Indian startups feature donkey milk in pampering products, dairy uses being explored

10, Sep. 2020

Dolphin IBA founder Aby Baby with his donkeys at his donkey farm at Ramamangalam in the southern Indian state of Kerala. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin IBA)
Dolphin IBA founder Aby Baby with his donkeys at his donkey farm at Ramamangalam in the southern Indian state of Kerala. (Photo courtesy of Dolphin IBA)

By Atul Ranjan

NEW DELHI, NNA - Legend has it that ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra used to bathe in donkey milk regularly to maintain her fabled beauty.

This has inspired some Indian startups to create skincare products with donkey milk as a key ingredient, capitalizing on the booming beauty market and growing penchant for natural products of superior quality.

Used as a mode of transportation in rural communities for a long time, the humble animal is slowly regaining its pride of place after it has been recognised yet again that its milk indeed contains proteins of high nutritional, therapeutic as well as cosmetic value.

Responding to calls from the government, some local entrepreneurs have started commercial donkey farming to produce donkey milk-based personal care items, ranging from soap and shower gel to face and skin creams.

The government has been urging business communities to monetize jenny milk by using it in such products to encourage sustainable rearing of the animals to help reverse their dwindling population.

But now, it wants to promote donkey farming to produce milk and related products for consumption.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research-National Research Centre on Equines (ICAR-NRCE) has embarked on the country’s first donkey milk dairy project to explore its use as a health food.

While the project is mainly for research purposes, the council aims to promote the milk’s health benefits and uses as a low-fat alternative despite its lower yield compared to cow milk which is widely consumed across the giant nation.

The dairy project was launched in July in the ICAR-NRCE campus at Hisar in the northern state of Haryana, said Anuradha Bhardwaj, a senior scientist from the animal biotechnology unit of ICAR-NRCE.

Although the project is still in its infancy starting with 10 Halari breed of donkeys, it has already received many inquiries on production of jenny milk for consumption.

B.N. Tripathi, the deputy director general in the animal science unit of ICAR, who was involved in the earlier stage of the project, told NNA, "As far as starting commercial production of donkey milk for consumption as a milk, buttermilk, yoghurt and cheese is concerned, we are receiving inquiries and hope somebody will venture into this business soon."

"This has potential to become a big business," added Tripathi.

However, he acknowledged there are hurdles to overcome.

"Donkey rearing has never been considered as a respectable job in India or perhaps anywhere in the world. That's why efforts are being made to change the people's mindset towards the animal by monetizing their milk-based products to promote sustainable rearing," he explained.

Also, consumption of donkey milk is rare in India, confining in only a few communities in some of the southern Indian states.

People have also lost interest in the animal as its traditional uses for transportation of people and goods are shrinking day by day in the modern era.

"Many traditional businesses associated with donkeys such as loading goods or washermen in rural India using donkeys to transport clothes are fast vanishing and people are losing interest in the animal," said Tripathi.

India’s donkey population fell sharply by 61.23 percent between 2012 and 2019 to just 120,000 donkeys left, according to the provisional census report released in October last year.

One of those supporting the government's call is entrepreneur Aby Baby who started commercial donkey farming a few years ago to manufacture premium cosmetic products with the 'Cleopatra’s beauty secret' brand tagline.

Baby, the founder and CEO of Dolphin IBA, runs a donkey farm at Ramamangalam in Kerala. He churns out skin creams not just for beauty but to tackle dermatological problems as well as shower gels.

The donkey milk is freeze-dried and mixed with other natural ingredients to make creams, said Baby who keeps a stable of about 25 donkeys at his farm of two acres.

“The business formally started in the year 2017, but there was a home work of almost a decade involved in developing all the products,” revealed Baby who won an innovative farmer award from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in 2019.

Priced in the $26-$93 range under the category of exclusive cosmetics, his products cater to a local niche market as well as wealthy Gulf countries via e-commerce channels.

Baby is now looking to launch new cosmetics such as lip balms and food products for boosting health immunity.

“Donkey milk has always been a part of ancient beauty rituals. The Greeks considered donkey milk as an excellent remedy, the Romans regarded it as a luxury drink and Cleopatra bathed in donkey milk to maintain her beauty,” said Baby as he enthused on its amazing uses.

However, he is not keen about producing the milk for drinking.

"Selling the milk as dairy uses including drinking will be a more challenging and expensive affair as the milk yield per donkey is much less and the maintenance cost is high. That's one of the key reasons why I ventured into donkey milk based cosmetics instead. It has its own niche market, so even if the product is expensive, some people will buy it," Baby explained.

Pooja Kaul, who has been making donkey milk-based organic and natural skincare products under the Organiko brand since 2018, is also focusing on carving a niche in the personal care market.

“We are targeting a very niche clientele of working women in the age group of 20-55 years and the clients who are very conscious about using organic and naturally made products,” she said.

Kaul said that she is positioning Organiko as a luxury skincare company in India with plans to launch a wider range of skincare products.

There are business opportunities to be explored, such as the creation of high-quality health products made with jenny milk.

According to B.N. Tripathi, the deputy director general in the animal science unit of ICAR, there are very few startups in the country selling donkey milk-based products that “possess high nutrition and medicinal values" currently.

A 2018 report by consultancy firm RedSeer Management Consulting said the Indian beauty and personal care market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 9 percent, from $14-15 billion in 2017 to $22-23 billion in 2022.

The growth is being aided by rising disposable incomes which shot up by around 35-45 percent during the years of 2012-2017.

Meanwhile, donkey milk skincare products are gaining some attention as they trot into the vast, ever-growing beauty world of luxury creams. Donkey-milk face mask, anyone?