The next thing: camel milk
FAO sees bright prospects for camel milk
18 April 2006, Rome - In Tunisia, people will travel hundreds of kilometres to get hold of some. Herdswomen from Ethiopia and Somalia think nothing of riding a train for 12 hours to sell it in Djibouti, where prices are high. In N’Djamena, Chad, milk bars are mushrooming all over town.
Half way round the globe people consider it a powerful tonic against many diseases. The Gulf Arabs believe it is an aphrodisiac.
From the Western Sahara to Mongolia demand is booming for camel milk. But there just isn’t enough to go round. State-of-the art camel rearing is rudimentary, and much of the 5.4 million tonnes of milk produced every year by the world population of some 20 million camels is guzzled by young camels themselves.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) thus sees bright prospects for camel dairy products, which could not only provide more food to people in arid and semi-arid areas, but also give nomadic herders a rich source of income.
FAO is hoping financing will come forward from donors and investors to develop the sector not only at local level but help camel milk move into lucrative markets in the Middle East and the West.
“The potential is massive,” says FAO’s Dairy and Meat expert Anthony Bennett. “Milk is money”.
To devotees, camel milk is pure nectar. While slightly saltier than cows’ milk, it is very good for you. After all, nature designed it to help baby camels grow up in some of the world’s roughest environments – deserts and steppes. That helps explain why it is three times as rich in Vitamin C as cow’s milk.
In Russia, Kazakhstan and India doctors often prescribe it to convalescing patients while in Africa it may be recommended for people living with AIDS.
Somalis are gluttons for the stuff and firmly believe in the milk’s medicinal value. Aside from Vitamin C, it is known to be rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins.
Camel Dairy Milk Ltd of Nanyuki, Kenya is planning, in partnership with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), to carry out research into the role claimed for camel milk in reducing diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Such features account for the milk’s appeal not only to young camels and their nomad owners but to an estimated 200 million potential customers in the Arab world – and millions more in Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Getting over the humps
Tapping the market for camel milk, however, involves resolving a series of humps in production, manufacturing and marketing. One problem lies in the milk itself, which has so far not proved to be compatible with the UHT (Ultra High Temperature) treatment needed to make it long-lasting. But the main challenge stems from the fact that the producers involved are, overwhelmingly, nomads.
Imagine a tomato cannery whose suppliers regularly all disappear overnight – taking their tomatoes with them. That’s the kind of problem you need to solve if you want to stay in the camel milk business.
(Nomads of course do not wander about the desert for pleasure. They move in search of pasture according to the seasons–and can survive for up to a month in the desert on nothing but ... camel milk.)
Another problem is that nomad camel herders are often reticent to sell their spare milk, which tradition reserves for honoured guests and the poor. It has been noted, however, that such reticence can be dispelled by the offer of a good price.
To milk a camel in Sudan, approach the animal from the right. Stand on your right leg. Bend your left leg and place a gourd or other recipient on it. A camel udder has four teats. Seize the nearest two and squeeze. The others are for the calf to feed from. Repeat twice a day.
Having the fine balance of a Yoga master isn’t enough, however. Camels can be pretty stubborn, and if your animal dislikes you she won’t hear of being milked. Unlike cows, which store all their milk in their udders, camels keep theirs further up their bodies.
Also essential is the presence of the mother’s calf. She-camels will feed only their own calves, responding to their specific smell. When a calf dies, crafty herders trick mothers at milking time by presenting them with a dummy covered in camel calfskin.
The bottom line here is that camel milk production is generally a low-tech business, which in turn explains why a meagre five litres a day is considered a decent yield.
“No one’s suggesting intensive camel dairy farming,” says Bennett, “but just with improved feed, husbandry and veterinary care daily yields could rise to 20 litres.” Since fresh camel milk fetches roughly a dollar a litre on African markets that would mean serious money for nomads herders who now have few other sources of revenue. A world market worth 10 billion dollars would be entirely within the realm of possibility.
Sons of the clouds
That camel constraints can be overcome is eloquently demonstrated by a British-born engineering graduate, Nancy Abeiderahmanne, who has been operating a successful camel dairy in Mauritania for more than 15 years.
Ms Abeiderahmanne, whose Tiviski (Mauritanian for “springtime”) company also processes cow and goat milk, currently has some 800 camel herders supplying her on daily basis. She collects the fresh milk from up to 80 kilometres from her base, Nouakchott, and hauls it back to her dairy for pasteurization in a refrigerated truck.
The herders, while still nomads (we are sons of the clouds and where the clouds go we must follow), have learned it makes business sense to leave their nursing camels behind when they move up north. This ensures a welcome measure of continuity in Tiviski’s supplies.
The right stuff
Another major challenge for Ms Abeiderahmanne was that although camel milk keeps longer than cow’s, it still has a limited shelf life. Even worse, production is highest just at the time demand is lowest – in the winter months.
The obvious solution was to turn surplus milk into longer-lived cheese. But there were problems in getting it to harden.
In 1992, Ms Abeiderahmanne, with FAO’s help, found the answer. FAO, which had developed the technology to make camel cheese, arranged for a French expert, J.P. Ramet, to go to Nouakchott and show her how to use a special enzyme to give her products the right consistency.
The result was a soft cheese with a white crust which she called “Caravane”. It was quickly dubbed Camelbert.
In 1993, Ms Abeiderrahmane deservedly received the coveted Rolex business enterprise award for her breakthrough. Tougher, however, turned out to be the question of getting permission to export Camelbert.
An alternative way of storing camel milk in places lacking electricity, let alone refrigerators, was found centuries ago in the steppes of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where herders keep two-humped Bactrian camels.
Nomads there process the fresh produce into fermented milk, Shubat, a local delicacy which is known in nearby Mongolia as Khoormog. In Kazakhstan’s old capital of Almaty, a modern plant produces Kourt, a cheese so hard that most people prefer to grate it. The facility also manufactures camel milk sweets.
Some experts would like to see Kazakhstan’s simple, traditional techniques exported. But the moot question remains: will Beduin go for Khoormog?
An easier sell would appear to be the low-fat, camel milk chocolate, which a Vienna-based chocolatier, Johann Georg Hochleitner intends to launch this autumn. With funding from the Abu Dhabi royal family, his company plans to make the chocolate in Austria from powdered camel milk produced at Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, then ship 50 tons back to the Gulf each month.
“It sounds crazy but it’s a huge project. There’s a potential market of 200 million in the Arab world,” says Hochleitner.
And if you get sticky fingers from Al Nassma – the chocolate’s brand name – you can always wash your hands with camel milk soap produced by the Oasis Camel Dairy of Sonora, California, where camels were introduced as pack animals in the 19th Century.
As the Ahaggar nomads of Algeria say, “Water is the soul. Milk is life”. And money too of course.
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 53762
The world population of camels is currently estimated at some 20 million. Somalia is believed to have the world's largest herd, with almost as many camels as humans.
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