NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIA — Twenty years ago, when times were tough, Mohamed Ould Tati had to sell one of his cherished camels to make ends meet. Today, he can just sell its milk.
Slightly saltier than cow's milk and three times as rich in Vitamin C, camel's milk has been a favorite drink for centuries in Mauritania, served to guests under the billowing folds of a traditional khaima tent or donated to the poor.
"But we never thought of selling it. It was a very shameful thing to do," Mr. Tati explains, raising his bushy eyebrows in remembered horror.
But now, nomads across the desert nation supply fresh milk to the Tiviski dairy in the capital, Nouakchott, where it is pasteurized, packaged, and sold. "Slowly the mentality has changed," Tati grins. "Before, milk was for drinking; now it's liquid gold."
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization said recently that the world market for camel-milk products could be as much as $10 billion, giving nomadic herders a key source of income while helping to provide more food to people in the world's most arid areas.
Tiviski was the brainchild of British engineer, Nancy Abeiderrahmane. On a visit to Mauritania as a student, she was struck by the absurdity of everyone drinking imported milk in a country where livestock outnumber people. It rankled so much, she decided to do something about it, setting up the first dairy in Africa – and only the second in the world – to pasteurize camel's milk.
It's a win-win enterprise in one of the world's poorest countries where, despite becoming Africa's newest oil producer this year, almost two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Thanks to the dairy, Mauritania's nomads have been able to connect to the ever-globalizing world without being swallowed by it.
"Aid doesn't aid. And neither does an economy forced on a country by globalization. It's about harnessing what's already there in terms of resources and talent," says Abeiderrahmane. "I'm proud of the business but more importantly the herders are too."
Tiviski pays 150 ouguiya (55 cents) a litre to the roaming herders, a significant boost to the income of the herders, whose nomadic lifestyle leaves them with few other economic opportunities.
The herders milk by hand wherever they happen to be.If they find themselves down the road from the dairy, they send their milk in a bucket; others use donkey carts or a network of pickup trucks to deliver their churns. That done, the nomads continue on their way, following the clouds by day and the stars by night.
There are cultural benefits for the residents of Nouakchott, too, as the dairy bridges the gap between their urban day-to-day life and their nomadic roots.
"We are the in-between generation with one foot in the town and another staying in the desert. We are part urban, part nomad," Seydou Sall, a local government official, explains at an evening tea party where guests sprawl on floor mats, their elbows propped on cushions as they sip from small patterned glasses.
The capital city of Nouakchott has mushroomed from some 200,000 residents when it was built in 1960 to almost 1 million today. And more people will surely follow the trail of money to the capital now that oil is flowing.
Yet many of the suited businessmen and bureaucrats plying the avenues of Nouakchott were born in tents. They smile in anticipation at the thought of the hot rainy season, when they have an excuse to head for the dunes, where they will rent a camel to provide a steady stream of fresh milk.
But at least now, during those months when they are confined to town, the pasteurized Tiviski camel milk fills the void.
Although camel milk was the only product when the dairy opened its doors in 1989, Tiviski has since branched out into cow and goat milk. On average, it buys about 12,000 liters of raw milk a day.
"Over the years, herders have been able to raise their standard of living. It's an important financial lifeline that provides them with cash on a daily basis," says Abeiderrahmane. "And they are buying more feed and agroproducts, so that's injected life into another sector of the economy."
The dairy also does its bit for the local community, mixing leftover milk with water and fruit flavorings to make a calcium-rich snack for schoolchildren in poor suburbs of the capital. The 500 plastic sachets distributed daily also carry messages like "wash your hands" and "clean your teeth."
There are environmental spinoffs, too. Wastewater from the milk production process is pumped to two nearby plots and acts like fertilizer for plants in the Tiviski gardens that provide some rare greenery in this city constantly under siege from the advancing sands.
The FAO says demand for camel milk is booming, but that there's not enough to go round because most of the 5.4 million tons produced yearly by the 20 million camels in the world gets guzzled by their young.
What the FAO wants to do is teach herders methods to quadruple the daily yield, and then entice enough investors to help camel milk move into lucrative markets in the West.
"The potential is massive," said Anthony Bennett, a dairy expert at FAO, in a briefing paper. "Milk is money. A world market worth $10 billion would be entirely within the realm of possibility."
Abeiderrahmane's dairy, which now employs 240 people, illustrates how much can be done with relatively modest resources but also some of the humps that still need to be gotten over.
Her innovative attempts to branch into cheese, for example, have been bogged down in red tape.
Given that camel milk doesn't curdle naturally, and that the cool, damp conditions needed for cheesemaking seem to exist only in mirages here on the edge of the Sahara Desert, it is remarkable that she managed to create a fromage de chamelle.
With the appearance of a rather square Camembert but the taste of a tangy goat's cheese, it has had stores like Harrods of England licking their lips.
But EU regulations means it cannot be exported. "It's quite ironic, really," Abeiderrahmane chuckles. "Because, despite the rules, most of the cheese makes it to Europe now – it just happens through people's suitcases."