Sustaining the camel milk market in Kenya

Camels in Dadaab, Garrisa County

Kenyan Meshark Sikuku is a food security and livelihoods specialist, with over eight years’ experience working with NGOs and communities in arid pastoral regions of Kenya, including Dadaab in Garissa County. Dadaab is the site of a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) refugee camp that is home to almost 300 000 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from neighbouring Somalia. Garissa’s landscape is mostly arid, desert terrain.  The local community and refugees have similar cultures, are mainly Muslim pastoralists and they share similar tastes in food.  The region faces numerous challenges such as poor access by road and low-income levels. Moreover, less than one per cent of the population has electricity and only 23 per cent have access to safe water.

The community’s main livelihood comes from cattle, goats, sheep and camels, whose products are either used by the community or traded as meat, milk and hides. Garissa has over 230,000 camels, which are well suited to the arid landscape and provide income to about 1.3 million people. Women are generally responsible for selling camel milk, which provides them with a valuable source of income towards household needs.

As part of his Reintegration Action Plan, Mr Sikuku investigated overcoming some of the barriers faced in selling camel milk. He first discovered that there was a significant market for the milk with four main consumer types: camel herders and their households, rural households and restaurants, urban Somalian consumers, and high-end national and international health markets.  Across these markets, milk in its most natural state is seen to be healthy and containing medicinal value.

Despite the value proposition, sellers face numerous challenges which deter these consumers from purchasing camel milk. These challenges include:

  • The belief that vendors adulterate the camel milk with goat or cow milk, which are cheaper and more readily available;
  • Perceptions that the milk is boiled to extend its shelf life, thus destroying its medicinal value;
  • Perceptions that plastic jerry cans, used by the vendors, affect the temperature, taste and freshness of the milk;
  • Perceptions of lacking hygiene due to the milk being sold in open markets; and
  • Instability of prices, which increase when supply is low (exacerbated by difficult road conditions during the rainy season or low production during drought conditions).

Mr Sikuku reviewed existing reports to provide background to his investigation and then conducted two focus groups, split between men and women. He also interviewed vendors, transporters, producers, input suppliers and an extension officer. Mr Sikuku discovered that all the stakeholders were functioning as individual businesses and that “there was a lot of potential in building effective camel milk value chains.” The current process resulted in milk wastage and a failure to respond to consumer concerns. Addressing consumer needs would expand the market, create consumer value and sustain the livelihood of the producers, vendors and other intermediaries.

Camel milk’s freshness and perceived therapeutic qualities are closely related in the eyes of consumers, and they are willing to pay for both. His analysis revealed two possible short-term interventions. The first intervention is to provide training for vendors, producers and transporters, which will empower them to address complaints from consumers. This intervention will achieve an understanding of delivering value to consumers and the importance of trust in the chain.  The second intervention is the need to assist vendors to improve their milk outlets, including sheds, packaging and containers for carrying milk, especially since the use of some vessels cause wastage as the milk spoils faster.

Mr Sikuku also discovered that most traditional consumers preferred to buy camel milk in traditional containers known as ‘Dhiil’ or ‘Han’ in the Somali language. These containers, made from a specific wood, can keep freshly boiled milk for up to a week while maintaining original freshness and taste. In addition, the end consumer was willing to pay 25 per cent more for milk in the traditional vessels.

The project enabled Mr Sikuku to engage with different actors, piece information together and create linkages between actors. He also found it relevant to leverage existing formal and informal arrangements. As a result, he was able to recommend market-driven interventions, which would increase the livelihood of stakeholders while sustaining the demand from consumers.

Meshark Sikuku (green cap) with a camel herder.

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