A new use for ATMs in Kenya: camel milk dispenser

In a country where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees F., a British funded initiative is providing women in a Kenyan village with refrigerated ATM-like machines to help them sustain and grow the booming camel milk business.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File
A boy takes care of his family's camels at a water point in the Kenya-Somalia border town of Liboi, Kenya, on July 29, 2011. East African countries produce much of the world's camel milk, with most of it consumed domestically.

Halima Sheikh Ali is the proud owner of one of the few ATMs in Wajir town in northeast Kenya. But rather than doling out shilling notes, it dispenses something tastier: a fresh pint of camel milk.

"For $1, you get one liter of the freshest milk in Wajir County," she says, opening a vending machine advertising "fresh, hygienic and affordable camel milk" in order to check the liquid's temperature.

One of the world's biggest camel producers, East Africa also produces much of the world's camel milk, almost all of it consumed domestically.

In the northeast Kenyan county of Wajir, demand is booming among local people, who say it is healthier and more nutritious than cow's milk.

"Camel milk is everything," said Noor Abdullahi, a project officer for United States-based aid agency Mercy Corps. "It is good for diabetes, blood pressure, and indigestion."

But temperatures averaging 104 degrees F. in the dry season, combined with the risk of dirty collection containers, mean the liquid can go sour in a matter of hours, he added, making it much harder to sell.

To remedy this, an initiative is equipping about 50 women in Hadado, a village about 50 miles from Wajir, with refrigerators to cool the milk that remote camel herders send them via tuk-tuk taxi, plus a van to transport it daily to Wajir.

There a dozen women milk traders, including Ms. Sheikh Ali, sell it through four ATM-like vending machines, after receiving training on business skills such as accounting.

"The [milk] supply and demand are there. We just have to make it easier for the milk to get from one point to another," said Mr. Abdullahi.

The project, which is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters program, is funded by the UK Department for International Development and led by Mercy Corps.

Asha Abdi, a milk trader in Hadado who operates one of the refrigerators with 11 other women, said she used to have to boil camel's milk – using costly and smoky firewood – to prevent it turning sour.

"I spent $1 a day on firewood, and the milk would often go bad by the time it got to Wajir as the [public] transport took over three hours," she said.

Now Ms. Abdi and the other women in her group send about 130 gallons of fresh milk to Wajir every day – a trip that takes just over an hour by van. They then reinvest the profits in other ventures.

"With the milk money I bought 20 goats," said Abdi as she rearranged bags of sugar in her crowded kiosk.

"But my dream would be to export the camel milk to the United States," she added. "I hear it's like gold over there."

Amid hundreds of camels roaming stretches of orange dirt outside of Hadado, Gedi Mohammed sits under the shade of a small acacia tree.

"The [tuk-tuk] drivers should be here soon to buy my camel milk," he said, sipping the precious liquid from a large wooden bowl.

In Kenya's largely pastoralist Wajir County, prolonged drought is pushing growing numbers of the region's nomadic herders to see camels – and their milk – as a drought-safe investment.

Mr. Mohammed, who used to own over 100 cows, said he exchanged them a decade ago for camels, "which drink a lot of water but can then survive eight days without another drop, when a cow will die after two days."

But even camels suffer when the weather is really dry, he added.

"Drought is bad for business because with less food and water the camels produce less milk," he said, impatiently waving at a teenage boy to fetch a straying camel.

"Business would be better if I had a vehicle to transport the milk to buyers myself," said Mohammed, who said he has to travel ever-longer distances to find pastures for his animals.

"Right now I rely on the [tuk-tuk] drivers to find me, and you never know how long they will be."

Back in Wajir, Sheikh Ali said her group's cooled milk ATM allows her to save about $50 per month, as she no longer has to buy firewood to boil milk and can sell the fresh liquid at a higher price.

But although the vending machines are proving popular, they also have been plagued by technical issues, said Amina Abikar, who also works for Mercy Corps in Wajir.

"Sometimes the machines break down, or indicate that there is no milk left when there are still 100 liters" inside, she explained.

"So we have to wait for the machine supplier's technician to travel all the way from Nairobi. It would be better to train someone locally," she said.

Also slowing down business growth is the high rate of illiteracy among women involved in the project, Ms. Abikar said.

Sheik Ali, who cannot read or write, relies on her son to operate the machine and check its various indicators.

"I would love to do it myself but I don't know my ABCs," she said, adding that she feels "proud that I am one of the only fresh milk traders in Wajir." 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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