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“MALE” AND “FEMALE” WOOL The quality of camel wool is determined by the age and sex of the camel. Mongolian herders distinguish “male” and “female” wool from camels more than 3 years old (despite the names, male and female camels have both types of wool, Figure 9). The “male” wool is made up of longer, coarser hair; it comes from the mane, the front of the neck, the knee and the tops of the humps. It is used to make ropes and animal halters. The long neck hairs are used to make thread, and hair from the mane is used to make bags and as insulation in traditional quilted pants and jackets. A camel yields about 1.5 kg of “male” wool a year.
The finer, “female”, wool is from the rest of the body. The fibre that comes from the camel’s sides is best for spinning yarn. A camel yields about 3.5 kg of the “female” wool a year. The finest, most valuable, very high quality “female” fibre is called torom wool; it comes from baby camels less than 3 years old. All of the wool from a 2-year-old animal (the age that it is first shorn), including from the head, neck, hump and front legs, is rated as torom wool. The older a camel gets, the less “female” fibre it has. Some 80% of the wool from an adult camel is fine grade hair with a diameter of 17–20 microns.
Women who do not have their own camels may buy a batch of “female” wool direct from herders or from traders. They separate out the finest fibres to spin, and perhaps sell the remainder. They use hand-spindles for spinning and they knit garments by hand; today, some also use small knitting machines. They make items either for household use or for sale locally and in shops in Ulaanbaatar.
Shearing of the camels starts after Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian lunar new year, and takes place in several steps. Depending on the weather and the camel’s condition, the shearing of the “male” wool will be finished between middle and the end of spring. If the camel is weak, the shearing of the last “male” wool may be postponed until the end of spring. At the end of spring, the wool on the feet, neck, groin, armpits and tail is shorn.
Shearing of the body (the “female” wool) should be finished by end of June. Ideally, females should have given birth by the end of spring, so that calving does not coincide with shearing time.
A typical herder household with 46 camels earns about 12% of its annual income from selling raw camel wool. Other income sources include cashmere (about 50%), dairy products (about 1%), livestock skins (about 2%), as well as government support (pensions and family allowances, about 35%).
PART 1: Wool and cashmere 43
PROBLEMS FACED BY HERDERSNomadic camel husbandry is an ancient way of life for herders in the Gobi, the desert and semi-desert pasturelands that form Mongolia’s south and west. But the herders face many
Climate change is affecting pasture and water resources.
Herd structure. Market mechanisms encourage herders to keep cashmere goats rather than camels.
Policy. Laws and policies for managing pastureland are lacking.
Inequality. Livestock are becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer, very wealthy households or absentee owners, creating a class of herding labourers who are potentially very vulnerable.
Remoteness. Long distances, a lack of roads, and high fuel and transport prices mean it is difficult for herders to reach the market.
Dependence on traders. Many are dependent on traders who come to them. These traders dictate prices, or provide consumer goods on credit and demand payment in wool or cashmere when prices are high, or in cash when prices are low.
A WOOL SURPLUSMongolia produces more camel wool than it can use. In the 1970s, 3 000 tons of raw wool accumulated each year without being processed. Since the 1980s, an industry to process this wool has developed, so more wool is used than before. It produces high-quality knitwear to compete in the international and domestic markets. Other products are blankets and mattresses, the latter made from the coarser components of the wool. While advances have been made to separate the different components of the wool and to extract the fine fibres suitable for making high-quality products, this process remains lengthy and expensive.
Adding value to livestock diversity
There is still a wool surplus, especially in districts far from the factories in Ulaanbaatar and the Chinese border. Mongolia has over 200 000 adult camels, producing an estimated 700 tons of “female” wool suitable for yarns and garments a year. The three biggest companies in Ulaanbaatar together process less than half of this – about 310 tons a year.
It appears that up to half of the raw wool suitable for making yarn and garments is not processed in Mongolia; it is either stored indefinitely or is smuggled over the border to factories in China (exporting raw wool is illegal, so accurate data are hard to come by).
District data support this supposition. For example, the 12 400 camels in Bayanlig, a district in Bayankhongor province that has the highest camel numbers in the country, produce about 62 tons of wool a year. Two companies in Ulaanbaatar each buy about 10% of this output. Another 20–30% is sold to traders, while a further 20% is used locally to make ropes and local handicrafts. That leaves nearly a third unaccounted for. In neighbouring Gurvantes district, approximately 20 tons of wool are produced annually, of which only 400–500 kg are processed locally.
Many of the traders come from China. They grade the raw wool, and sell the clean portion (which is free of earth, plant materials and dirt) to Mongolian processors, and transport the remainder to China. There, the inferior fibre is used for insulation in quilted garments.
Also, camel hides are sold at the border, and the camel wool is cut from the hide, processed and sold back to Mongolia.
KNITTING TOGETHER A CHAINBuilding a value chain to link Mongolian spinners with American knitters took a combination of development projects, NGO activities and initiatives by committed individuals.
In the late 1990s and the 2000s, German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) supported two successive projects focusing on nature conservation and sustainable resource management in the Gobi. These projects emphasized community organization, sustainable livelihoods, PART 1: Wool and cashmere 45 and working with mobile pastoralists and local governments. They saw an opportunity in camel wool: a high-quality but under-used product that could be used to raise local people’s incomes and alleviate poverty. The idea was to make camel wool more valuable, so enhancing the value of the camels and creating an incentive for camel husbandry. That would ultimately generate important ecological benefits.
