East Africa’s ‘Desert Gold’ market poised for growth

The author, Eric Kadenge. Photo/ Courtesy

Livestock play an important role in African pastoralism systems.  Notable ones include cattle, sheep, goats and camels.  These systems are currently facing various threats such as severe drought, conflict, poor or lack of infrastructure and markets.  According to Dr. Hussein Abdullahi – a Lecturer at the Pwani University College in Kenya, these risks have ‘a negative impact on these systems’.  Amidst these challenges however is a growing market for livestock as regional markets expand.  The biggest growth is being experienced in camel markets.

Unlike cattle, camels have never been market commodities.  Over the years however, camel trade has grown to the extent that countries such as Ethiopia that have noticed are taking a keen interest in reaping the benefits that accrue from it.  This is having a ripple effect in other parts of the region.  In his recent study on Camel marketing in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia borderlands, Dr. Hussein who refers to the camel as ‘desert gold’ observes that camel trade has grown tremendously in recent years.  This is due to an expanding market and networks.  Camel prices have form about $100 to $1000 in just ten years!

Camels, the desert gold. Photo/ Mesha

Moyale is a town in northeastern Kenya bordering Ethiopia. The Ethiopian part of it is steadily becoming a regional market known for the export of animals to the Middle East.  It is receiving camels from Southern Ethiopia, northern, northeastern and coastal Kenya and Southern Ethiopia.  The camels then make their way to markets in Nazareth and the Middle East.  The study sites middlemen as a major setback in this trade.  Recent research shows that the growth of small towns in pastoral areas, so often associated with destitution and relieve, are spurring innovation, raising incomes and supporting productive diversification for the most vulnerable.

As mentioned earlier, only Ethiopia seems to have noticed this growth in trade.  Kenya is said to be losing about $2 billion annually.  Dr. Hussein was the team leader in a slaughter house study that was carried out in Kenya in 2006.  The study’s recommendation was the construction of two major slaughter houses in Garissa and Isiolo but these have never been completed to date.  These would have enabled the country tap into the trade income. 

Many pastoralism studies underpin the importance of governments making plans for negotiation and agreement that will enable pastoralists to share key resources such as the ever decreasing water and pasture.  The same should also enable pastoralists and farmers to co-exist in harmony.  In times past, traditional authorities were in charge of the development of rules that governed the use of wells and dry season reserves and the general welfare of the community.  These authorities are in consistent battle with new forms of administration and this can pose a threat to the pastoral systems.   

Another threat to the growth of livestock trade is the spread of invasive species which are almost useless to pastoralists or they simply do not have enough information on how to utilize them.  A case in point is the species known is Kenya as the Mathenge (Prosopis juliflora). 

On the flipside, experts tend to have a consensus on the possible effects of climate change in Africa and they have some good news that even though climate change is almost certain, drought is not.  On the contrary, they foresee increased rainfall in East Africa.  Studies also indicate that pastoralism can contribute to the growth of African economies just as much as agriculture if not more.  In fact, it is believed that the livestock sector is growing at a rate of up to 7% annually.  This is a higher or faster rate than most agriculture sectors in Africa. 

It is further predicted that the livestock sector could be the most important sub-sector in terms of value addition by 2020.  Dr. Hussein points out the need to add value to their products by improving their breeds in order to achieve higher and better yields, diversify their products from animals to milk, cheese, hides and skins while at the same time adding value to the same.  A small dairy in Kenya’s Nanyuki town is currently producing camel milk products such as flavored yoghurt and ice cream.  More and more people are beginning to learn about camel products nutritional and medicinal value. 

The study commissioned by FAC concludes by recommending that the countries involved in camel trade harmonize their trade policies and that these policies should enable pastoralists to take advantage of these emerging markets.

Mr Kadenge is the Development Programs Team Leader at Transworld Radio in Nairobi, Kenya.

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About meshakenya

Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture in Kenya (MESHA) is an association of communicators who are specialized in science, environment, agriculture, health, technology and development reporting.
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