Abdul Khalifa, 62, owns a large herd of camels in Kenya’s North Eastern Province.
Based in the rural outskirts of Garissa, a town located 367 km northeast of the nation’s capital Nairobi, a five-and-a-half-hour bus ride, Khalifa has been breeding camels for more years than he can remember.
Most of the land in the area is communal land, meaning it is wholly owned or shared by the community. Khalifa’s almost 600 camels make him one of the wealthiest herders in his community, as camel meat brings in a substantial income.
Kenya has a total of 4.72 million camels out of the approximate 13.7 million in East Africa, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Co-operatives. The main camel breeds are Somali, Rendile, Gabbra and Turkana. These names are also similar to the communities that breed them.
“For a female camel, I sell it at the local market for as high as 190,000 Kenyan shillings ($1,260). A male camel fetches around 130,000 Kenyan shillings ($860),” he said.
However, Khalifa said that when slaughtered, herders can make more from sales of meat than from selling live camels. This is because a healthy male camel can weigh as much as 400 kg and its meat sells anywhere between $2.30 to $9 per kg, depending on a range of factors including location, quality, and demand.
“Adult female camels cost more because they produce milk and are more economically viable,” he said. Camel milk is also good for human health and sells for around $3 a litre in local supermarkets.
But from 1 January 2024, Kenya will begin exporting camel meat and milk to China. Khalifa is excited as this will boost his income.
“The prices of the animals will definitely go up, a big advantage for me and my competitors. Of course, we will obviously pay more for production such as transport, meat and milk packaging and quality control. It’s good news for us herders,” he said, adding that a big increase in camel numbers will be needed for the growing market demand.
The export market agreement was sealed after Kenyan President William Ruto’s recent visit to China during the recent Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing.
“Kenya and China signed agreements on agriculture, including exports of beef and several meat products, that includes camel, poultry, goat and also other major exports such as horticulture,” said Musalia Mudavadi, prime cabinet secretary and cabinet secretary for foreign and diaspora affairs of Kenya.
Kenya remains one of the world’s major producers of camel milk and meat. The country produced about 700,000 tonnes of camel meat in 2022, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Co-operatives. In addition, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said Kenya is the leading camel milk producer globally, with an annual production volume of 1.16 million tonnes, followed by Somalia and Mali.
Currently, the main export markets for camel meat and milk are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“The Chinese market [demand] will most likely outstrip supply. China is a big market and will be a big success. It will require camel breeders to almost double their efforts,” said Mudavadi.
The health benefits of consuming both camel milk and meat are substantial. It helps in boosting the immune system from infectious diseases, according to Evan Abwao, a Nairobi-based pediatrician.
“Camel milk improves the number of white blood cells in the body. It helps in fighting HIV/AIDS by producing antibodies that also suppress cancer, Hepatitis C, Alzheimer’s disease, and diarrhea. It has both antiviral and antibacterial properties and contains antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties,” said Abwao.
He said that over 18 studies have been conducted both locally and internationally that show camel milk’s health benefits.
Camel milk is used to decrease the dosage of antibiotics, therefore reducing bacterial antibiotic resistance, which is very helpful in the case of children, said Abwao.
China’s massive market
Kenyan economists also expect the country’s current camel product figures to increase with China as a new and emerging market.
“China comes with a lot of promise. It is a huge market, considering its population and its huge economy,” said Ndindi Nyoro, a member of parliament and economist in Kenya. “We have to form strong local camel breeder associations to improve on both quantity and quality. The good thing is we now have a ready market.”
He said that the government will work closely with breeders. “For us to grow our figures as a country and improve the economy, we need to identify the challenges and obviously improve on our gains,” he added.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Co-operatives is currently working on new guidelines that it will discuss with the breeders. These guidelines include quality, safety, sanitation, and several other measures that will boost productivity.
“We will work together with breeders and discuss and agree together what is good for them. Eventually, we will launch new guidelines in the near future,” said Mithika Linturi, cabinet secretary for agriculture and livestock development.
Strengthening the Kenya Camel Association is very important, said Linturi. In addition, strengthening the Kenya Livestock Breeders Association is vital. These are the two largest livestock and most influential associations in the country.
“Working closely with these associations will be very important in realising many goals. Doubling or even tripling production with new markets such as China is vital and it is something that is doable,” said Linturi.
The country’s breeders will target supermarkets, restaurants, and major eateries in China. Also, hospitals and schools are being targeted as part of expansion programmes.
“We plan to have very strong markets in China. As a farmer, I feel very happy to expand my business to China. I have traveled to China three times before. Beijing and Shanghai as well as Hong Kong are very big markets. This opportunity will greatly expand my camel business,” said herd owner Mohammed Ali.
African Times has published this article in partnership with ChinAfrica Magazine