Women Find Refuge & Freedom in Camels

kenya women and camels

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ISIOLO, Kenya – It is hard to imagine Maryam Osman, who spends much of her day leaning out of her car and bellowing at farmers, not having a say at home, let alone needing permission to leave it!

But that’s how it was for her and other women in Isiolo, a small town in northern Kenya, before camel milk changed their fortunes. “The women are really coming up because of camel milk,” says Osman, now a kingpin in the local industry.

“We don’t need to ask permission to go and visit the camels.”

Now Osman buzzes around town every day, visiting various camel camps to check on production. Which is where the bellowing comes in.

Osman, woman went from having to ask her husband’s permission to leave the house to juggling three daily visits to herdsmen to collect milk with managing the clothes shop she set up with her profits. She only calls it a day after an evening trip to the center to account for roughly 80 gallons (300 liters) of milk delivered there daily, most of which is then transported four hours south to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

“Women are much more powerful now,” says Osman. “We are in charge.”

Women claiming their freedom of rights through camels
Women claiming their freedom of rights through camels

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the global camel milk industry could be worth up to $10 billion a year. Increasing demand for the milk from urban centers in Kenya is causing a boom in the neglected, arid areas of the country’s north. “Previously, the price used to be around 40 Kenyan shillings ($0.40) per liter,” says Osman. “Right now, it’s up to 150 ($1.50).”

In Isiolo, the women of the camel milk cooperative are talking about pooling their resources to buy their own camels and a car to further boost their autonomy and profits in a community where most women aren’t allowed a say in family finances.

“We’re making money so we can make more decisions about how to spend it,” says camel milk producer Sadiya Abdirahman. “We have a contribution to make, and the men realize this.”

For Osman, camel milk has already been life-changing. Now she hopes it will do the same for her family. “This business is very good. I will do it until I die,” she says. “I’m encouraging my children to get into this already. Their holidays are visiting the camels.”

camels in Kenya
Camels causing life changes for Kenyan communities

Farmers in Isiolo have been struggling to keep their businesses alive as the cows and goats they rely on are dying in Kenya’s increasingly long and fierce droughts. So in 2010, Dutch development agency SNV set up a camel milk cooperative to give female entrepreneurs a boost and encourage the community to shift to an income generator that isn’t so susceptible to the effects of climate change.

With around $100,000, SNV helped the women establish a collection center where raw camel milk can be properly tested and cooled, before it’s sold. Osman is one of 100 women who have joined. By pooling their resources, the women saw a sixfold increase in milk production at the cooperative and a 30 percent hike in profits.

The Camel Project supports the pastoralist way of life in Kenya by reducing the vulnerability of women like Lenthe during the dry season. For years, women, children and the elderly in Samburu would suffer when men would migrate with their cattle and goats in search of water and pasture. But the Heifer camels offer the women of this semi-nomadic community a drought-resistant source of food and income during lean times.

Camels also act as a stash of emergency cash for women during the dry season. A herd of animals serves as a pastoralist’s bank account; when there is an emergency, the family will sell a goat or cow to raise money. But when the herds migrate, women are left without access to their family’s capital.

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