These projects provided various forms of support:
Training in processing and spinning of camel wool Locally made carding and spinning machines Training to produce yarn to specifications Training in small enterprise skills and cooperative training.
Workshops with the women spinners to identify problems, challenges and successes, and to plan the way forward.
Support for women to participate in exhibitions and fairs.
Initially, product development was for the local and national market, and the projects presented the product in trade shows and fairs in district centres, the provincial capitals of Arvaikheer, Bayankhongor and Dalanzadgad in south-central Mongolia, and in Ulaanbaatar, the national capital.
Production At the local level, community organizers working with the project coordinated efforts, provided information to the spinners, organized training and collected samples and products to be sent to Ulaanbaatar.
While a large number of spinners in several districts were provided with initial training and equipment, only 40–50 spinners in Gurvantes district currently produce yarn for the targeted niche market, using wool from the indigenous Nutgiin Mongol breed. Currently, about 35 women are spinning regularly. They are all able to produce to the required standard, and some have excellent abilities.
One spinner produces approximately 10 skeins (loose coils of wool), or approximately 1 kg of fine yarn, per month. The spinners do not work full-time, but in between housework or paid jobs. Most prefer to work at home so they can look after their children and do other tasks at their own convenience. They say that under current conditions (all the preparation done by hand and the spinning done with wheels) they could increase the average output to 15 skeins a month.
Most of the spinners are women from non-herding households in rural centres, or from herder households with few camels. Members of herder households with many camels are less likely to do spinning: they live in remoter areas, move around with their animals, have many herding tasks, and are relatively well-off from their income from herding and selling raw products. For spinners with few or no livestock, selling yarn can be a significant source of income, and often their main one.
Marketing At the other end of the chain, the international marketing process was largely carried forward by Nancy Shand, an American anthropologist who brought the yarn to the USA and introduced it to potential buyers. A support initiative, “Nomad Yarns”, was set up in the USA. For several years, Nancy Shand continued to support the effort by enlisting a volunteering expert to provide guidance on product development to the required specifications, covered the costs of transport and customs, made contacts with distributors, displayed the PART 1: Wool and cashmere 47 yarn at trade shows, developed brochures and other information material, and set up a website. Raising the quality of the product and developing consistency of properties of the yarn has been an important input.
A large international distributor has taken on camel wool yarn for marketing in North America and Europe. If these initial efforts prove successful, they could evolve into a viable market. The potential to develop and market other products based on camel wool is largely untapped.
Linking producers and markets The link between the spinners in Mongolia and the marketing efforts in the USA was for several years maintained through the efforts of Altanchimeg Chimiddorj, a local consultant with the office of the New Zealand Nature Institute in Mongolia. She introduced tools and standards for skeins with Nomad Yarns, organized training, and oversaw quality control and the paperwork requirements for certification and for shipment to the USA.
The spinners in the Gobi needed support in handling the paperwork for export and in organizing transport. Several certifications are needed: for quality (from the Mongolian Agency for Standardization and Metrology), origin (by the Chamber of Commerce), and laboratory testing (the Mongolian Textile Institute, Mongolian University of Science and Technology).
The effort of developing the product and developing a market has been a constant balancing act. For a wholesaler or distributor to take on the product, it needs a steady, assured supply of the product. On the other hand, the spinners put considerable work into production, so need to know that their efforts will be worthwhile.
All this effort has established a marketing chain:
1. The spinners buy wool from herders (some spinners also own camels).
2. They separate out the high-quality fibre and sell the remainder to traders.
3. They remove the grass, wood, dirt and hair from the fibre, wash and dry it, fluff it by hand or using a hand carder, and comb it. They weigh it into lots of 100 g each, and then spin each lot into skeins. They wash the skein with shampoo, rinse and dry it, then label it with the individual spinner’s name before giving the skein a final quality check.
4. The finished yarn is taken to Ulaanbaatar, where it is again checked for quality.
5. The wool is certified by a laboratory for customs, origin, and quality.
6. It is shipped to the USA. On arrival, it is cleared through customs by a broker.
7. It is shipped to the distributor, which in turn ships it to retailers.
This chain is still in the trial stage. If successful, it can be scaled up at both ends, with more spinners producing more wool, and a wider distribution network in the USA.
PRICES A spinner buys 100 g of raw, fine wool for about $0.50 and sells it as a spun skein for about $4.00. The costs of shipping, certifications and export permits from Mongolia and import into the USA, advertising and marketing are partially covered by the NGO in Mongolia and supporters in USA. Even so, the distributor pays $12 for a skein, and sells it for $20 to retailers, who sell it on to customers after adding their own margin.
Adding value to livestock diversity
SECRETS OF SUCCESSWhat makes camel yarn attractive to customers in the United States? The qualities of the yarn itself are a major selling point. Its exotic origin, the ecological significance of the camel, and the benefits to women of the Gobi all add appeal. They also generate a lot of interest and commitment among key players involved in the value chain, from supportive customs officials who admit the product into the USA under an existing code, to the endcustomers who are prepared to pay premium prices when they know about the ecological values and livelihoods their purchases can enhance. A key staff member at the distributor has developed a personal interest in the story and has facilitated trial marketing efforts that have the potential to reach thousands of retailers.
UNRAVELLING THE KNOTS
Various problems and challenges face the spinners:
Cost of raw wool. Because most of the spinners have no or few camels of their own, they have to buy the raw wool. That greatly reduces their profit margin.
Processing efficiency. The spinners de-hair the raw wool and prepare it for spinning by hand at a very small scale. This takes a long time.