Essence of Silk Road

Chi­nese busi­ness­man sees op­por­tu­nity in Kazakh camel milk

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Zhang Yu in Kaza­khstan

If there’s one an­i­mal that can best sym­bol­ize the Silk Road, it’s prob­a­bly the camel. Its abil­ity to en­dure ex­treme heat and long pe­ri­ods of travel has made it the ideal car­a­van an­i­mal in cen­tral Asia.

To­day, camels are no longer used as a method of Silk Road trans­port, but one Chi­nese busi­ness­man saw a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity in the an­i­mal and wants to pro­mote and ex­port it to China through the Belt and Road ini­tia­tive.

The op­por­tu­nity is camel milk, which for thou­sands of years pro­vided an im­por­tant means for hu­man sur­vival in the desert. Yang Jie, a busi­ness­man from Daqing, North­east China’s Hei­longjiang Prov­ince, launched a camel milk fac­tory in the his­toric city of Turkestan, south­ern Kaza­khstan, last year, col­lect­ing milk from lo­cal camel farm­ers and turn­ing it into milk pow­der.

Ex­plor­ing the Silk Road

Be­fore com­ing to Kaza­khstan, Yang owned a com­pany man­u­fac­tur­ing agri­cul­tural wa­ter-sav­ing equip­ment in Daqing. In 2015, he started to con­sider ex­pand­ing his fac­tory over­seas.

A shrewd Chi­nese busi­ness­men, Yang knew how im­por­tant it is to fol­low China’s na­tional poli­cies when do­ing busi­nesses, and his choice fell nat­u­rally on Kaza­khstan, a ma­jor Belt and Road coun­try and China’s neigh­bor.

“The Belt and Road ini­tia­tive was the main rea­son why we con­sid­ered the coun­try in the first place. The Chi­nese mar­ket was sat­u­rated, so we thought about do­ing a busi­ness sur­vey in Kaza­khstan in 2015 be­fore open­ing an equip­ment fac­tory there,” he told the Global Times.

Yang has hy­per­glycemia, and he of­ten ran out of medicine dur­ing his trip in Kaza­khstan. Dur­ing his vis­its to two lo­cal hos­pi­tals, both doc­tors rec­om­mended camel milk, say­ing the milk, lower in choles­terol and lac­tose than cow’s milk and higher in mi­cronu­tri­ents, has a pos­i­tive ef­fect in con­trol­ling blood sugar.

For thou­sands of years, camels were the main work­ing an­i­mal for Kazakh no­mads, and shu­bat, a drink made of fer­mented camel milk, has is a house­hold drink in Kazakh fam­i­lies and served to wel­come the guests.

Yang can still re­mem­ber the first time he tasted shu­bat in Kaza­khstan. The fer­mented milk has a strong sour taste and a pun­gent smell – it’s not some­thing that for­eign­ers will fall in love with im­me­di­ately. “I could barely swal­low it,” he re­called. He later learned that the orig­i­nal camel milk tastes just like cow’s milk, but lo­cals added a spe­cial lac­tic acid bac­te­ria to make it last longer.

De­spite this first im­pres­sion, Yang was drawn by its nu­tri­tional value and com­mer­cial po­ten­tial. He in­vited ex­perts from the In­ner Mon­go­lia In­sti­tute of Camel Re­search to study the nu­tri­tional value of camel milk, and did busi­ness re­search on camel milk prod­ucts in Kaza­khstan. He found that while peo­ple can buy pack­aged camel milk in su­per­mar­kets, most camel mike is served fresh from camel milk farms, and the level of com­mer­cial­iza­tion of camel milk is rel­a­tively low com­pared with cow’s milk.

Yang spot­ted a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity, and af­ter re­search­ing dif­fer­ent states, de­cided to build a camel milk fac­tory in Turkestan, in south­ern Kaza­khstan. The dry and hot tem­per­a­ture here, some­times soar­ing to over 50C in the sum­mer, pro­vides an ideal habi­tat for rais­ing camels.

With an in­vest­ment of $32 mil­lion, he launched a fac­tory ca­pa­ble of pro­cess­ing and pas­teur­iz­ing 100 tons of camel milk each day and pro­duc­ing 1.5 tons of camel milk pow­der. Dif­fer­ent from the tra­di­tional treat­ment of adding spe­cial lac­tic acid to the milk, he pas­teur­ized it through a mod­ern pro­cess­ing line so that their fla­vors are more ac­cept­able to the for­eign mar­ket. This is the only project in the city of Turkestan in­vested in by a pri­vate Chi­nese com­pany.

Build­ing trust

One prob­lem Yang had to solve was se­cur­ing a steady sup­ply of camel milk.

As a for­eign com­pany, Yang and his team thought about many ways to gain trust from lo­cal farm­ers, who had lit­tle knowl­edge of China or Chi­nese busi­ness­men.

In the be­gin­ning, in­stead of sign­ing long-term con­tracts with them, he tried to fos­ter trust by buy­ing camel milk from farm­ers at the mar­ket price with cash. “Some­times we re­ceived camel milk that didn’t re­ally meet our stan­dard. But in or­der to get the farm­ers’ trust, we still took it in and would rather throw it away than re­turn­ing the milk to the farm­ers,” he said.

Among the 100 or so em­ploy­ees of Yang, only about a dozen are Chi­nese. “Our Kazakh em­ploy­ees car­ried out all the ex­e­cu­tion of our busi­ness plans, in­clud­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion with camel farm­ers, milk trans­porta­tion and work­ing in the pro­duc­tion line,” he said.

The lo­cal govern­ment’s sup­port was also in­dis­pens­able. For each liter of camel milk lo­cal farm­ers sold to Golden Camel, the govern­ment of Turkestan of­fered 50 tenge ($0.14) as an in­cen­tive.

Af­ter months of co­op­er­a­tion, 48 camel farm­ers with over 14,600 camels have agreed to sign long-term sup­ply con­tracts with Yang.

Zhazira Oza­tkyzy, a Kazakh em­ployee, joined the com­pany in 2015 when the it was at its prepa­ra­tion stage. Oza­tkyzy spent her child­hood in Urumqi, Xin­jiang.

“Chi­nese and Kazakh em­ploy­ees get along very well. The big­gest cul­tural dif­fer­ence is prob­a­bly that Chi­nese peo­ple are more hard­work­ing.”

Yang said in the be­gin­ning, many friends were skep­ti­cal about his project. “My busi­ness­men friends from China were wor­ried that Kaza­khstan wasn’t legally and po­lit­i­cally sta­ble enough for long-term in­vest­ment. On the Kaza­khstan side, Kaza­khsta­nis weren’t sure whether we would stick to our busi­ness com­mit­ment.”

But as his pro­duc­tion line started to pro­duce the first batch of camel milk pow­der this year, and as he started ne­go­ti­at­ing about ex­ports with the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, Yang is now con­fi­dent about the fu­ture of his com­pany.

Apart from camel milk, Yang is also con­sid­er­ing to tap deeper into the camel econ­omy, and de­velop skin­care prod­ucts with camel milk and camel hair prod­ucts.

Cour­tesy of Yang Jie Photo:

Yang Jie in his camel milk fac­tory Golden Camel in Turkestan, Kaza­khstan, in April, 2016

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