Striking gold with camel milk processing plant
By Mona Ombogo | November 20th 2019
Jama Warsame started White Gold, a camel milk processing and distribution company in 2017, when the only other certified camel milk company in Kenya at the time failed to sustain viable operations after the passing of their founder.
Several camel farmers in the area were left stranded with nowhere to sell their milk. White Gold salvaged the camel milk industry in Laikipia and two years later, they are selling approximately 1,000 litres of milk a week all over East Africa.
Speaking with Hustle, Jama, 43, tells the story of walking away from a twenty-year career, to jump into this niche market.
You were in real estate for 20 years before you started White Gold, what informed your decision?
My mother-in-law was a farmer who sold milk to one of the leading camel milk processors in the region.
When the founder died, the company started struggling.
My wife, who was living in Nanyuki thought we should step in for the sake of the farmers and offer them a distribution avenue.
How risky was it changing careers at 40?
It was risky, yes. But my family, including my parents were living in Nanyuki while I lived and worked in Nairobi. I didn’t want to miss out on moments with my parents or raising my children.
When the opportunity for what we thought a lucrative business in Nanyuki came up, it made sense to move, especially because the business would also make a positive impact to the community.
How difficult was it to learn the ropes, arguably so late in life?
We were systematic. My wife, who knew the farmers, spent time coordinating issues on the ground, like registering the company and bringing the farmers together while I went abroad to learn about dairy processing.
I spent three months in Italy, Holland and Denmark and then took a two-week intensive course in Naivasha at the Diary Training Institute.
Where did you get funding for your start-up and training?
The most expensive part was purchasing the equipment, which goes for anywhere between Sh10 million and Sh15 million. The travel and training were less expensive primarily because as a family, we have networks all over the world.
Wherever I travelled, I was hosted by friends or relatives helping me cut costs like accommodation. They also helped me get appointments with the different institutions and used their networks to get me audience with those well-versed in the industry.
One of the things I emphasize in life, is using networks, giving each other a helping hand. I believe the favour always returns, one way or the other.
Dr Peterson Njiru, Laikipa county director of veterinary services was one of the people who took my hand and walked me through the camel milk process, from raw milk to consumer.
How long did it take for your products to get on supermarket shelves?
We officially opened house in April 2017, we were on shelves by September that same year. There was demand primarily because no other company, at the time, was certified to distribute camel milk.
We approached practitioners like Dr Priya Bowry of Upper Hill Medical Center, who specialised in ailments that can be cured by camel milk; like diabetes, lactose intolerance or general milk allergies.
It took aggressive, relentless marketing but I had a great team, led by our sales manager and think tank, Moses Wachira Kariuki.
For the most part, after that, demand for our product spread through word-of-mouth. We have customers as far as Kampala and Arusha.
How much do you sell the milk for?
We sell 500ml at Sh130 and a litre at Sh260.
Does all your camel milk come from small farmers?
No, apart from the local farmers, like the Somali, Maasai and Samburu communities, we get our milk from big ranches in Nanyuki.
Do you feel you’ve made an impact in your society?
A lot. First, we provide the farmers with a stable income, many children have been able to go to school as a result.
We also educate the farmers on how to handle milk in order to prevent losses or contamination. In instances when disease breaks out, we liaise between them and the veterinary associations, who send vets out to the farms to treat the livestock.
Another big gain we have made is bringing harmony between the big ranchers and the small farmers. Laikipia county is notorious for rustling and drought. Because of this, there has been serious conflict between communities.
Working with the county government, we spoke to the large ranches and asked them to allow small farmers safe passage to graze on their lands during the drought. Now, because the farmers know they have aid in difficult seasons, they instinctively protect these ranches throughout the year.
It means better security for the ranches and less loss of livestock during dry seasons for the small farmers. Everyone wins.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Funding. For instance, we have to pay the small farmers weekly for their supplies, but the institutions we sell to, like some supermarkets will only pay us after three months. It’s easier dealing with the big ranches who we pay once a month, but cash flow remains a balancing act for us.
Another big challenge is the lack of policy framework in the industry which affects goat farmers as well. Just getting our licenses was a tedious process. Recently we were working on expanding our supplies to Europe, the frustrations led me to wonder if I should be selling milk or running around looking for licenses and certification? Yes, we are currently a small industry, but the Government needs to streamline these processes for us.
Why isn’t the camel milk business more widespread in Kenya?
Partly due to a lack of awareness, but also because it’s a capital-intensive business. I gambled my retirement fund to start White Gold. But I have so much faith in it that when we were looking to scale up earlier this year, we applied to the KCB Lion’s Den. We needed the money, yes, but more importantly we wanted the networks.
We were extremely pleased to get two Lions, Joan Mwangi and Dashan Chandaria interested in coming on board. We accepted Dashan’s offer for Sh7.5 million in exchange for 23 per cent equity in the business.
Do you think there will come a time when camel milk is the staple and not the exception?
There are 3.35 million camels in Kenya, but only 5 to 7 per cent of the population is drinking camel milk.
This can change if there is a clear understanding of the benefits of the product and support from the Government for farmers and producers of the milk.
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