It's six o'clock in the morning and the sun is still pale as dozens of delivery vans converge on a building in the outskirts of Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital. The men busily unloading plastic barrels and carrying them inside seem as regimented as assembly-line workers, but they are in fact nomadic herdsmen. They are the most important link in a network that collects camels' milk gathered at dawn in camps and villages outside Nouakchott and delivers it, pasteurized, packaged and chilled, to city shops that same morning.
The building in question is a dairy, and it is the first in Africa to pasteurize and pack camels' milk. In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, where the majority of the population are herdsmen rather than farmers, the dairy is an outward sign of the gradual accommodation of the traditional and the commercial worlds.
The camel has long been the Swiss Army knife of life in the desert, providing transport, meat, dung for fuel, urine for medicinal uses, hair that can be woven into tents and wool to make carpets, as well as milk to drink. The dairy and its delivery system have now made camels' milk a valuable source of cash income for nomadic herdsmen, and allow city-dwellers to enjoy a healthy drink that links them with their past. Camels' milk has many advantages over the imported ultra-pasteurized "long-life" milk previously drunk in Mauritania. It is rich in potassium, iron and magnesium, and three-quarters of a liter—about three glasses—provides the full daily requirement of vitamin C. It has a low cholesterol level and is acknowledged to be good for diabetics. Scientists have been surprised by its fatty-acid structure, which includes a protein identical to insulin—a revelation that may have useful consequences.
The dairy is the brainchild of Nancy Abeiderrahmane. Born in England, she has lived in Mauritania for over 30 years, and it was her training as an engineer that alerted her, in the late 1980's, to the commercial potential of camels' milk. She makes light of the technical side of the project, which she describes as "a mini-dairy of the sort you'd find anywhere in Europe," preferring to emphasize the health, developmental and financial benefits of her successful enterprise. "All I've done, basically, is to satisfy the town's demand for regular milk deliveries," she says. But in doing so she has put Mauritania in touch with a substantial source of income both on the domestic market and abroad.
When Abeiderrahmane first came to Mauritania, camels' milk was sold at the roadside from buckets. Given the hot climate, unsold milk spoiled rapidly, and drinking it raw inevitably left consumers vulnerable to disease. Yet camels' milk is an important part of the Mauritanian diet; indeed, it is as much a tradition as a drink. Drought was driving increasing numbers of camel herdsmen to look for work in the cities, and the urban drift in turn fostered reliance on imported products, including more than 50,000 tons a year of sterilized and powdered milk from Europe—a drain on Mauritania's modest foreign-exchange reserves.
Given the Mauritanians' liking for raw milk, Abeiderrahmane needed to be sure that there would be a market for the pasteurized product. Success also depended on whether enough of the city's small corner grocery stores—the mainstay of any retail endeavor—had electricity and could keep the pasteurized milk cool. A feasibility study gave positive results on both counts and, armed with this information, Abeiderrahmane was able to attract local investors and win a loan from a French development fund, the Caisse Centrale de Co-operation Economique. The total was enough to purchase the necessary equipment and begin production, albeit on a shoestring budget.
The early days of the dairy were not without problems. Initially, herdsmen preferred to sell direct to consumers rather than deal with an unknown middle-woman. And unused to the notion of a contract to supply a certain amount of milk every day, they would arrive only when they had excess production—which was mainly in the cold season, when townspeople customarily drink less milk. But gradually, with understanding of the nomadic way of life, Abeiderrahmane won over a group of regular suppliers, enticing them to bring the milk to the dairy themselves in exchange for a regular supply of camel fodder.
Despite small turnover at first, the new pasteurized milk has caught on with Mauritanians and the new cartons, branded Tiviski, are now selling briskly at outlets in three of the country's largest cities. Other members of Abeiderrahmane's family have joined the enterprise. Her son Yahia, who is now production manager, explains that "the sales figures have risen steadily over the last two years. Every shop you go to has cartons of Tiviski, and we've now even got a rival company producing the same sort of thing—the ultimate form of flattery. But we're one step ahead. We've diversified into other camel dairy products, and there are plenty of further possibilities."
Statistics bear out his optimism. Today the dairy, named Laitière de Mauritania buys in over 2000 liters every day (530 US gallons) to satisfy demand—10 times the volume it bought daily during 1989. The company has invested in a fleet of small vans which deliver to the countless corner shops that proliferate in Nouakchott. Cartons of milk are regularly air-freighted to the city of Nouadhibou in the north, taken by road to the town of Rosso in the south and even shipped by boat to neighboring Senegal.
As Yahia Abeiderrahmane says, the dairy has moved on to other uses of camels' milk. Fermented milk, a great favorite with Mauritanians, has been added to the repertoire, and a type of light cottage cheese is also popular. Now the company is hoping to tap the European yearning for novelty with a unique product—a tasty, low-fat, hard camels'-milk cheese. A French researcher has provided the necessary scientific know-how to coagulate camels' milk, and now only European Union regulations prevent the "camelbert" cheese from being sold in England and Germany.
One problem facing Abeiderrahmane is that the European Union does not officially recognize the camel as a milk-producing animal, as it does the cow and the goat. A second difficulty is the lack of a reliable pasteurizing test for the very specific qualities of camels' milk. But Abeiderrahmane is convinced that her product is marketable in Europe. "We took a sample to Harrod's," London's most famous department store, she says, "and the cheese buyer really loved it. Once we get the bureaucratic and technical problems out of the way, I believe the product will sell itself."
With this new role as potential foreign-currency earner for Mauritania, camels' milk is opening up possibilities for a whole swathe of African countries where camels thrive. Nancy Abeiderrahmane's enterprise is developing confidence in Africa that local products are as good—if not better—than anything Europe can provide.
Sylvia Smith is a free-lance broadcast journalist who travels frequently to Africa and the Middle East to pursue her interests in Islamic cultures. Writer and photographer Richard Duebel has traveled widely in Africa. Both Smith and Duebel live in London.
Peter Sanders has photographed worldwide for more than 30 years from his home outside London. He specializes in the Islamic world.