Day break in Hadado Sub County, Wajir County in North Eastern Kenya is normally marked by pre-dawn prayers after which herders take their livestock out to the scrub land to graze. One of these herders is 65-year-old Ali Abdullahi Mohammed.
Mohamed, his greybeard a bright orange after being dabbed with orange henna, has herded and cared for camels since the age of seven and feels a deep kinship with the animals that have sustained and continue to succor his community.
“I feel incomplete if I am not with them,” Mohamed told this writer, echoing the sentiments of many camel keeping pastoralists whose livelihoods largely depend on the humped dromedary.
But the snorting beasts now have an additional benefit. They are being hailed for their ability to withstand climate-related droughts that are set to worsen in North Eastern Kenya and the larger Horn of Africa region, where temperatures sometimes go as high as 40 degrees Celsius.
“If there is water scarcity, camels can go a month without water. Even when they are thirsty, they can still produce milk, up to 3 litres per day,” said Mohamed who uses money from milk sales to support his family.
Climate change is a growing threat in Kenya and is making drought and humanitarian disasters worse across Africa, according to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The number of people in need of food aid in Kenya has risen by almost 70 percent, to 1.1 million, since August 2018, due largely to poor rains, leading to drought, according to Kenya National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
On September 8th 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the drought a national disaster and directed the National Treasury and the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government to spearhead government efforts to assist the affected communities with water and relief food distribution as well as livestock uptake. The central government subsequently allocated KSh2 billion for drought mitigation measures in 10 northern counties including Wajir, Garissa, Mandera, and Turkana.
Extreme weather attributed to climate change has pushed wandering nomads like Mohamed to bank on camels for their meat and their milk as a drought-safe investment with Kenya now being recognized as the world’s second largest producer of camel milk after neighbouring Somalia.
According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics, Kenya which has the fourth largest population of camels (3,333,757), after Chad (7,285,309), Somalia (7,222,181) and Sudan (4,849,503), was the second highest producer of Camel milk in 2019 with 876,224 tonnes of milk against Somalia’s 953,673 tonnes. The value of the milk was sh87.6 billion.
Sitting in a makeshift shelter at Qorahey market in Wajir town, Halima Abdi has been selling camel milk for 15 years and is one of a large number of female milk traders in the town.
Halima who normally sources her milk from the outskirts of the town which is brought in the morning via public transport from the outskirts of the town, credits the milk trade for enabling her and many other women earn an income.
“I don’t have anything else. If I didn’t have the milk to sell, I’d be at home. My family would not survive,” she said, adding that selling the milk to customers has allowed her to pay her debts and cater for her children’s needs, especially school fees.
According to Director of Veterinary Services in Wajir County Dr. George Kiprono, camel milk is especially nutritious for young children and the elderly.
“Camel milk has a vitamin C content three times as rich as cow’s milk, and can benefit those who lack access to a varied and balanced diet. It’s believed to possess medicinal properties since it has a different make-up of proteins, carbohydrates and fatty acids,” reiterated Dr. Kiprono.
Camel milk has been hailed as possessing medicinal properties by food experts who say it could help eradicate malnutrition, diabetes and other medical concerns, making it a tempting new super food for health-conscious consumers.
Wajir, home to a large Somali diaspora, has been plagued by the militant group Al Shabaab, which is active in recruiting youth, according to Chief Officer Agriculture Department Mohamed Noor.
“The other effect of climate change is, because many people are losing their livestock, they settle in villages where there are no jobs,” said Noor.
“We are having youth that are not skilled but idle. Crime levels have gone up and they are easily radicalized,” he said.
More than 60 percent of local people still rely on livestock, according to Noor, but cattle are dying due to increased dry weather and driving migration to towns.
“We see climate change with our own eyes,” said local cattle herder Abdi Gedi, who has been shepherding cows for 22 years.
“There have been times where drought wiped out everything we have and we have to start rebuilding from scratch,” he adds.
Chief Officer Agriculture Mohamed Noor hopes wider interest in camel milk could stem poverty in the region and entice investment. One businessman already is taking him up on the offer.
“Camel milk is the next-generation dairy,” said Jama Warsame, Chief Executive of Ngamia Milk Suppliers which operates under the White Gold Camel Milk brand. Having lived in the United States, he hopes to export Kenyan camel milk to U.S. supermarkets.
“Most of the people are going healthy at the moment and they believe that camel milk is medicinal. As a result of that a lot people are drinking it,” he said.
He credits the milk with helping those who suffer from allergies and are lactose intolerant.
His firm is one of a handful of professional processors that have sprung up in Kenya to pasteurize and bottle the milk for supermarkets, hotels and for export.
Among the products they produce at the processing plant based in Nanyuki in Laikipia County include pasteurized whole milk, low fat boiled milk and yoghurt which is packaged and distributed to large and medium supermarket outlets in Nairobi, other towns in Kenya such as Nakuru, Kisumu and Mombasa and exported to regional markets such as Uganda.
Interest in camel milk is growing, observes Chief Officer Noor, who expects greater investment and research in coming years into its health benefits.
But people of Wajir will also prosper, he said, as camels who produce the milk remained one of the best adapted animals to cope with a fast changing climate.
Noor says that camels are able to survive in harsh conditions due to an array of excellent anatomical and physiological adaptations that allow them to withstand long periods of time without water without any adverse effects.
“Keeping camels is an instinctive adaptive response to climate change as a means to build climate resilience since camels can survive severe droughts and continue to offer food security in terms of milk and meat in dry periods better than other classes of livestock,” said Noor.
“For instance, during prolonged drought, milk production in cattle and goats ceased at higher proportions of 52% and 75% respectively than camels at 22%,” reiterated Noor.
Furthermore, a report by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2010 reveals that while the national livestock population has been on a decline in the past two decades for reasons attributed to climate change as evidenced by more frequent droughts, decline in long-season rainfall and the significant warming in temperature, the camel population has somewhat stabilized in the past decade. This has been attributed to the camels’ better adaptation to the changing climate.
By Donald Ngala