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Agriculture - Nutrition | Gender - Women

Kenyan women milk fortunes from camel

Safia Kulow and her camel herd

© Erick Wamanji/afrol News
afrol News, 13 January
- Safia Kulow, in the arid centre of Kenya, is in firm control of her economy after she and other traditional Anolei women made big business of camel milk. Now they consider which investments to make to increase revenues from their industry.

The camel - long fabled as the ship of the desert - may not be your idea of turning conservative women to some financial independence. Just consider that the camel is clumsy, not so good looking and is seemingly in a constant mourning mode.

But that description cannot be told to the Anolei women group in Isiolo, central Kenya, located 285 kilometres north of Nairobi. Here, Safia Kulow and members are upbeat. In the past year, they have earned a staggering shilling 19 million (euro 176,000) from the sale of camel milk.

This evening, we arrive in a cacophonic Isiolo - the muezzin is drably calling for maghrib prayers, Somali tribesmen are busy fingering their tasbihis as a green Land Rover pick-up, full of yellow plastic containers, lurch out of the dusty township. The Land Rover is a common site here. Every day it delivers close to 5,000 litres of camel milk, which is becoming a hot commodity in the region.

This has helped the traders improve their lot to pay bills, education and even to invest in other areas like transport and real estate. Safia, who is also the chairlady of the group, says that the income from milk has empowered women and changed their lives profoundly.

This development firmly affirms the place of camel milk as more of an economic product than a mere subsistence or cultural product. It is also culturally believed that camel milk is medicinal; some believe it casts off bad spirits. It is said that Egypt's Queen Cleopatra - herself a legendary beauty - bathed in camel milk. Some traditional women of yore in the desert also guzzled pints of the milk to keep an ivory complexion.

At dawn break, we are in Nompolio, a rusty, scrub-ridden village stashed between hills. The cattle are still at the kraal, but Aden Mohammed and his brother are out milking the camel. He has harvested 40 litters and still counting.

"The milk production is shaping up. This is attributed to improved weather patterns. We are looking forward to a great harvest next year because this season most camels mated," Aden says.

Ms Kulow has also joined us. She beams with smile every time she takes a tot of raw milk. Safia is a cattle keeper as much as a busine

Isiolo woman delivering camel milk to a Land Rover that will transport it to Nairobi

© Erick Wamanji/afrol News
ss lady.

"We are located at the hills for security reasons," Ms Kulow says as we weave through acacia scrubs. This is a haven for camels which mourn in the morning as they are milked. Two men stand in opposite direction in what for long has come to be known as the ship of the desert. Today is more revered for the milk.

The beauty of camels, says Safia, is that they are less prone to raids as would cows. And this explains why, even communities that hitherto disregarded camels are embracing it. Cattle raids remain a serious problem in parts of Kenya.

The group has been running this kind of business for the past 15 years in an informal design. But it is this year that their fortunes have changed dramatically. Better fortunes are also attributed to the collapse of the Somali government, which triggered mass movement of her citizens to Nairobi and other major towns.

Improved weather patterns, reduced cattle raids and increased demand for camel milk are attributed to these good tidings. To ensure constant supply, the farmers are engaging veterinary officers to advice on husbandry. This way, not all camels are allowed to conceive at the same time. The alternating design has allowed for the milk to keep flowing.

Besides, development agencies like the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV), the UN Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and VSF Suisse are now playing a pivotal and revolutionary role in placing the group on the straight and narrow of business.

When insecurity and cattle raids were a byword for Isiolo, most women like Safia were ejected from the grazing land. They moved to Isiolo Township. They were not being discouraged. They quickly transformed their misfortunes to a lucrative business that has given them comfort and cash.

SNV has been providing capacity building skills, exchange visits and scouting for new markets so that the group can reap maximum benefit from their business.

Every day, an old green Land Rover traverses the unforgiving terrain as it collects the milk from farmers. Then it delivers in Isiolo Town around noon, where the Anolei women group receive it. The milk is then put in a freezer till the following day whe

Project leader Siloma Morgan helps developing the camel milk business concept

© Erick Wamanji/afrol News
n it is parked in buses and transported to Nairobi. Around 11:00 it arrives Eastleigh with the milk.

A litre of camel milk trades at shilling 60 in Isiolo (euro 0.56) and shilling 100 (euro 0.93) in Nairobi. Some members like Safia earn up to shilling 60,000 (euro 560) a month as profit from the enterprise. This has helped improve their lifestyles a great deal.

In Somali culture, the camel belongs to the man and the milk belongs to the woman. This explains why the Anolei group seems to be having an edge in the milk business in Isiolo and Eastleigh alike.

But more could be done. According to SNV, the Anolei group could add value to the product to make it popular beyond the Somali community and of course to earn more premium from it. And SNV is teaming up with FAO to spearhead the camel milk project, which is now growing at an incredible rate.

Siloma Morgan, who is in charge of the project, says his team is scouting for new markets in Komarok, South Central and Nakuru provinces. SNV is also interested in building the capacity of the women group so that it can improve on the areas of hygiene, improved production and fodder management.

Safia indicates that the group will form a cooperative where members can own shares. She suggested that Anolei may start to process and package the milk in Isiolo.

Isiolo is one of the Kenyan regions with high numbers of camels - currently put at 41, 000. The Somali camel is said to be the high yielding type and drought resistant. It is estimated that the region produces up to 40,000 litres of milk a day.

However, transportation to Nairobi is taking a huge tall on the group. Today, it spends about shilling 450,000 (euro 4,200) in low season and 750,000 (euro 7,000) a month in high season. That is why Safia says they need to buy their own truck so as to cut on the transportation cost. Talks are under way with some financiers toward that effort.

Indeed, camel milk is critical to the pastoral communities. It is culturally important as much as a wholesome food. Today, the commodity has shifted platforms from culture to commerce and is revolutionising the lives of women in this poor semi-arid region of Kenya.

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