Climate change pushes Kenyans towards camels

As several parts of Kenya become drier, a growing number of people start to keep camels. The animals not only are more drought resistant, their highly nutritious milk gains popularity around the world.

Bone-dry plains roasted by a relentless equatorial sun. At first glance, there’s little else to be found in the fields near Isiolo, a provincial town about a five hours drive north of the capital of Nairobi. The camels of Mariam Maalim still manage to find some food, though. They nibble at arid bushes while the wooden bells around their necks softly tingle.

Survive without water for two weeks
“My husband and I had over a hundred cattle but as the climate became more dry in this region, the cows stopped producing milk and twenty to thirty of our cows even died every year”, 45-year-old Maalim, dressed in a long dark blue hijab says. “This made us decide to shift to camels as they survive without water for over two ­weeks, they continue to give milk and although they become weak and skinny, they won’t die.”

“On average, in a bad drought, a cattle owner will loose fifty percent of its herd while with camels it’s rare to loose more than 16 percent”, says Piers Simpkin, a camel expert who has studied the animals for over thirty years. Also the higher price of the milk attracts camel owners. With 1 dollar a liter a camel owner receives five times the price of cows’ milk”, says Simpkin.

‘Camelcinos’ are popping up
In Kenya, the Somali community is an important market, ‘camelcinos’ are popping up in Nairobi’s cafes alongside the usual cappuccinos, the middle class starts to like camel milk that has a longer shelf life and worldwide a growing number of health addicts start to prefer camel milk because of its health benefits. Camel milk is three times as rich in Vitamin C as cow's milk, is rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins and would even have extra health benefits for people having diabetes, tuberculosis and stomach ulcers.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the global camel milk industry could be worth up to $10 billion a year. And in Kenya they now speak about a ‘camel rush’ as demand outstrips supply.

The superstition that camels cause drought
Even some Masai start to see the benefits of the ‘ship of the desert as the climate in their region in the south of Kenya is becoming drier as well. “With camels you always have milk in your house”, says 54-year-old Ole Nkiu who decided to buy camels after almost half of his 190 cows died during a severe drought eight years ago.

Not all Masai are very excited about camels though, Nkiu tells. “Some years ago, Somali immigrants entered our land with many camels. That same year, the region was hit by a severe drought and since then, many Masai believe that camels cause drought.” Masai are also worried that due to camels there won’t be enough food for the cows. According to Simpkin, this is a misconception. “As cows and camels eat different vegetation they can live very well side by side.”

Five thousand liters of camel milk a day
Maalim and around thirty other women now daily bring about five thousand liters of camel milk to a distribution point in the center of Isiolo. The women receive support from the Dutch development organization SNV that helped them financing a cooling tank. “Thanks to the profits of the camel milk I can send my eight children to school and one even goes to university," Maalim says while handing in her jerry cans full of camel milk.

Currently the milk is transported in passenger buses but as the milk frequently got stolen or goes bad when busses break down, the women are now trying to get a loan to buy their own cooling truck to transport the milk to Nairobi. “We are also having plans to produce yoghurt, pack our products and to export to Somalia”, the Kenyan says with a smile while adding that an international airport has recently been opened near Isiolo. “We are facing a bright future thanks to camel milk.”

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