By Silvia Sperandini and Elaine Reinke“We are a community of camels”, is how Kalif Abey of the Kenya Camel Association (KCA) welcomed us in Greater Isiolo in the arid and semi-arid low plains of the upper eastern part of Kenya. The majority of the “ruteros” are from Sudan and Somaliland, therefore have extensive experience with camels and been eagerly awaiting to meet the hosts of this case, local camel raisers and members of the Anolei Camel Milk Cooperative.
Through the discussion with these local champions, it became clear that the potential of the camel and its products has been immensely underutilized in Kenya until it was considered a food animal in the current livestock policy passed by the government in 2008. This policy finally recognized the importance of the camel to safeguard livelihoods due to its ability to survive remain productive even under drought conditions in most of the Arid and Semi Arid Land (ASAL) districts.
With the camel raisers surrounded by some 400 Somali camels (Horr and Gelab sub-breeds), we understood the intensity of camel rearing in an environment where water and forage are scarce, and could sense the depth of the relationship between the pastoralists and their animals. We witnessed the milking process, not missing to taste the fresh camel milk, and learned about the efforts of the herders and the cooperative to open new marketing channels for this valuable product.
Camel milk is a natural and essential food item. Compared to cow and goat milk, it is richer in iron, minerals, vitamins and unsaturated fatty acids, while its fat content is lower. The camel’s lactation period is also longer (from 1 to 1.5 years), all year round and under the harshest conditions. Recent researches indicate some medicinal potential such as anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties and positive impacts in cases of diabetes and tuberculosis. The producers therefore proudly pledge that it is much more than simple milk.
Camel-owning cultures traditionally place the men as the camel owners, while women possess and market the milk. Today, this female-dominated business of camel milk marketing contributes KSH 8 billion (US$ 95 million) every year to the Kenyan economy, and the profits are usually managed and controlled by women. Having recognized the marketing potential and growing demand for camel milk, the Anolei women, a pro-active group of Somali women, got organized as a self-help group in 1997 and registered as a cooperative in 2010. They managed to set-up a new, profitable business purchasing camel milk from local producers and marketing it in Isiolo and Nairobi. With some support of the KCA and other partners including SNV, VSF and FAO, the Anolei women upgraded their business processes, improved hygiene standards and herd management. They now collect and transport to Eastleigh Nairobi some 4,000 (in the dry season) to 6,500 (in the rainy season) litres of camel milk per day from producers within a 40km radius from Isiolo. They also run a milk bar where our “ruteros” were invited to enjoy camel milk, tea and meat.
The learning route participants appreciated how this group built a successful business for the benefit of their communities and became an important player in an effective milk marketing chain. Along the way, they faced many constraints particularly related to hygiene and transportation. In response, they introduced aluminum cans and cooling and established pooled transport arrangements. Demand for camel milk is gradually increasing, also beyond the Somali communities in Kenya, but there is need for further improve business process. Women traders are now using M-PESA as a means of cash transactions, increasing security and reducing losses. Bank accounts have been opened and the cooperative is planning to take a loan to purchase their own truck tond improve their transport.
Other challenges remain beyond their control, such as the lack of trained specialized veterinarians in the country and recurrent tribal conflicts in the Isiolo area based on competition over pasture, calling for continued collaboration and partnership among the different actors.
Within their capacity, the Anolei women have significantly increased their incomes and their decision-making power in their households and communities. With their commitment and business skills, camel milk production and marketing has become the backbone of the livelihoods of the Isiolo people.