For the majority of Kenyans outside the area historically known as the Northern Frontier District (NFD), camels are those tall animals that fascinate them during picnic trips to various parts of the country. However, for farmers who keep camels, this is a precious animal with both commercial and cultural importance.
Indeed, Cabinet Secretary for Defence nominee Aden Duale mentioned his camels as part of the multi-million empire he owns. A prominent economist and a Middle East-based banker who hails from Wajir offered to explain that the camels listed by the CS nominee would probably fetch Ksh31 million in current market prices - lifting the lid on the economic value of the camel desert.
The world is slowly discovering the numerous nutritional benefits of camel products which have seen the animal transition beyond its cultural value to a prized asset. According to Zamzam Haji, a Kenyan farmer who trades in camel milk under the brand name, White Gold, every part of the camel has numerous medical benefits.
The most commonly known product is camel milk which is becoming popular in Nairobi. Camel meat, camel hides and even hooves are reputed to have wide-ranging benefits that have seen demand for the products increase locally and international. The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) reports that Kenya has about 1.06 million camels - hosting about 28 per cent of the world camel population.
Camel milk has gained the nickname “white gold” due to its growing prices over the last decade. The medical benefits primarily inform the high monetary value attached to camel milk. It is rich in vitamin C and numerous other protective proteins.
It has low-level fat and insulin - which helps consumers who are diabetic. Unlike cow milk, it does not have lactoglobulin and is therefore suitable for people who are allergic to cow milk.
A litre of camel milk in Nairobi costs about Ksh300 per litre after it has been pasteurised and packaged. In its raw form, farmers get Ksh80 for a litre. This is significantly higher than the amounts Kenyans pay to buy cow milk. Outside Kenya, the demand for camel milk is much higher with the Business Insider reporting that in some countries, a litre of the product fetches as high as Ksh3,600 ($30). Kenya produces about 340 million litres of camel milk - making it the world’s biggest camel milk producer.
Milk production is dependent on the camel breed with the Afghan breed having the highest production of up to ten litres per day. They are, however, quite rare in Kenya and mainly found in Laikipia. The Somali breed is the second-best breed in milk production and produces about 5 litres of milk per day.
For perspective, if you have 231 camels, like Duale, and all of them happened to be milk-producing - you would produce about 1100 litres of milk per day. At the market rate of Ksh80 per litre, you would be earning Ksh92,000 in daily income.
For producers involved in value addition, the amounts become even greater. After purchasing the raw milk at Ksh80, the pasteurised package goes for Ksh300. This comes to about a Ksh220 margin to cater for transport, packaging and marketing costs.
Dairy products derived from camel milk are also becoming popular around the world and include baby milk, chocolate, pizzas, and even cappuccinos that have gained popularity in the US, across Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and Europe.
The second -most popular camel product is meat. Like camel milk, meat products have higher nutritional benefits that set them apart from other red meats. It has fat with low cholesterol levels, has rich proteins and contains vitamins A and B, iron, zinc, and amino acids, which are required to maintain, build, and repair body tissues.
In Nairobi supermarkets, a kilo of meat goes for about Ksh900 - nearly double the price of beef. However, the international market is more lucrative as the world demand for camel meat has increased over the past decade. The main export markets for camel meat are Egypt and the Gulf region including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A spot check by Money254 found that some prime cuts of camel meat, such as a sirloin steak, fetch Ksh13,000 a kilo in Dubai’s butcher shops. The average Somali breed of camel weighs about 450 kilograms. When slaughtered, 56 per cent of the weight is meat (250kgs), 19 per cent is bones (84.5) and 13.7 per cent is fat (61 kilos).
Different cuts will have different prices but a simple calculation places the value of meat at least Ksh100,000. Interesting, the camel is a cash cow in every sense of the word. Its bones have become a popular delicacy for reputed medical benefits.
The street value in Nairobi is Ksh250 per kilo which means one camel can fetch up to Ksh20,000. The fat is also processed and sold off as cooking oil and as a skincare product in the international market. Camel hides are also sold off to leather industries as they are reputed to make good quality shoes, belts, and other leather products.
In other words, if Duale was to slaughter and sell his camels, his income would be about Ksh24 million from meat alone, about Ksh4 million from the sale of bones and some extra change from the fat.
Camels have traditionally been grown in the cultural set-up. The communities living in the deserts and semi-arid areas kept them as a means of transport and milk production. They later became symbols of wealth and prestige. However, more people are growing them for economic purposes as demand for their products has increased.
The major incentive is that camels are able to survive in extreme weather conditions. According to veterinarian Abdullahi Musa, a camel can withstand three dry seasons and can produce milk even when it has gone for ten days without water. The animal is free-ranging, meaning the farmer does not have to source for feed. They roam around the semi-arid areas with the help of herders who guide them to pastures.
“The only cost you incur is veterinary services which average about Ksh1,500 per camel per month,” Mina advises.
If you are new to camel farming, the major capital investment is the sourcing of calves. Young calves cost about Ksh20,000 each. The young camel takes about 4-5 years before it can mature to calve on its own. The gestation period is one year and three weeks. This means that it could take up to six years before you can reap the economic benefits of a camel bought for purposes of milk production.
The young calves also lactate for about one and a half years - meaning that if you were to invest in the young calves, you would need to buy the older camel for lactation needs. You could also invest in older calves that have stopped lactating but the prices go up to about Ksh40,000 each.
Despite the benefits of camel farming highlighted above, the trade has its own unique challenges. As highlighted in the above paragraph, camels take time before farmers can realise a return on their investment. The young calf takes about six years before it can give birth and start producing milk.
For calf herders, the problem is compounded by high mortality rates, especially for those below two years of age. According to Kalro, mortality rates for young camels can be as high as 60 per cent - depending on the season. For perspective, if you were a new farmer wishing to match Duale’s herd, you may need as many as 577 calves to have 231 camels reach maturity. This would translate to 346 lost camels and at least Ksh692,000 in losses from the money invested in purchasing the young ones.
While camels have high resistance to drought and extreme weather conditions, there is a problem in situations where there are prolonged dry seasons. A mature camel can survive three dry seasons but becomes susceptible to diseases thereafter. The semi-arid areas where camels are reared in Kenya, enjoy related problems of poor veterinary support and insecurity - particularly over grazing lands. Already, there is an ongoing clash between herders and farmers in Kitui South that has so far led to the killing of at least three camels.
For established camel farmers who are in milk and beef production, the biggest challenge is preservation given the low electricity connection in the NFD. The international market has better prices for both camel meat and milk. However, export standards tend to be more stringent and would, for example, ban traditional preservation methods such as smoking. The same applies to the poor investment in abbators that meet standards for international exports.
Camel farming is a lucrative business - driven by the demand for camel foods globally and locally. Kenya stands at a unique point as it is the largest producer of camel milk that is in high demand across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.
However, the trade requires patience and can be capital-intensive, especially for large-scale farmers. With the right investment in coolers, refrigerated trucks, abattoirs, and livestock extension officers - the opportunities in camel farming are enormous.