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World: The Overlooked Resource Of Camel Milk

Tiviski camel-milk collection center in Mauritania (Courtesy Photo) The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says camel milk is a nutritional and economic resource that many countries, especially in Central Asia and the Middle East, ignore. That's why the FAO has launched a new campaign to draw attention to this untapped resource. RFE/RL talks to an entrepreneur in the African desert nation of Mauritania, who founded and runs one of the world's few state-of-the-art camel dairies.

PRAGUE, April 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) – When Nancy Abeiderrahmane quit her native England in the 1960s to follow her husband to the sandy shores of Mauritania, she left behind many modern conveniences.

One of them was being able to walk to the corner store for a carton of milk.

In Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, most milk comes from camels. Back then, getting a splash of milk in your afternoon tea meant an adventure into the desert.

"You had to go to the edge of the town in your car, wait until the camel was milked, have it in a plastic bag, take it home, and filter it," Abeiderrahmane says.

But thanks to Abeiderrahmane, shoppers can now go to their nearest grocery store and pick up a liter of fresh, pasteurized camel milk, butter or even French-style cheese dubbed "camelbert" -- all in attractive, modern packaging.

The products come from Abeiderrahmane's Tiviski dairy -- the first modern milk-processing plant in Mauritania. Tiviski means "spring" in the local language; the season when grass blooms on the edge of the desert.

The Tiviski dairy now boasts over 200 employees and some 1,000 suppliers, and is a success story that is being held up by the FAO as an example of the bright prospects for camel milk.

Bringing Camel Milk To The World

For centuries, camel milk's medicinal properties have been known to people in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. In India and Kazakhstan, for example, camel milk is sometimes prescribed to patients suffering from diabetes, heart disease, or tuberculosis. It is much richer in Vitamin B, Vitamin C, and iron than is cow milk.

But aside from sanatoriums or the villages, it is not widely available.

And that is where the FAO believes the Tiviski dairy has forged a new path. If it can be done in Mauritania, one of the worlds' least-developed countries, camel-milk processing can be done anywhere, the UN organization believes.

Running a dairy where the animals are owned by nomads requires some adjustments. But Abeiderrahmane says this poses no major obstacles.

"There isn't a fence among my thousand suppliers, so they're all mobile," she says. "Some of them move quite a bit. Others move twice or three times a year. They do tend to go around. So we have collecting centers in the more 'rainy' areas in the south, where there's more grass. And around these centers there are a number of pickup trucks, which are mostly four-wheel-drives. But there are some donkey carts and some normal pickup trucks. They go all over the bush. They have their routes and they pick up the milk cans and bring them to the collecting centers."

At the collecting centers, the milk goes through quality control. "We check the milk for freshness, for watering, and then chill it quickly," Abeiderrahmane says. "We have tanker trucks and when it is cool at night, we have the tanker trucks bring the milk to the plant and that's where it gets turned into nice products."

Abeiderrahmane adds that camel milk is "not heavy milk. It's very light, it's very hydrating. It's full of vitamins, minerals. It's very complete. You can live on it alone for months to the exclusion of other food, which is quite amazing."

Economic Resource As Well

But the nomadic herdsmen who are Abeiderrahmane's suppliers no longer need to subsist on camel milk alone. Thanks to the business, they are earning a steady income.

"It's given value to livestock that was almost disappearing, except for meat," Abeiderrahmane says. "Camels are right back there now and they [the nomads] do definitely make money because they have a daily income. Instead of only getting money when they sell an animal, now they have daily income or monthly income or whatever -- but it means that every day they can make money from their animals."

When not supervising her dairy, Abeiderrahmane travels all over the world to spread the good word about camel milk. Recently, she visited Turkmenistan where it was camel-love at first sight.

"I was invited in 2004 to a seminar in Ashgabat about camels. I'm always asked to go and tell everybody how we did it. And I obviously tell them it can be done," she says. "It's really a good thing collecting the milk, processing it, turning it into nice modern products that can be kept in fridges and go into cities. We went out to a camel farm and we saw the camels, we saw their beautiful horses and beautiful dogs and beautiful sheep. But their camels were absolutely fabulous."

Abeiderrahmane's big hope is opening up European markets to camel dairy products, but the "problem is that camels are in countries that are not acceptable to the European veterinary inspection system," she says.

"First we had to overcome some hurdles about camel milk. But that can be overcome," she continues. "The problem is that today, we can't export our cheese to Europe, for example. Cheese is good. You need a huge amount of milk to make a little bit of cheese so if you're exporting, you're spreading money around to a lot of people. But it's Mauritania that 's not acceptable. And that's a complicated thing. But the [United Arab] Emirates, for instance, they're putting in millions -- $40 million -- into camels and a camel dairy and I would say that they may hit the market before we do, in Europe."

This African entrepreneur looks forward to the day when gourmets in her native England will be going to the corner store for their "camelbert." Until then, you can find Abeiderrahmane tending her flock in Nouakchott.

Battle For Central Asia

Battle For Central Asia

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