Camel milk: Why farmers are thriving

Camels drink water from a cattle deep in in Moyale in Marsabit County [Antony Gitonga]

Rarely will you find vegetable gardens or fruit orchards in arid and semi-arid regions but camels stand tall providing the much needed rich, wholesome and nutritious milk.

Kenya is home to about 1.06 million camels. Camel milk production is estimated at over 340 million litres valued at Sh8 billion at the farm level. Camels thrive in the harshest of Kenya’s agro-ecological zones and can withstand the frequent droughts which decimate cattle, goats and sheep populations. But what does it take to rear camels?

Camel adaptation

Camels are hardy and this peculiar adaptation quality enables them to produce substantial quantities of milk for communities in arid lands. This potential has been recognised by a number of pastoral communities who were previously keeping cattle, but are now adopting the camel as a diversification strategy.

These ever resilient animals are kept for milk, meat and hide. They are also used for other purposes like transport, entertainment, celebration and competition in races and beauty shows. The camel is of significant socio-economic importance in many arid and semi-arid parts of the Kenya and the world. Its milk constitutes an important component of human diets in these regions.

Camels have nutritious milk

The quality of camel milk is almost similar to cow’s milk with a few differences in butter fat, Vitamin C and protein content. Camel milk has a low butterfat content compared to that of the cow and does not separate easily. The milk is rich in vitamin C compared to cow’s milk. 

Milka Kigen (right) a resident of Rimoi village in Elgeyo Marakwet County and Ann Komen milking a camel [Antony Gitonga]

This is very important in arid and semi-arid regions where fruits and vegetables are not easily available as a source of vitamins. The protein lactoferrin in camel milk is about ten times more than cow’s milk. Protein lactoferrin and Vitamin C in camel milk give the milk medicinal properties that can treat viral and bacterial infection.

Camel milk has insulin-like activity, regulatory and immunomodulatory functions on cells of the body. It possesses beneficial effect in the treatment of diabetic patients. Furthermore, camel milk has been used for the treatment of food allergies, Crohn’s disease and autism.

Milk production

In order to produce milk, the female must be successfully mated and a calf must be born alive. The young calves can be a source of meat, especially those young males which are considered unsuitable for breeding. Old males and unproductive females are also a source of meat.

Camel meat: high in protein and low in fat

Camel meat is a source of animal protein in many African and Asian countries, especially in areas where the climate adversely affects the production efficiency of other animals.

The male dromedary carcass can weigh 400 kilos or more. The carcass of a male Bactrian can weigh up to 650 kilos. The carcass of a female camel weighs between 250 and 350 kilos.

The meat yields depend on the age, sex, feeding condition and general health of the animal.  Camel meat tastes like coarse beef. In old animals the meat is tough and not tasty. The brisket, ribs and loin are other preferred parts of the carcass.

Research shows that the culinary and cooking practices in several African and Arabian countries have evolved to prefer camel meat to other meats because of the medicinal benefits, its availability and/or affordable price.

Camel meat is healthier because the carcass contains less fat and has lower levels of cholesterol compared to other meats. It is also relatively high in polyunsaturated fatty acid compared to beef. This is an important factor in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is linked to saturated fat consumption.

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