For thousands of years, nomadic desert tribes in Africa and the Middle East have relied on camel milk for sustenance during periods of drought and famine. Now, two innovative thinkers—one in Mauritania, the other in Israel—are working to transform this traditional beverage into a modern commercial enterprise. In the process, they are developing a possible alternative to the way the international aid community looks at emergency relief.
The milk of dromedaries, or domesticated one-hump camels, is high in both protein and vitamin C, and low in cholesterol. Loaded with minerals such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, camel milk is easily digestible by those with lactose intolerance and has been hailed as a possible cure for everything from diabetes to Crohn’s disease. Camels are capable of producing remarkable amounts of this ultra-nutritious foodstuff in some of the most challenging climatic conditions on earth.
Sub-Saharan Africa is at constant risk of famine and drought, and relief efforts don’t necessarily provide the kind of sustained support that the region desperately needs. As a solution that derives from local knowledge and is adapted to the native climate, camel-milk harvesting presents an opportunity to alleviate hunger while establishing sustainable industry.
Mauritania’s arid climate and historically nomadic population have made it difficult to promote viable economic development. Yet where some see stagnation, entrepreneur Nancy Abeiderrahmane sees opportunity. Tiviski, the small dairy she founded in 1989, buys camel milk from semi-nomadic livestock owners and processes it into products such as cream, yogurt, and cottage cheese. The nomads have benefited from the income their camels provide, and Tiviski, in turn, has begun exporting its products to Europe. The dairy provides much needed economic activity in a country where 40% of the population lives in poverty.
Tiviski’s business model is unusual by Western standards, but Abeiderrahmane believes in local solutions to local problems. Nomadic camel herders arrange delivery of raw milk to intermediaries who transport it to collection centers. With high desert temperatures and huge distances to be covered, keeping the milk flowing can be tricky. “Most experts think that our collection system is weird and cannot be profitable, but it actually works, and keeps us and our one-thousand-odd suppliers busy,” Abeiderrahmane said in a recent interview with Policy Innovations.
In Israel, Dr. Reuven Yagil, professor emeritus of physiology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has devoted his professional life to the promotion of camel-milk products. In 2000, Yagil started an experimental camel farm in the Israeli desert where he developed techniques for consistently getting more than 10 liters of milk (2.6 gallons) per day per camel. While this amount is less than the average cow’s milk yield, his achievement represents a significant improvement over the 5 liters per day that is typical of a hand-milked camel.
Yagil envisions his farm serving as a model for expanded local production of camel milk. “I know that by marketing camel products manufactured in the third world, the proceeds can be used to save starving children,” Yagil wrote in a recent email conversation. The ability of camels to thrive in severe desert climates holds the key to their potential. “These are the same environments where hunger, poverty, and illiteracy are rife,” he noted.
A 1980 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that camel milk could help feed starving people. So why has this idea taken so long to catch on? Many entrepreneurs have shied away from potential investment because of technical issues associated with storage and pasteurization.
“Camel milk is great stuff… however, it is tricky to process, and camels tend to be in the wrong place with respect to markets,” laments Abeiderrahmane. Furthermore, in many countries, camel herding is the province of nomads who are often reluctant to settle down and devote themselves to farming.
Yagil sees other obstacles to the successful commercialization of camel milk. “The camel herders were assumed to be primitive and non-productive, even being a security problem for many countries,” he said. In addition, countries on the receiving end of aid often prefer the fungibility of money.
Thanks to Yagil and Abeiderrahmane, the visibility of camel milk is on the rise internationally. But it will take the encouragement of stakeholder governments and financial capital to kick-start the industry. If successful, it could be the straw that breaks the back of hunger and economic underdevelopment in the desert.