Pastoralist milk is a viable commodity. What enables it to flourish?

Milk market

Pastoralists’ integration into market dynamics is mostly addressed through the lens of trade in meat products, involving male traders. Pastoral milk, mostly traded by women, is often ignored.

But good production of healthy milk is definitely the best way to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of a pastoral system at whatever level. Milk is central in the livelihood of pastoral households. Its nutritional, social and economic roles have been comprehensively assessed.

Yet, in 1989, a World Bank report suggested that it was infeasible to commercialise milk production among pastoralists. However, the commoditisation of pastoral milk is a fact, and its shift from a pure household staple to a marketable good has spurred dramatic reconfigurations of local economies and livelihoods across pastoral regions.

Dramatic increases in urban populations, and recent increases in milk powder prices on international markets, have made pastoral milk increasingly competitive in many local markets. Nowadays thousands of litres of fresh milk and dairy products move from remote rangelands to growing markets in many sub-Saharan African regions on a daily basis. The same is true in Asia and Europe. The seasonal fluctuation of milk production and consumption patterns, as well as its market pricing, are good indicators of the local rangelands productivity, animal conditions as well as pastoral household economies.

Diverse milk products

Different livestock provide for a variety of specific milk products, with different quantities and qualities, and diverse processing and marketing challenges. Milk from cattle is the most typical option for a number of widespread pastoral groups, including the Maasai, Oromo, Fulani and others.

Other milk and dairy products characterise other areas and groups, and often supplement and complement that from cattle. Fresh goat’s milk is often favoured for children and elderly people. Goat’s cheese is highly valued too, especially in Europe. Milk from camels, produced year-round and even in droughts, has a longer shelf life compared to others, but its potential to be processed into cheese is limited (although recent entrepreneurial efforts have made this feasible in Mauritania). It however can still be consumed in many fermented forms, and camel milk is also increasingly appreciated and recognised for its medicinal values.

Ewes’ milk is appreciated in colder Asian and European regions, particularly for butter, ghee and cheese making. Globally exported Pecorino Romano from Sardinia represents a major example. In hotter areas the fatty content of sheep milk limits its consumption value. Conversely, the fat content of yak milk is appreciated on Asian plateaux; this provides precious milk and butter for tea consumption and delicious yoghurt.

Camel milk: new markets, new opportunities

Camel milk is reportedly crucial in improving pastoral capacities to proactively cope with and adapt to change.  Camel milk represents today a major commodity and a major source of income for many pastoralists inhabiting the drylands of Africa and Asia, including India. Although its commercialisation was once a social taboo, camel milk marketing represents today a major strategy to diversify the pastoral economy and support food security in these regions.

In the Horn of Africa, camel milk commoditisation started in Somalia in the 1980s. In a context characterised by conflicts and insecurity, drought events and poor public investment, this eventually developed into a regional business, as Somali-inhabited areas of Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya have also developed their networks and systems. Neighbouring Arsi, Boran, Gabra and Rendille communities have gone through the same pattern.

IIED studies indicate that, in 2015, in northern Kenya’s Isiolo district, camel milk had a total economic value of about KSh222,667,200 (US$2.6 million) per year, directly benefitting 10,532 people, while its marketing involved about 1000 people, generating a monthly gross turnover of up to KSh10.58 million.

The social life of milk

Marketing milk requires a highly complex and skilled decision-making system within the family, as different milk use values have to be assessed and choices taken. Milk is wrapped up in social relations and networks, highly influenced by gender dynamics.

There are important choices to be made in the use of milk from pastoral herds. Milk can feed calves thus spurring herd growth, or it can be used in the household to feed its members, or it can be shared or bartered with other relatives and/or neighbours. It can also be processed and stored or commercialised it its different forms. Very often, it is pastoral women who must take these decisions, trying to strike a balance between the interests of the herd, those of the clan and those of the household.

Women are also often in charge of milk marketing. Pastoral women, often with limited access to formal education or financial capital, must establish and run extended and complex networks of contacts and relationships, linked to intricate webs of exchanges and credit systems. In most pastoral areas, such systems are quite informal and nevertheless very efficient, and highly reliable.

Women-managed pastoral milk value chains are often short and decentralised. Traceability systems are in place to ensure milk quality is checked and quantities are properly reported. Transportation systems with air-conditioned cars, motorbikes and trucks mobilise milk from production to consumption areas, while mobile phone networking enables sharing communications and information on milk and prices on a timely basis.

Through the collection and sale of different kinds of yoghurt, butter, cheese, fresh and fermented milk, networks of pastoral women ensure a constant connection between rangelands and urban areas, covering large distances in settings often characterised by harsh environmental conditions.  Milk marketing networks – including the transport, communication and other links – may help other markets in pastoral areas. For example, pastoral women are increasing their presence in the marketing of small ruminants, as well as in other forms of petty trading and beyond.

Women’s control of milk marketing is however challenged by large enterprises, new actors and powerful traders, including international ones. Development agencies, keen to support pastoral areas, may also act to undermine informal systems through their role in supporting more formal and ‘modern’ programmes and investments.

The costs of commercialisation

Commercialisation is not without costs. Technological aspects of milk quality and hygiene represent an important part of the story. On the social side, studies indicate that milk commercialisation might bring sudden shifts in pastoralists’ dietary patterns, putting children at risk of malnutrition amongst poorer households. Moreover, growing dependence on market dynamics might have important consequences on pastoral societies, potentially triggering processes of sedentarisation, privatisation, monetarisation of pastoral resources (including water, land, labour) and social stratification. Experience shows that poorer pastoral households become more dependent on marketing, and convert a higher proportion of milk to higher calorie grains, resulting in potentially negative impacts on the health of the household and the herd alike.

Monitoring the terms of trade (ToT) between pastoral and non-pastoral commodities over time (for example, milk/litres versus cereal/kgs) represents an effective way to assess the strength of a pastoral economy and its ability to sustain local livelihoods through market-based exchanges of animal/protein-rich products against starch-based food/cereals.  For example, the graph below shows the changes in relative ToT value in two sites in Puntland between 1998 and 2008.

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Terms of Trade camel milk to red rice, Puntland – 1998-2008 (FSNAU, 2008)

Navigating changing environments

As pastoralists navigate a changing environment, market innovative engagement are essential for coping with uncertainties and providing livelihoods. Women are taking up new roles around milk marketing, creating new niches for example for camel milk products. The movement of pastoral milk from rangeland production areas to urban consumption markets through networks of trading women and transportation systems shows how pastoral livelihoods are reconfiguring, with new roles, rules and responsibilities.


This post was first published on the PASTRES blog.

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