By: BARBARA WANJALA

Camel Milk has found a new status with ever growing popularity within Nairobi’s cafes.

It is a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Nairobi’s CBD. The Kilimanjaro restaurant on Kimathi
Street is festooned with brightly coloured balloons for the Eid festivities. Two friends William and Joel are sitting down to enjoy a refreshing cup of camel tea. “This is the third time we are having it,” says William. “I had heard from friends that is nutritious and that it has some medicinal properties although I don’t know which,” says Joel. “We were alerted that it was on offer here,” continues William. “We tried it and liked it. We drink it from time to time for the health benefits.” These two men demonstrate camel milk’s growing appeal within the country. Camel milk production has steadily been increasing in output and commercial value. It was estimated that 300 million litres of camel milk were produced in Kenya in 2006.

In 2011, the figure grew to 553 million litres and in 2016, estimates stood at about 715 million litres. “Camel milk is the next generation’s dairy,” says Jama Warsame who together with his wife Zamzam founded of White Gold Ngamia Milk Suppliers. Kenya’s pastoralist communities have been aware of its numerous health benefits for generations and it is now Jama’s mission to increase awareness of camel milk and its powerful attributes to the wider Kenyan market. As the country’s camel dairy market starts to grow, the Nanyuki-based suppliers are preparing to meet the growing demand for white gold.

In April of this year, the Business Daily reported that Vital Camel Milk Ltd, a leading camel milk processing plant in East, Central and Southern Africa, was on its knees following the death of its founder and managing director, Holger Marbach, last year. The plant was unable to continue with milk collection causing a major setback for suppliers who rely on the sale of camel milk for their livelihood.

Vital Camel Milk Ltd started operations in Nanyuki, Kenya in 2005 aiming to produce hygienic and high quality camel milk and value added products for the local and international market. Its establishment had heralded the possibility of new income streams for camel owners. It was also emblematic of an ongoing shift in the production of camel milk which had originally produced for subsistence purposes and was now becoming increasingly commodified as a wide variety of actors began to look for ways to harness the lucrative potential of this ‘white gold’.

White Gold Ngamia Milk Suppliers was created in January 2017 to fill in the gap that had resulted from the breakdown of operations at Vital Camel Milk Ltd. Herders and ranchers who supplied milk to the Vital plant found themselves stranded and their milk unsold. This created an opportunity in the marketplace for a supplier to bring camel milk to the consumer and to help the camel farmer realise returns for the precious commodity.

White Gold Ngamia Milk’s main suppliers are camel farmers from Nanyuki and Isiolo. They range from tiny family farms to large groups. Majority of the suppliers are women. Once the milk has been delivered to the plant, it is recorded, weighed and tested, after which it is pasteurised and cooled in preparation for packaging. After processing it is then supplied to shops in Nanyuki and to individual clients in Nairobi.

White Gold’s camel milk will soon be available in supermarkets, with other value-added organic products such as yoghurt, icecream and flavoured milk to come in the future.
“The benefits of camel milk have been transmitted orally from generation to generation,” says Warsame. Its organic compounds are reported to help patients with various health conditions for example it has insulin which helps in diabetes management.

It also has less fat than other types of milk, and has higher levels of iron, vitamin C and protein. It is lactose-free thus a good alternative for lactose intolerant children and adults. A resource centre has been established at the plant where partners can collaborate with the company to conduct research on camel milk. “We are keen to work with doctors and scientists on clinical studies and research papers to produce sound scientific proof that supports the oral knowledge that exists,” he says.

Before the industry started expanding, the sale of camel milk had been the preserve of women. Research indicates that female petty traders had established milk businesses in the urban settlements of northern Kenya as far back as the late 1980s.

The sale of camel milk enabled women who lacked access to capital or other formal skills with which to build alternative urban livelihoods a means with which to generate income for school fees and to procure other household commodities. On Eastleigh’s 7th Street, Dekha sits surrounded by yellow jerrycans filled with milk. A litre goes for 150/-. “It is fresh from Isiolo,” she says.

“That is where the best milk comes from.” Buses from Isiolo deliver the camel milk to the women vendors who are doing brisk business near the 7th Street mosque this Eid. Milk for tea is simmering in a huge sufuria next to Dekha. Fatma who has a clothes stall down the street says that her elderly mother started drinking camel milk after a doctor prescribed it.  “Before she was weak and tired all the time. Now she is much stronger. Camel milk really helps.”

The diversification of Kenya’s dairy sector which is almost entirely dominated by cow milk is a positive development as the country struggles to mitigate the effects of climate change and global warming. Camels have a longer lactating period than cows and continue produce milk under dry conditions. Unlike camels which are drought-resistant, cows succumb easily to desert conditions. They are also prone to cattle rustling. For this reason, camels are becoming increasingly popular with previously predominantly cattle-owning communities.

As the industry grows, it is important to ensure sustainability for camel farmers in marginalised, drought-prone areas. “Stakeholders should educate farmers on how to adapt to land scarcity,” says Zamzam. “This can entail training on new practices such as zero grazing, for example.” William and Joel order a second cup of tea. “To me it has a burnt flavour,” says William. Their friend Anita who has joined them says, “It reminds me of smoke.” William adds, “I am used to cow milk so I don’t think I would substitute it with camel milk for daily use but I would definitely drink it from time to time.” “You can drink it as it is, or you can put it in tea.

You can let it ferment and drink it as mala,” says Dekha as she measures out the milk into a plastic bag. As the country acquires the taste for health-giving camel milk, white gold production continues to register steady growth promising new livelihoods and added value
to the Kenyan economy.

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