Where camels are concerned, it’s typically only been local demand that mattered. But, in recent years, the world has started to buy camels for their flesh rather than just their labor. Part of the growing market for camels is novelty. Although every neighborhood here has at least one café that serves up camel dishes, it is rarely eaten outside of Somaliland and is still considered a delicacy in other camel-rearing countries—reserved more for parties and special events than daily consumption. But it’s not just the sheer numbers of this luxury livestock in Somaliland that offers so much economic upside; perhaps camel’s greatest appeal lies in its health properties.
“Camel’s milk is medicine,” says Ibado Abdillahi Dababo, the elder woman and chief chef at the local camel restaurant I frequent in Hargeisa. “Drink it often,” her matter-of-fact matronly wisdom goes, “and you’ll stay healthy.”
There’s truth to this local wives’ tale. Camel is high in protein but often less than half as fatty as beef. On the vitamin rundown, it’s particularly rich in vitamin E, while its milk has up to three times more vitamin C and 10 times more iron—and significantly less lactose—than cow’s milk.
And word is getting out. Meramist, a camel-rearing company in Queensland, Australia, had to increase its production by 20 percent in 2012, reacting to a spike in demand from European, American, and Japanese consumers. Somaliland would be well positioned to break into that market, if they solve a few lingering problems, chief among them how to prove to prospective buyers that they can make it taste good.
My camel-eating experience has been inconsistent, to put it gently. My first dish of boiled neck meat was tender and rich enough to pick off the bone by hand. The second and third times I ate camel neck, though, the meat was tough and flavorless. So I asked Dababo, the cook, to explain just how Somalis prepare camel. She invited me to watch.
Every morning, Dababo and her girls buy a camel from the local butcher. They prefer young and tender flesh (although still leaner and stringier than beef), but sometimes what they’re given is old and tough—and camels get exceptionally tough as they age. Regardless of the age, the recipe stays the same: Chop it up, throw it into a pot of boiling water over a metal drum filled with hot coals, and boil for 90 minutes with tomato, cabbage, onion, potato, salt, and pepper. In the last 15 minutes, she adds strips of the spongy, greasy hump to the pot—no, the hump isn’t filled with water, it’s mostly fat—and then dishes both out, unadorned, on a plate.
I ask Dababo if she’s ever thought about marinating the meat, tenderizing it, or leaving it hung out to age and soften. She glares at my stupidity. The only other thing they do to camel meat, as it turns out, is make it even tougher, drying it into shoe-leather jerky to make it last. The tastiest, most tender parts of the camel are its liver and kidneys, lightly fried in oil. (Warning: You don’t want your camel’s livers too rare; the undercooked organs have been linked to outbreaks of bubonic plague.)
Of course, there are ways to make camel meat tender. Professor Isam Kadim of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University has built a career studying and developing techniques for tenderizing camel meat. But these methods involve butchering and processing the meat, which due to the country’s purely live-animal trade, Somaliland doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to handle.
Thus the government’s big plan: Make it possible for nomads—someday, even commercial ranchers—to keep larger herds and sell more meat at higher prices. The government’s developed one slaughterhouse in the city of Burco and instituted vaccination programs to keep herds healthy. It hopes to install slaughterhouses and cold storage units across the nation. Rendering the meat and selling it pre-packaged and cold, Shire suspects, could nearly double the gross revenue and open the nation to wider markets. If camels take off, and each camel yields between 550 and 1,400 pounds of meat, that’s a massive profit for nomad and government alike.
And officials plan to use the whole camel. They are also seeking, with the United Nations’ help, to train nomads in dairy production; the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization asserts that the global camel milk market may be worth $10 billion. Add their training programs in artisanal craftwork using camels’ bones, and they will have monetized almost every aspect of these desert creatures.
From afar, it seems like a lot to expect of nomads. Driving along the dried up riverbeds that serve as roads in the north of the country, though, you’re likely to get stuck behind a meandering train of wild camels. Sometimes the line of beasts seems to stretch forever. This is one resource the country has in droves, alongside a ready and able workforce. The markets are in place, the world is hungry; Somaliland’s future prosperity may just ride on the camel.