How camel milk ATMs are strengthening lives in Kenya

A person walks near a large group of camels

A dry and barren landscape surrounds the rural village of Hadado, Kenya, where Salada, 50, lives and works as a milk trader.

Salada has been selling camel milk in Hadado for 10 years. Like other women in her village, she relies on camel milk as a crucial source of income to support her nine kids, in a country where food scarcity is a harsh reality for many.

As climate change escalates worldwide, droughts are making life harder for rural Kenyans like Salada. In 2011, Kenya faced its worst drought in 60 years. During these severe droughts, livestock and crops die out and resources like water and camel milk become even more crucial for survival.

“There is much drought nowadays,” Salada says. “And before Mercy Corps came we didn’t have anything to do. If there is no milk, then there is nothing else for us to do. There are no other items we can trade.

“So, what else can we do? We have no other option.”

Four women in colorful clothing, standing together
Salada, in red, is a milk trader in rural Kenya. Before, she had to boil the milk and send it to market on a public bus, costing precious time and nutrients. Now, a refrigerated van takes the milk, eliminating the need to boil it altogether. ALL PHOTOS: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

As a milk trader, Salada relied on a difficult and labor-intensive process. First, young men from Hadado would ride motorcycles to where the camels herd outside the city. It was a race against the clock: These “boda-boda” riders had to fill several plastic containers with camel milk and hurry it back to Hadado before it spoiled.

Women like Salada then boiled the milk to preserve it. But the boiling process took several hours, destroyed precious nutrients and flavor, and the women who did it had to pay for their own firewood.

The milk was then transported on a public bus to Wajir, nearly 50 miles away. This trip could take as long as three hours, exposing the milk to dangerously high temperatures. As much as 25 percent of the milk was lost before reaching the market, and once it arrived in Wajir, the milk went through yet another boiling process, costing it even more flavor and nutrients.

We’ve been working in Kenya since 2008 and saw an opportunity to make the camel milk trade more efficient and strengthen the lives of those who depend on it.

In Hadado, a refrigerated Mercy Corps van now eliminates the need for boiling the milk and delivers it to Wajir faster, colder, and more nutritious. This means women like Salada can sell more milk at a higher quality, earning more money for their families.

A smiling man reflected in the van's mirror
A refrigerated van co-owned by Mercy Corps now delivers fresh, cold milk to the city of Wajir.

At the end of the chain, in Wajir, we pioneered a new idea: camel milk “ATMs.” Mercy Corps placed refrigerated camel milk dispensers in Wajir, where business groups—also primarily run by women—sell milk. When money is deposited, the ATMs dispense fresh camel milk. A liter of fresh camel milk costs about 100 shillings ($1 USD).

Now, milk is preserved longer, meaning there’s more to sell and more money to be made.

Camel milk in a clear plastic pitcher
Fresh camel milk from an ATM in Wajir.

Halima, 48, is a milk ATM operator in Wajir. We gave her an ATM, which she placed in a kiosk she built herself. “I used to carry jerry cans, but thanks to God that is now over,” she says. “Then came donkey carts and tuk-tuks, and they made it possible for us to carry the milk within the town. Then I was given this ATM.”

The ATM has helped her business so much, Halima says, that now she wants to grow and use the money to pay off what she owes for the materials used to build her kiosk. After that, she wants to store more products to sell.

Halima, wearing a blue scarf
Halima, 48, sells milk from a milk ATM in Wajir. “I used to carry jerry cans, but thanks to God that is now over,” she says.

Daud, 40, co-owns the refrigerated van with Mercy Corps. The van uses solar-paneled coolers to keep the milk cold during transit, and now no milk gets spoiled because it is delivered on time. Whatever doesn't make it into the van is kept in a cooler until enough milk is accumulated for another trip.

Daud decided to get involved with the project because he wanted people in his community to drink fresh, nutritious milk that wasn’t stored in dangerous plastic containers. Eliminating the need for boiling will also benefit the environment, he says.

“I want to help transport fresh milk that isn’t boiled,” he says, “to save the trees.”

Daud pictured in the back of the milk delivery van
Daud, 40, co-owns the solar-paneled delivery van used to deliver fresh camel milk along the Hadado-Wajir route.

With less camel milk being spoiled, those working along the camel milk value chain are able to increase their income and, like Halima, think about expanding their businesses.

Salada now uses coolers provided by Mercy Corps to sell other drinks and hopes to build storage so that she can capitalize on her growing milk business. She has already started to see tangible improvements to her life since the program began — with a more secure future, now she has hope for her children and grandchildren.

“Some of our children are finishing school,” she says. “Others are young and are also in school. Because of the hopes we have in our children, we can now be quite resilient to the weather changes.”

Hadiba pictured in front of a table covered in fruit
A stronger business has given Daud new hopes for his children, including his 7-year-old daughter, Hadiba. “I want [my children] to be educated and get exposed to what is happening in the world,” he says.

Daud wants to upgrade his deliveries someday by buying a refrigerated tanker. He believes his business won’t just improve his community — it can help improve his children’s futures.

“I want [my children] to be educated and get exposed to what is happening in the world,” he says. “To have a better life than this one. To live.”

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