Private: Camel Marketing and Pastoral Livelihoods in Ethiopia

The goal of this project is to promote understanding of the camel market chain that impacts the livelihoods of tens of thousands of pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, farmers, and traders living in diverse agro-ecological regions of Ethiopia. The research is targeted at national policy makers in Ethiopia but also, due the cross border nature of the trade, regional trade organizations such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. Improved awareness of the trade will also assist policy makers to see how marginalized pastoral areas can be integrated into mainstream economies and therefore warrant investment.

In reality, there is an ongoing vibrant camel trade in Ethiopia involving some twenty or more chain markets with a trade volume of about 3,000 camels per week in the peak seasons. The volume of this trade alone could challenge camel population estimates in Ethiopia. This trade engages various actors composed of mixed ethnic groups with overlapping roles: pastoralists, who are the primary producers but also double as trekkers; agro-pastoralists, who play various roles as primary producers, conditioners, and/or trekkers; and farmers, who, contrary to past traditions, are increasingly emerging as camel conditioners, trekkers, and traders.

The trade route runs from the central eastern parts to northern Ethiopia and Sudan. Main destination markets are the salt mines in northeastern Ethiopia and the cross-border trade to Sudan, with numerous staging and conditioning points in between that lie across the twenty or so chain markets en-route. This market chain generates a transaction of some two to three million U.S. dollars per month for an average of nine months per year and involves a forty-day trekking route from the primary markets in the central east to the crossing point into Sudan.

Regrettably, this important camel market chain is virtually unknown to outsiders like scholars, policy makers, NGOs, donors, and academic or research institutions, perhaps signifying the fact that livestock markets can perform better when left to operate on their own without external interventions.

Numerous research studies have been undertaken in the last two decades on domestic, cross-border, and regional livestock trade within and between the Horn countries and the Gulf states. Such studies mainly focus on cattle and on sheep and goats (shoats). Studies on camel trade remain minimal and in most cases limited to camel milk production.

The oversight by researchers to incorporate camels in livestock trade studies could be attributed to a host of factors. Camels are traded in small numbers along numerous chain markets, leaving the casual observer with the impression that camels in a specific market are destined only for local use. Additionally, unlike cattle or shoats that are transported on trucks, trade camels are usually trekked on hoof through inaccessible paths to vehicles, far away from the prying eyes of scholars.

Camels bought from primary markets are not immediately sold in terminal markets. They may be used as working animals or reconditioned to gain body weight at various transaction points for a year or more before they are sold again. Because of larger capital requirements, small traders are not able to bulk more than 50 camels at most at a time, compared to cattle and shoats traders who usually bulk hundreds of cattle or thousands of shoats.

Finally, researchers could be deterred by the low number of camels (estimated at less than seven million) compared to cattle and shoat populations in the Horn (over a hundred million in each case) on the assumption that the economic contribution of camel trade may not be that significant.

Our research findings identified twenty-four chain markets serving this route, of which seventeen were accessed and assessed. Trade routes were mapped; trekking and other transaction costs were catalogued; market actors were identified; the value chain system was laid out; and the economic impact of the trade route was assessed.

The outputs of this research provided new information to various interested groups and are leading to an appreciation of the economic importance of camels, which has been lacking thus far in government circles. A renewed interest in the economic potential of camels will hopefully persuade the Ethiopian government to pay special attention to responding to specific veterinary requirements of camels, developing camel husbandry curriculums in agricultural universities, and providing support to camel traders. There are plans already to set up camel milk processing centers in central and eastern Ethiopia. Some six tons of frozen camel meat was exported for the first time in 2011, and discussions are underway on how to redesign facilities in existing abattoirs to handle the processing of camel meat for increased exports. The research findings also challenge the official camel population figure in Ethiopia, which may ultimately lead to a review of camel population estimates.


This research will be conducted in collaboration with the Ethiopian Society of Animal Production and the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia. We will also take advantage of our existing relationships with various institutions when conducting the research in Sudan.

Shifting Sands: The Commercialization of Camels in Mid-altitude Ethiopia and Beyond
By Yacob Aklilu, Andy Catley | April 2011

Although pastoralists in Ethiopia are often characterized as unresponsive to market opportunities, the bulk of Ethiopia’s growing formal and informal livestock and meat exports are supplied from pastoralist areas of...

Read More