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Is camel milk the future for drought-stricken Kenya?

By Emily Wither for CNN
  • The Anolei women's group in Kenya has more than 60 women milking camels
  • Drought means the women have to constantly move their camels in search of food and water
  • Some say camels are better than traditional livestock in drought-prone areas

(CNN) -- For years in the hot, arid region of Isiolo, central Kenya, the Anolei women's group has been making money and feeding their families by milking camels.

Now, as drought ravages northern Kenya, some development workers are arguing that camels could provide a more drought-resistant alternative to cows and other livestock.

Like the region's other pastoralists, the Anolei women have been hit by the drought and are having to constantly move to new locations in search of food and water for their camels.

This is affecting the milk supply and means that the women have less to send to market. Their incomes have been greatly reduced as a result. But some say camel milk is well suited to their harsh environment.

"Camels produce milk all year round and produce when other livestock stop or die from dehydration," explained Philippa Young from The What Took You So Long Foundation.

The foundation is currently trying to raise awareness of the benefits of camel milk and points out that the animal's relevance to food security, with its ability to withstand long periods without water, shouldn't go ignored.

A lot of lives could be saved and jobs created simultaneously.
--Philippa Young, The What Took You So Long Foundation

"A lot of lives could be saved and jobs created simultaneously," Young continued.

"Camel milk has a longer shelf life (than other livestock milk), and even without refrigeration facilities, can be consumed over longer periods of time," said Gladys Mwangi, who leads Dutch development organization SNV, in northern Kenya.

SNV has been helping the Anolei women's group, which has more than 60 women milking camels, sell their milk in Nairobi. As well as consuming the milk locally, during good times the group have been able to send around 5,000 liters daily to markets in the capital.

"The women have found their niche," said Mwangi.

"There is a lot of interest being generated and other women are looking at the Anolei women's group and seeing that they can also just come out and participate in business," she added.

While interest in camels is growing within Kenya some are now looking to the international market.

Young says that camel milk could be marketed as a high-end health-food product and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says camel milk is three times as rich in Vitamin C as cow's milk and is rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins.

Although camels are more expensive to buy than cows, they are cheaper to keep and their milk fetches more on the market, according to SNV's Morgan Siloma, livestock advisor to the Anolei women.

"We've been trying for a long time to enter the Europe and North American markets but there are some serious administrative hurdles," explained Holger Marbach, a German national who founded Vital Camel Milk, based in Kenya, which makes camel milk yogurt, ice cream and other products.

Marbach says he's developed a new recipe for camel-milk yogurt with an extra-long shelf life. He hopes to produce large amounts of the stock when the current situation improves and save it for next time there are food shortages.

We are also looking at the Arab market and the international market in general. So there is quite an opportunity there for women.
--Gladys Mwangi, SNV
  • Kenya
  • Drought
  • Africa

He adds that the company has not been affected by the drought and currently supplies domestically and to parts of South Africa.

SNV in particular wants to exploit the global market and has been looking at everything from better hygiene practices to replacing the containers that milk is carried in.

"I think the European markets are willing to try this but meeting the standards will require a lot of work from this side," said Siloma.

SNV says the women's business model could be rolled out elsewhere in Africa and is scouting for new markets.

"We are looking to expand our links in West Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia and linking all these markets up because they also have camel milk," Mwangi said.

"But we are also looking at the Arab market and the international market in general. So there is quite an opportunity there for women," she continued.

The hope is that camel milk will continue to empower women, feed their families and change lives.

"It's the animal to focus on in the future!" Mwangi said.