Camel Leasing: Impacting Somali lives

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Micah Frumkin

The topic of camel leasing is fascinating. The name alone is intriguing and generates a lot of interest, but as a resilience capacity, camel leasing has the potential to truly impact the lives of everyday Somalis. So what is it?

Camel leasing is a practice where milk processing companies lease lactating camels from pastoralists when there are insufficient natural pastures due to drought. During the lease period, the milk processors care for the animals, providing purchased feed to help maintain their milk production. The benefit is two-fold: milk processing companies secure a steady supply of camel milk and pastoralists have a way of maintaining their camel herd (and income) during periods of drought. Camel milk is a growing business in the Horn of Africa, supplied by both pastoralists and sedentary farmers.

Though Somalis have loaned and borrowed camels among their clans and families for generations, private sector actors have only recently gotten involved in this otherwise traditional practice. During the severe drought in 2016/17, USAID/Somalia’s Growth, Enterprise, Employment, and Livelihoods program (GEEL) facilitated some of the first documented instances of camel leasing between commercial milk processors and camel pastoralists. GEEL – which means “camel” in Somali – is designed to help Somalia’s economy heal from the long-term scars of war and mitigate the effects of recurrent crises such as drought.

Somalia is home to the world’s largest camel population, with pastoralism of camels and other livestock providing livelihoods for nearly 60 percent of the Somali people. While more resilient than crop production and many other agricultural livelihoods, pastoralism is not easy, especially as climate change exacerbates the annual dry seasons. Hundreds of thousands of Somali pastoralists were displaced during recent droughts, traveling in search of increasingly scarce water for their families and their livestock. Despite their hardiness, an estimated 60 percent of camels were lost in Northern Somalia during the 2016/17 drought. To prepare for future droughts, pastoralists are adjusting their herd structure and are finding ways to make their camel production systems even more resilient. So, the question is, can camel leasing help to protect this key productive asset and thereby stabilize the wellbeing of Somali pastoralists in the face of climatic shocks and stresses?

Earlier this year, USAID partnered with RTI International to investigate this question through an in-depth study. Though we are very early in the research process, early conversations with milk processors and camel livelihoods specialists suggest that camel leasing does actually benefit pastoralists, milk processors, and perhaps even the communities where it is increasingly being practiced through spill-over effects on the rural socio-economy. But there is much left to explore; for example, how does camel leasing affect women, youth, the poor, or other marginalized people in Somalia? Can it be adapted to build resilience for pastoralist communities outside of Somalia? If so, what characteristics underpin its success?

As we conduct the research – utilizing household surveys, case studies, and focus group discussions over three dry seasons – we appreciate more and more just how difficult research can be in a challenging context such as Somalia. Our target population is known to travel dozens of kilometers per day and rarely stays in the same place two nights in a row when in search of fodder and water. During rainy seasons, when both water and fodder are available, the roads to reach communities can be largely impassable. Even when accessible, Somali people have tightly knit networks and communities where outsiders may be received with skepticism unless introduced by a village elder.

Fortunately, we have learned much from our retrospective data collection that is helping us adapt our methodology and approach. We have identified a strong local data collection partner with deep ties to the areas we are targeting and will use the same enumerators across seasons to build familiarity, gain community access, and combat attrition. Another valuable lesson we’ve learned is about the importance and strength of the Somali telecommunications industry, which has created deep mobile penetration. Nearly every household has a cell phone and can be reached if you have the right connections to them. In fact, according to several key informants so far, this strong presence of mobile technology may just be a key aspect of success for camel leasing in Somalia. No matter how far a pastoralist might have wandered to support their non-lactating herd, the milk processor can easily use mobile finance tools to send a monthly payment for the milk in a matter of minutes, creating peace of mind among both parties.

The more we explore this complex country, people, and topic, the more clear it becomes that the Somali people demonstrate an enormous level of resourcefulness and resilience in the face of unpredictable challenges and that the resilience of the private sector is directly tied to the resilience of pastoralists. Stay tuned for the Camel Leasing Study findings so we have data to help understand just how impactful this practice of camel leasing can be on the lives of the Somali people.