Probably the worlds’ most overworked and neglected farm animal, the donkey, has in recent years garnered even more publicity after research has revealed that it has more useful properties than being just a work horse. The most recent local phenomenon about the donkey came through research by Johannes Visagie, founder of Secret Kalahari, an indigenous cosmetics company specialising in donkey milk products. Visagie’s now famous story began when he could not find relief from his heart condition. He took donkey milk to alleviate his symptoms. His doctor was amazed at his recovery and the overall improvement of his health that he recommended donkey milk to some of his patients. Lo and behold, Visagie has not looked back since. His partnership with Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) has propelled both Visagie and his donkey milk products enterprise to the stratosphere.
“Through my alignment with BIH, I am now looking to markets in Europe and America,” He divulged in a telephone interview from Ghantsi Show where he had gone to showcase his products and spread his knowledge on the benefits of using donkey milk.
His prime assignment before sending his products out is to pass a safety evaluation for both foreign markets’ standards after which, Secret Kalahari will register with the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA). His elaborate plan will be then to upload his products on the Amazon catalogue, an online shop that retails globally. Secret Kalahari has also made an immeasurable impact in the region, garnering interest from other countries in the Southern African Development (SADC). “We have also attracted a lot of interest in the SADC region and are currently working with another company in Namibia,” he stated, adding that local suppliers and procurers are also interested in the products for their hotel clients.
Speaking to the production process of the Secret Kalahari flagship product – donkey milk bath soap – he said the delicate process allows them to make a 45 kilogram bar of soap that is then cut into smaller soap bars for the market. The tedious but deliberate process then allows 4-6 weeks, depending on the season a shorter time in the summer and longer in the winter, for the soap to cure. Answering a query as to whether the company was ready to feed into all the markets that the BIH is helping them penetrate, he said he was working on ensuring that. “I have gone back to UB and I am currently working on a process to optimise production. The system we are working on will be systemised and will help in producing the best quality products,” he said without giving away much. Visagie’s multi-million Dollar dream has also seen him venture into the world of indigenous medicines and has begun producing and packaging donkey milk and other naturally occurring plant derivatives as health supplements. Still not divulging much, he revealed that he is again engaged in research with the University of Botswana (UB) on an indigenous weight loss product that he believes will be next big thing. Secret Kalahari soap and the ever growing list of products that include capsules, soap, lotion, Khawa scrub, face ointment, ointment for athletes’ foot, and fresh donkey milk have also gone through a research partnership with the UB when the enterprising man started research on the various benefits of Donkey milk.
Despite his business being recognised nationally and across the border, Visagie is concerned at having his business idea being duplicated by a research partner. He has always been aggrieved by the fact that indigenous knowledge needs to be protected by patenting where possible. The aggrieved Visagie has decried that indigenous scientists with expertise need to be protected against their ideas being stolen by learned individuals who claim to help them through research. “My research partner wanted a piece of my business after realising the potential financial profit the business presented,” he has said, stating that he had approached the University of Botswana researcher solely for help with research on the now famous Kalahari Secrets donkey milk soap recipe. Although his soap has the backing of the Office of the President as well as the UB’s Chemistry Department where the research was conducted, Visagie fears his indigenous knowledge on the benefits of donkey milk has fallen into the wrong hands. This is a fear that has been presented by other Batswana who choose to play their cards close to their chests, lest they join Visagie’s lament.
According to the literature survey conducted during the research on the benefits of donkey milk, it has tremendous health benefits due to its nutritional composition such that if consumed it may provide a possible remedy or relief to many of the symptoms for different diseases. It was also found that donkey milk could prove to be a safer alternative as it does not have adverse contraindications or side effects like artificial drugs and supplement. Applied topically, donkey milk has also been proven to enhance the health of the skin when compared to artificial facial creams which at times contain chemicals that burn soft tissue of the skin.
Innovation in breeding
In 2017, Secret Kalahari had at least 150 donkeys and the number has increased since. The founder explains that a partnership with Botswana University Agriculture and Natural Resources (BUAN) will ensure a successful breeding of donkeys specifically for milking. “We are working together on identifying genes in donkeys that produce more milk than others in order to start selective breeding,” he said, adding that some donkeys can produce up to 16 litres of milk.
Other donkey products: Leather
Donkeys have of recent gained popularity in China where their skin is used in medicinal remedies. According to Wikipedia, the traditional Chinese medicine is called Ejiao extracted after boiling the skins to extract the gelatin. The site continues that donkey prices around the world began rising sharply in the mid-2010s due to Chinese herbalism demands. Countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal have been forced to ban donkey exports to China due to dwindling population.
The ban was a result of the inhumane killing of donkeys for a medicine that supposedly treats anemia, reproductive issues and insomnia though the alleged medicinal properties are unproven. It has also become an ingredient in tonics and face creams turning the donkey hide business into a multimillion Dollar one.
According to a report on the donkeysanctuary.org.uk titled ‘Under the skin: What is Ejiao,” the demand for Ejiao has dramatically increased in the last few years as there used to be around 11 million donkeys in China but the number has dropped to 6 million in the last 20 years.
“Donkeys and donkey skins are now being transported from other countries, including Africa. Most of these are being bought and sold by dealers but a significant number of donkeys are also being stolen from their owners,” the article stated.
Also a 2016 report from Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua stated that around 4 million donkey hides are needed each year to produce enough Ejiao for the market, but the annual supply of donkeys from China is fewer than 1.8 million.
Donkey Sanctuary Rapid Response Manager, Simon Pope, was once quoted as saying, “The industrial scale at which these animals are being slaughtered is of major concern. It is probably the biggest issue facing donkeys ever.”