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Camel milk chocolate is offering herders in Gujarat a new flavour of hope

As the market for the animal shrinks, and grazing grounds disappear, Amul’s newest flavour is part of a larger attempt to commercialise camel milk.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2018 14:23 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Camel,Camel fair,Pushkar
On a state highway near Bhuj. Across semi-arid regions in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana, nomadic herders are struggling. They traditionally sold their camels at fairs, but there are few takers in a tractor and truck world. Growing villages, mining and government restrictions have shrunk grazing lands as well. (Getty Images / iStock)

It does taste a little unusual. Around Diwali last year, dairy brand Amul launched its first product made from the milk of an animal other than the cow or buffalo. Bars of camel milk chocolate, smooth, slightly dry, made their way to online retailers and a few big-city shops. It was an experiment of sorts. Lives and livelihoods depended on India’s reaction.

The milk had come from camels in Gujarat’s arid Bhuj region. Nomadic Rabari herders were persuaded to sell the milk to the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), India’s largest milk provider, which markets Amul. The tribe subsists on camel milk but considers selling it a taboo. Amul’s move is meant to help generate income and prevent camel-herding from dying out as a profession.

Almost a year on, RS Sodhi, who heads the Federation, says the pilot project has been a success. “Camel milk is saltier,” he says. “We turned the milk into milk powder and adapted the chocolate recipe to fit commercial tastes. The flavour is more minerally, but people have loved the idea.”

The cooperative is now planning to expand the initiative, shipping out packaged camel milk and larger stocks of chocolate across India. The road ahead, however, is not without humps.

SANDS OF TIME

Across semi-arid regions in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana, nomadic herders are struggling. They traditionally sold their camels at fairs, but there are few takers for the animals in a tractor and truck world. Growing villages, mining and government restrictions have shrunk grazing lands as well.

The specialty chocolate makes up barely 3% of Amul’s total chocolate production. ‘But our job is to help people in the dairy business,’ says RS Sodhi, head of the milk federation that markets Amul. ‘It doesn’t matter if the animal they’re rearing is a cow, buffalo or camel.’

Efforts to popularise camel milk have been on since 2000, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of its production and consumption. Ilse Kohler Rollefson, a German anthropologist who has lived in India for 20 years and has founded a non-profit for pastoralists in Rajasthan, was among the first to get camel keepers to consider dairy farming.

Progress was slow. “They were battling the traditional thinking that camel milk and milk products should not be sold,” she says. “No one outside the community valued the milk. People mistakenly believed it was unpalatable and curdled more quickly.”

Slowly, cottage industries sprung up in Rajasthan, selling camel milk packaged, flavoured, as powder and in ice-cream. Meanwhile in Gujarat, the non-profit Sahjeevan has been promoting dairy farming among camel herders in Bhuj and Kutch and camel milk sale to the GCMMF since 2007.

Camel dairy got a shot in the arm in 2016, when the Food Safety and Standards Association of India recognised the milk as a food item, allowing products to be sold nationally. Amul got on board with the idea of mass-producing chocolate. “It was finally happening,” says Kohler-Rollefson.

MILK FLOW, CLASH FLOW

In Gujarat, more than 10,000 camels are already part of the Federation’s programme. The animals are migratory and the tribe is nomadic, so milk collection comes with a twist. Sahjeevan organises it so that the herds take turns to deposit milk at a centre in Kutch as they migrate, keeping milk inflow constant. “In the last six months, we’ve sold GCMMF 1,200 litres,” says Ramesh Bhatti, who leads Sahjeevan’s centre for pastoralism. The bulk of it has gone to Amul, the rest to niche brands like Aadvik, which sells camel-milk powder, bottled milk and milk-based skincare products.

The specialty chocolate makes up barely 3% of Amul’s total chocolate production. There isn’t enough to distribute nationally. “Most shopkeepers don’t know about it,” Sodhi says, but online, the stock is selling steadily.

Progress has been slow because herders traditionally believe camel milk should not be sold, says Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, anthropologist and founder of a non-profit for pastoralists in Rajasthan.

Bhatti says the results are evident among the herders. “There is a sense of optimism and hope. The herders’ children, who would have taken up jobs as truck drivers, goat herders or farmers, are taking up camel rearing for now,” he says.

The plan now is to get India on board with the idea of milk from a camel. Studies show that is it lower in cholesterol and better for diabetics and Kohler-Rollefson believes it will be easier to popularise as a health food than a specialty one.

Mass marketing, however, will be easiest for Amul. “We need to produce more milk, set up more centres and get more people interested in it. It’s that simple,” Bhatti says. “Our job is to help people in the dairy business, change lives for the better,” Sodhi adds. “It doesn’t matter if the animal they’re rearing is a cow, buffalo or camel.”

First Published: Jul 28, 2018 18:36 IST