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Hussein Mahmoud

Innovations in livestock marketing, Mahmoud asserts, are bringing vital wealth to the Horn of Africa (© Future Agricultures Consortium)
Innovations in livestock marketing, Mahmoud asserts, are bringing vital wealth to the Horn of Africa
© Future Agricultures Consortium

Innovation and success - East Africa's booming camel trade

Hussein Abdullahi Mahmoud is a Senior Lecturer at Pwani University College, Kenya, and co-convener of pastoralism research for the Future Agricultures Consortium. His current research includes livestock marketing chains, sustainable pastoralism and cross-border livestock trade in the Kenya/Somalia borderlands. Innovations in livestock marketing, he asserts, are bringing vital wealth to the Horn of Africa, and deserve the backing of supportive policies.

Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa has survived different types of shocks over millennia, but finds itself today under great pressure: conflict, collapse of states, economic hardship and extreme climatic variability are threatening a livelihood which has repeatedly proved itself the most productive for dryland ecosystems. Yet amidst these pressures and the headlines of drought and famine, the Horn of Africa is witnessing economic growth; pastoralists, the great survivors, are innovating and prospering from a livestock trade that, in a region known for poverty, is estimated to be worth a billion dollars a year.

Livestock trading has long been part of the economy of the Horn, with animals taken south to markets in Nairobi and Mombasa, east across the Gulf or north to Egypt and beyond. That trade is flourishing, contributing to rapid growth of small towns in the region, around which thousands of people are earning a living from animal feed production, processing and selling milk, and providing veterinary services. My own research of this trend - which forms part of the newly published Pastoralism and development in Africa: Dynamic change at the margins - has focussed on one particularly striking development: the boom in camel marketing.

Trade transformed

In the past, the involvement of camels in the livestock trade in the Horn of Africa has not been very significant. Camels have been valued in pastoralist communities as pack animals, and a source of meat and milk, but not as a saleable commodity. Prices paid for pastoralists' camels have historically been poor, earning no more than a single cow. But around seven years ago, new markets for camels were established in Ethiopia, and this has transformed camel marketing in the region. In north and north east Kenya, more and more animals are being taken, via the border town of Moyale, to camel ranches near Addis Ababa, Mojo and Nazareth. Moyale itself has become an important regional and international market, with buyers from the Sudan and highland Ethiopia, as well as Arab traders from the Middle East.

As this trade has boomed, prices for camels have risen as much as ten-fold. As a result, pastoralists' attitudes to their animals have changed. When droughts have come, instead of allowing animals to die they have responded by supplying these markets, often from long distances, and their camels are fetching good prices. Many people benefit, from those who trek with and guard the camels to the brokers who facilitate sales. The higher prices have also allowed camel owners to restock with younger animals and so build their herds.

Needing policy support

This innovative trade, which is having such a positive impact on livelihoods in the region, has been built without the support of external development aid. But to maximise its potential, it must be supported by governments in the region, especially Kenya and Ethiopia. At the moment, Kenya in particular is losing much of its trading potential through bureaucracy and corruption. Our studies have found that Arab camel importers have been put off trading in Kenya by the excessive strictness of the Kenya Veterinary Division, which instead of facilitating this trade acts as a constraint. As a result, they have gone to markets in Ethiopia, where they have been welcomed with open arms.

Of course livestock disease control is an important issue, and we need to look carefully at how this can be achieved in arid and semi-arid areas. An expansion in infrastructure is needed to support this expanding trade, including building of roads and water facilities. Most camels are trekked to markets, rather than trucked, and these trekking routes must be secure and have water points. Animals need to be able to pass without restriction, even in areas of conflict.

The boom in camel marketing is just one example of how pastoralists in the Horn of Africa have innovated in recent years to cope with the pressures they find themselves under. What is certain is that pastoralism is a viable enterprise, with the potential to be modern, efficient and highly profitable, out-competing alternative models for dryland areas many times over. It is the future, not only for this region, but as a source of meat, milk, hides and skins for many others. Instead of seeking to settle nomadic communities, governments in the region should be looking to tap into and build on the innovations and progress these people are already making. More effective policies towards pastoralism and the livestock economy would bring much greater prosperity, development and stability to this troubled region of Africa than any other approach we know of.

Date published: August 2012


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