Pastoralists are people who live mostly in dry, remote areas, whose livelihoods depend on their intimate knowledge of the surrounding ecosystem and on the wellbeing of their livestock (IFAD). Most pastoralists raise livestock and practice animal husbandry consisting usually of camels, goats, cattle, yaks, sheep, horses, llamas, alpacas, reindeer and vicunas. Pastoralists tend to be nomadic in that they move to water sources and pasture lands however, many of these populations in habit dryland areas where very little cultivation of croplands is done, and rainfall is variable. There are nearly 200 million pastoralists in the world generating income where conventional farming is not possible (IFAD).
These 200 million remain marginalized and are often vulnerable to climate change, global markets, population growth, and land and natural resource rights. Yet with the challenges these populations face, they have profound mechanisms of adaptation and ecological balance that sustain their way of life. Within the Earth Institute and the CGHED, we are working with pastoralists in the northeastern region of Kenya in the village of Dertu, approximately 140 km from the border with Somalia. Dertu is situated within the Ewaso Nyiro river basin 150-300m above sea level. The area is characterized by an arid climate with an average annual rainfall of about 350mm, although actual rainfall has been highly erratic in recent years. Dertu is a pastoralist community focused on raising camels, cows, sheep and goats. Approximately half of the community is nomadic and the other half is sedentary in the town of Dertu. To travel there is a remarkable experience and you quickly realize who resilient and durable this community is. I have had the pleasure of traveling there several times, and am in awe of their will to survive and their ability to hold onto their traditions.
Pastoral sedentarism is unfortunately accompanied by many changes to the traditional diet including the introduction of foods not commonly consumed by nomadic people, and a concurrent reduction in the intake of more traditional foods. Dietary acculturation is associated with nutritional benefits in some cases, but in many it increases the risk of energy and nutrient deficiencies. Through community based nutrition and livestock programs in the Millennium Villages Project, traditional foods and ways of life are being promoted. Camel’s milk is one of them.
The camel and its milk are at the core of Somali Kenyan culture and pastoral life. Of prime importance in the arid regions of the horn of Africa, the camel is the main source of the nutrient most important for survival – that being water. Although camel’s milk has been touted to have many medicinal properties, it has been demonstrated to be of superior nutritional value for humans to that of many other species milk. The nomadic Somali Kenyans are highly dependent on camel’s milk as their primary source of food energy, protein, fat and many vitamins and minerals. Yet, it does contain important nutrients that are critical for nutrition of children and mothers.
Although slightly saltier than cow’s milk, it is highly nutritious. During the time I lived in Kenya, I could find camel’s milk in most of the major supermarkets and I often used it in my cereal and my coffee! The vitamin C levels in camel milk are 3 times that of cow milk and 1.5 times that of human milk. This is of particular importance where the diet is lacking in fruits and vegetables as it is in the harsh regions of the horn of Africa. It is also rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins. Levels of the protein lactoferrin are ten times higher than what is found in cow’s milk, and are found to have anti-bacterial properties. Yet with all these nutritional benefits, camel milk production is considered a low-tech business (FAO) with an average 5 liters/day. However with improved breeding and protection of the camel husbandry, production can improve up to 20 liters/day.
To improve production of milk in the face of and recurrent harsh droughts in Northern Kenya, Dertu commenced mass treatment and vaccination of livestock and camels within the community and neighboring villages with support of the Ministry of Livestock. A total of over 100,000 heads of livestock were treated or vaccinated in the past three years to prepare them to overcome drought and unexpected floods that causes the emergence of the contagious Rift Valley Fever. In addition, multiple long-term initiatives are being implemented in Dertu to increase community food and livelihood security under climate change. Mobile communication technology including a cell tower and mobile phones now connects the Dertu community with the outside world and provides information on weather, security, livestock market prices, status of boreholes and water surface availability, which allows the community to act more pro-actively to droughts. The Dertu Renewable Energy Project was also launched which will bring biogas (starting from livestock manure) to the community. There are hopes in the future to use solar systems to power small-scale camel milk units and create new business enterprise from these highly valued animals and their milk.
Jessica Fanzo is Director of Nutrition at the Center for Global Health and Economic Development.
The Center for Global Health and Economic Development (CGHED) mobilizes health research and programs that enable low-resource countries to develop quality health systems for the poor, promote sustainable economic development and achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – global targets for reducing extreme poverty and hunger and improving education, health, gender equality and environmental sustainability. For more information about CGHED’s work, please visit our website.