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Giant camel milk firm on its knees after death of founder

One of the leading camel milk factories in East, Central and Southern Africa is on its knees following the death of its founder and managing director, Mr Holger Marbach, last year.

Those in charge cannot competently operate the firm’s accounts, hence cash flow woes.

Mr Marbach, a German, was a consultant researcher in Kenya for many years before he set up Vital Camel Milk processing factory in Nanyuki Town in 2005.

Since his death, many herders and ranchers who supply milk to the plant have been stranded as the firm is unable to pay for deliveries.

“He was the sole proprietor of the firm and the only signatory of the bank accounts,” says general manager John Oguk. “We owe our suppliers a lot of money and we don’t want to take up more milk without knowing where the money will come from.”

When the factory broke new ground in camel milk processing, experts dubbed it an economic game-changer for hundreds of people in semi-arid regions who rely on livestock for a livelihood.

Mr Oguk, who together with Mr Marbach started the company from scratch, said his boss controlled the finances and operations.

Consulting experts

He has been consulting legal experts since no one has come up to take over from Mr Marbach. The heir of Mr Marbach’s estate is eight years old.

The firm started struggling the day Mr Marbach died on December 1, 2016, since he was the sole signatory of its bank accounts.

“A supplier had just paid Sh1.9 million but nobody could access the funds,” said Mr Oguk.

Workers have not been paid for three months since those who owe the firm money are reluctant to pay up following Mr Marbach’s death.

The plant can process 6,000 litres a day but it was managing only 500 litres to 1,000 litres a day owing to prolonged drought that affected milk supply.

The number of employees has shrunk after those in transport department were laid off. The machines are idle most of the time.

The plant has been receiving milk from selected herders and ranches in Laikipia County who have to adhere to strict standards of hygiene and herd management.

Among the suppliers is Loisaba Conservancy, owned by Nature Kenya, and individual herders. Desperate farmers have been wondering why the processor is not collecting their milk.

According to Mr Oguk, supermarkets were the main outlets for their products, followed by individual customers based in Nairobi who would buy products worth Sh300,000 fortnightly. Mr Marbach handled these accounts personally.

Driven by the belief that Kenya has unrivalled potential to produce hygienic and high quality camel milk for the local and global market, Mr Marbach and his business partner, Dr Mario Younan, also German, invested more than Sh40 million in the plant, located at Nanyuki’s Industrial Area.

Total control

Mr Marbach later bought off his partner to have total control of the factory.

In an interview with this writer in 2006, just months after commissioning the plant, Mr Marbach said they had spent about Sh27 million of the capital investment in training herdsmen on milk handling and herd management. A further Sh10 million went into setting up the plant.

“We have to keep on changing some machines and sometimes devising our own because our approach is very different from the way cow milk is handled. We have to keep on researching,” he said.

Pastoralists welcomed the development, which was to become a substantial revenue base for them. Most camel milk from the region is sold informally, especially in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate.

Vital Milk sought to formalise the industry by pasteurising milk and packaging it in translucent half-litre plastic bottles, which enabled it to get space in supermarket shelves.

The firm also produced organic ice-creams and yoghurt.

It marketed camel milk as an alternative to cow milk — terming it an organic food with medicinal properties that treat a wide range of diseases since the animals feed on diverse vegetation in virgin savannah.

Camels browse more than 200 different plant species, making their milk unique and organic.

Initially, the firm exported milk to the United States and South Africa but the orders did not last long due to logistical challenges.

Meanwhile, the firm is drawing interest locally and internationally. Last week, a delegation from the Inter-government Authority on Development (Igad), namely Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Somali and Uganda, toured the factory to explore how camel milk could be strengthened to shield communities against the effects of drought.

Milk from cows forms about 98 per cent of the Kenya’s production, with the rest coming from goats and camels.

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