MILKING THE CAMEL
Getting the milk to marketAlthough most camel milk is traded informally, a world market worth 10 billion dollars is within the realm of possibility if key improvements are made. [see Box on the right]
ProductionCamels were once used almost exclusively as a means of transport across harsh environments for both man and goods. However there is a growing recognition of the value and benefits of camels for their milk, meat and fibres. Camel dairy products could provide not only more food for people in arid and semi-arid areas but also give nomadic herders a rich source of income.
The total number of camels globally is said to be 20 million, but as most camels are owned by nomads, this number can only be estimated. Nomads move in search of pasture according to the seasons and can live for up to a month in the desert on nothing but camel milk. As camel milk is normally produced under low input-low output systems, five litres a day is considered a decent yield.
Available world production of camel milk is officially put at 1.3 million tonnes, a tiny figure as compared to cow’s milk. However, a recent FAO/CIRAD/KARKARA workshop estimated global camel milk output as 5.3 million tonnes, although even this may be a conservative estimate. Lactating camels each produce between 1,000 and 12,000 litres of milk for anywhere between 8 and 18 months. The world’s biggest camel milk producer is Somalia, with 850,000 tonnes a year, followed by Saudi Arabia with 89,000 tonnes.
NutritionCamel milk is slightly saltier than cows’ milk, three times as rich in Vitamin C and is known to be rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins. It is a natural and essential food item in areas where there is a scarcity of water and forage. High levels of wastage are often reported as herds are usually far from ready urban markets, particularly during the highest production season.
In Russia, Kazakhstan and India, doctors often prescribe it to convalescing patients while, in Africa, it may be recommended for people living with AIDS. Research is also ongoing into the role claimed for camel milk in reducing diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Marketing - Getting over the humpsSuch 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. Tapping the market for camel milk, however, involves resolving a series of humps in production, collection, processing and marketing. There is an increasing market demand for diversified camel milk products including a recent venture into camel milk-based chocolate!
With improved feed, water availability, husbandry and veterinary care, daily yields could rise to 20 litres. Since fresh camel milk typically fetches over a dollar a litre that would mean regular income for nomadic herders who currently have few other sources of revenue. As the Ahaggar nomads of Algeria say, “Water is the soul. Milk is life”, and money too of course!