Camels may not be the first thing that pops into your mind when someone asks if you want milk. But they may well be far better suited to a warming climate than dairy cows. “Camels are more adapted than cows or sheep to climate change and are built to survive for weeks without water in tough conditions, yet produce a truly natural milk which is high in vitamins and immune properties, that tastes good and is suitable for those with lactose intolerance and allergies,” said Jeff Flood, a trained nutritionist and the CEO of Summer Land Camels in Queensland, Australia.
Camel milk has the potential to be a $10 billion industry, with much of it sourced from Africa and the United Arab Emirates, although there are camel dairies in unexpected places, like South Africa, USA, Australia, Kazakhstan, and the Netherlands.
On World Milk Day on June 1, 2020, a global coalition of camel milk consumers, experts and dairy producers from 35 countries raised a virtual glass to camel milk, for the first day since the world began celebrating the day two decades ago. The market was valued at US$10.2 billion in 2019, and is projected to grow at more than 10% for the next decade, says veterinarian Dr. Bernard Faye, who chairs ISOCARD, the International Society of Camelid Research and Development. It is at work on a supply chain investigation.
Every year, an estimated 3 million tons of camel milk are officially sold and consumed around the world, but actually, the true production level could be twice that amount, given that 70% camel milk is consumed by the camel owners and never reaches the market.
While the camel milk private sector once was based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Mauritania, climate change is encouraging its spread worldwide. Quartz reported in 2019 that “camel dairy products ranging from baby milk to chocolate bars, pizzas to frappuccinos have been launched all across the world.” One unexpected product line is beauty products.
Facing climate change on the equator in Kenya and Australia, more commercial dairy farmers are diversifying or switching to camels. “The camel saved humans for generations in the desert,” says Dr. Abdul RaziqKakar, a UAE based camel dairy specialist from Pakistan and Camels4All blogger. “In arid areas and hot weather over 45C, we see cows suffer as they need 8-10 times more water than camels to produce 1 litre of milk.”
White Gold, started in central Kenya in 2017, sources milk from about 30 herders, mostly women, and sells between 10,000 and 15,000 litres a month, including flavoured varieties — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Unable at present to export Kenyan camel milk to the US and Europe, it supplies a thriving local market in Nairobi with some exports to Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.
And camel milk is being sold in new ways, including as a nutritional superfood. “Using a blend of direct marketing, social media, and word of mouth, their aim is to bring the desert animal into cities and realize the commercial value of camels. They are also changing the consumption of camel milk from its usual smoked and boiled usage and introducing it in pasteurized and powdered forms.”
It is likely not an outcome that British-born engineer Nancy Jones Abeiderrahmane imagined when she created a camel milk dairy in Mauritania in 1989. It was the first dairy in Africa – and only the second in the world – to pasteurize camel’s milk.
Originally named Laitière de Mauritanie, the dairy aimed to bridge the gap between good fresh milk available in the countryside and Nouakchotts milk-loving consumers, who only had imported UHT or dried milk and small amounts of raw milk. It was the first dairy in West Africa to collect raw milk from herders, with a twist: they were all more or less nomadic and traditionally, they did not sell camel milk because they thought it would bring bad luck. It now has a line of 14 products and produces 13,000 litres of milk a day.
While her original aim was to simply create a local supply of milk, the impact has been widespread. It raised the incomes of nomadic herders, increased the value of cows, camels and goats six-fold, encouraged better care of the animals, and set a template for other such dairies elsewhere.
The camel milk dairy was a response to the realities of living in a very hot climate. Drought had decimated cattle in Mauritania in the 1980s but camels thrived – the population grew from just over half a million in the 1960s to 1.5 million today. (Local experts think there may be as many as three million camels in the country.) It was not just the camel population that grew. The capital city of Nouakchott had mushroomed from some 200,000 residents when it was built in 1960 to almost 1 million in 2006, and oil discoveries were expected to bring further growth. And over the years, attitudes changed. Camel farmers began to realize that selling milk could help cover their herd expenses, and the urban dwellers wanted to drink camel milk.
“The first product was Tiviski, fresh pasteurised camel milk in a carton, the first in Africa and almost in the world. Many other firsts followed: El Badia fresh pasteurised cow milk, LOasis cultured cream, and a whole range of world-class dairy products, right up to UHT cow milk in 2002 with a Candia franchise. Caravane camel cheese is still the only one in the world. Over the years, the mini-dairy – renamed Tiviski – has grown considerably. When demand outgrew the milk supply close to Nouakchott, two collecting centres were set up near pasture in Rosso and Boghé: that is where camel, cow and goat milk collected from hundreds of pastoralists within a 90 km radius is delivered, checked, weighed and chilled, and then carried to Nouakchott in insulated tanker trucks.” New technology, such as solar power and isothermal tanks, have made this possible even in such remote areas.
The League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development sees pastoralism as a key part of what it calls the agro-ecological transformation of the global food sector, and it is developing a map to show where they are and how varied their groups are. “Supporting decentralized camel farming through innovative models is a great opportunity to reduce poverty and to better food security in some of the poorest parts of the world,” says Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson.
Habiba Mowulid, who owns seven camels and provides milk to White Gold, puts it well. “This is the milk of the future,” she says. “You can’t compare cow milk to camel milk at all.”
Tiviski, Mauritania: Creating a Niche in Camel Milk and Cheese. International Trade Forum Magazine, March 2001.
Sons of the Clouds. Farm of the Future, Nov. 28, 2016.
Camel milk could be the next superfood—thanks to East Africa. Quartz Africa, Jun. 6, 2019.
Herders tout camel milk as Africa’s new ‘superfood’. Financial Times, Oct. 22, 2020.
Australian camel’s milk surprising many with its growing popularity, Dairy Reporter, Mar. 5, 2020.