany, some years ago. This is a significant health bonus, with 2010 figures reporting over 6 million diabetics in Kenya, with a condition that is aided by insulin.

Clinical trials carried out by KEMRI in Nairobi have also shown that tuberculosis patients enjoy a quicker recovery rate after consuming camel meat and milk. This discovery is what has birthed the need for meat and milk in the diet for those in hospitals.

“The demand has been astronomical. Not only do we sell it to the hospitals, but the local butcheries have been demanding it and it sells so fast. It has to do with its tenderness and nutritional value. We can’t meet the demand which is why we are clearing more land to accommodate another stock we hope to get by June,” said Justus Rionge the head of Mwihoti farmer group.

The group earns around Sh630 per kg for the camel meat, which is double the price of a kilo of beef at a Nairobi butchers. In a daym they sell over 200kgs of the meat. The leather industry has also been a big customer buying a fresh camel skin for Sh10,000 compared to a cattle one for Sh4,000.

In Isiolo, a women’s group has bought  a Land Rover to tour the challenging local terrain collecting camel’s milk from farmers, which it then delivers to the group in Isiolo. The milk is put in a freezer until the following day, and then transported by bus to Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate, where demand ahs been rising fast from the Somali community.

The women sell the camel milk by the litre, for Sh60 in Isiolo and Sh100 in Nairobi, compared to the Sh30 a litre that cow’s milk generally sells for.

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.

In contrast to cattle or goat farming, camel farming requires little attention, supervision or infrastructure, as the animals can go days without water or fodder.  Camels can eat a thorny twig without hurting their mouths because the lining in its mouth is so tough that the sharp thorns cannot push through the skin. If food is very scarce, a camel will eat anything--bones, fish, meat and even leather. This scores it highly among the candidates that can survive harsh climatic conditions.

A 2011 study by a South African institute concluded that camel farming could be an option for 20m to 35m people living in semi-arid areas of Africa, who will soon be unable to grow crops because of climate change.

The study predicted that an additional 500,000 sq km to one million sq km in Africa – about the size of Egypt - would have become marginal farmland by 2050. But rethinking agricultural production now, boosting production of the hardier types of livestock - goats, donkeys, camels and some types of cattle – could protect millions from a future loss of income.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter