Jama Warsame started White Gold, a camel milk processing and distribution company in 2017, when the only other certified camel milk company in Kenya at the time failed to sustain viable operations after the passing of their founder. Several camel farmers in the area were left stranded with nowhere to sell their milk.
White Gold salvaged the camel milk industry in Laikipia and two years later, they are selling approximately 1,000 litres of milk a week all over East Africa.
Speaking with Hustle, Jama, 43, tells the story of walking away from a twenty-year career, to jump into this niche market after 20 years in real estate before he started White Gold.
His mother-in-law was a farmer who sold milk to one of the leading camel milk processors in the region. When the founder died, the company started struggling. The wife, who was living in Nanyuki thought they should step in for the sake of the farmers and offer them a distribution avenue.
It was risky changing careers at 40 but his family supported him, including the parents who were living in Nanyuki while he lived and worked in Nairobi.
When the opportunity for what he thought a lucrative business in Nanyuki came up, it made sense to move, especially because the business would also make a positive impact to the community.
The wife, who knew the farmers, spent time coordinating issues on the ground, like registering the company and bringing the farmers together while he went abroad to learn about dairy processing.
He spent three months in Italy, Holland and Denmark and then took a two-week intensive course in Naivasha at the Diary Training Institute.
The most expensive part was purchasing the equipment, which goes for anywhere between Sh10 million and Sh15 million. The travel and training were less expensive primarily because as a family, they have networks all over the world.
Wherever he traveled, he was hosted by friends or relatives helping him cut costs like accommodation. They also helped him get appointments with the different institutions and used their networks to get him an audience with those well-versed in the industry.
One of the things he emphasize in life is using networks, giving each other a helping hand. He believes the favour always returns, one way or the other.
Dr. Peterson Njiru, Laikipia county director of veterinary services was one of the people who took his hand and walked him through the camel milk process, from raw milk to consumer.
They officially opened house in April 2017 and the products were on shelves by September that same year. There was demand primarily because no other company, at the time, was certified to distribute camel milk.
They approached practitioners like Dr. Priya Bowry of Upper Hill Medical Center, who specialized in ailments that can be cured by camel milk; like diabetes, lactose intolerance or general milk allergies.
It took aggressive, relentless marketing but he had a great team, led by our sales manager and think tank, Moses Wachira Kariuki.
For the most part, after that, demand for the product spread through word-of-mouth. They have customers as far as Kampala and Arusha.
They sell 500ml at Sh130 and a litre at Sh260.
The camel milk comes from the local farmers, like the Somali, Maasai and Samburu communities and their big ranches in Nanyuki.
He believes he has made an impact in society, as they provide the farmers with a stable income and many children have been able to go to school as a result.
They also educate the farmers on how to handle milk in order to prevent losses or contamination. In instances when disease breaks out, they liaise between them and the veterinary associations, who send vets out to the farms to treat the livestock.
Another big gain they have made is bringing harmony between the big ranchers and the small farmers. Laikipia county is notorious for rustling and drought. Because of this, there has been a serious conflict between communities.
Working with the county government, they spoke to the large ranches and asked them to allow small farmers safe passage to graze on their lands during the drought. Now, because the farmers know they have aid in difficult seasons, they instinctively protect these ranches throughout the year.
It means better security for the ranches and less loss of livestock during dry seasons for the small farmers. Everyone wins.
Some of the challenges he has faced include funding. For instance, they have to pay the small farmers weekly for their supplies, but the institutions they sell to, like some supermarkets only pay after three months. It’s easier dealing with the big ranches who they pay once a month, but cash flow remains a balancing act for us.
Another big challenge is the lack of policy framework in the industry which affects goat farmers as well. Just getting licenses was a tedious process. Recently they were working on expanding supplies to Europe, the frustrations led him to wonder if he should be selling milk or running around looking for licenses and certification? Yes, he is currently a small industry, but the Government needs to streamline these processes for them.
The camel milk business is not more widespread in Kenya partly due to a lack of awareness, but also because it’s a capital-intensive business. He gambled his retirement fund to start White Gold. But he has so much faith in it that when they were looking to scale up earlier this year, they applied to the KCB Lion’s Den. They needed the money, yes, but more importantly, they wanted the networks.
They were extremely pleased to get two Lions, Joan Mwangi and Dashan Chandaria interested in coming on board. They accepted Dashan’s offer for Sh7.5 million in exchange for 23 percent equity in the business.
There are 3.35 million camels in Kenya, but only five to seven percent of the population is drinking camel milk. This can change if there is a clear understanding of the benefits of the product and support from the Government for farmers and producers of the milk.