Putting horse milk to better use has been 86-year-old Toregeldy Sharmanov’s life mission.
Under the aegis of the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition, of which he is president, Sharmanov has created the first chocolate bars, ice cream and yoghurt made from horse milk.
“For thousands of years, Kazakhs have been using horse milk and doing nothing with it except making kymys (fermented mare’s milk). At some point, the Kazakhs tried to make spirits from kymys. They still make it in Mongolia, I have tried it myself. But what do we need spirits for?” said Sharmanov.
Sharmanov is most interested in gearing his products to young consumers. His devotion to popularizing horse milk occasionally got him into trouble when he was younger. In the 1980s, after serving a long stint as the Kazakh SSR’s health minister, he was fired as head of Institute of Nutrition for studying the properties of horse milk and labeled an “incorrigible nationalist.”
In the Soviet Union, even the topic of food could be political, as it turned out.
“Back in the Soviet times, I was accused of parasitism because I was a scholar actively researching national products. There was a big fuss, and I was compelled to leave the country because of all the envy,” he said.
Sharmanov had prior to serving as a minister already distinguished himself not just as a leading health specialist, but also as an official committed to advancing the interests of the underrepresented ethnic Kazakhs. From 1968 to 1971, while he was rector of Aktobe Medical Institute, only around one-third of students were Kazakh. Dismayed at a situation that in effect led to many future doctors being unable to communicate directly to Kazakh speakers in villages, he devised policies to increase the proportion of Kazakh students and Kazakh-speaking teachers to around 60 percent.
This earned him the approving attention of the long-serving First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, but likely stored up problems for the future.
Once Kazakhstan gained independence, Sharmanov returned to his life’s work of providing nutritious food for children.
Biding his time as he worked on the horse foodstuffs, Sharmanov co-founded a project to create a factory that would, in 2006, begin producing Kazakhstan’s first line of dairy products specifically for children. In 2016, he set out on his own to found Ulytau, a company that would develop an entire range of foodstuffs based on horse products.
Sharmanov said he appealed to President Nursultan Nazarbayev in person for 1 billion tenge ($3 million) to fund the construction of a factory to produce powdered horse milk.
The milk of horses is particularly delicate and cannot be pasteurized or boiled as long as that of cows before losing its health-giving properties. In powdered form, it retains useful nutrients for up to a year.
Ulytau is making chocolate using powdered milk. A big challenge is keeping costs under control. The retail price of a kilo of powdered milk is around 60,000 tenge ($180). But thanks to government subsidies, Sharmanov is able to obtain a kilo of powdered milk at one-third that price.
Chocolate is Sharmanov’s pride and joy because that was where he ran into the greatest problems in developing the product. For a long time, he was unable to settle on a formula that would render a taste comparable to regular chocolate. One notable trait of his product is that it contains no sugar, of which he is an ardent opponent.
“I forbid the use of sugar. Lactose is a natural sugar in milk. And secondly, we use albumen [egg white], a tender protein that itself gives a sweet taste,” he said.
The result is a slightly bitter end product that is reminiscent of dark chocolate.
The ice cream, meanwhile, is slightly watery because of the low fat content: fat in mare’s milk does not exceed 1 percent. But the ice cream is quite sweet.
The bestsellers are products for small children, which usually sells out by the end of the day.
Yelena, a 30-year-old mother in Almaty, said she is impressed by the high quality of what Sharmanov is producing. “We have a four-month-old baby. Before now, we used to buy these things for ourselves, but now we are trying it with our child. This is probably the best locally made product around,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Ulytau’s output is still reasonably modest. At the moment, they are mainly supplying sanatoriums, kindergartens, old people’s homes and hospitals. There are no plans to export since many of the company’s wares are only good for up to seven days.
Few people in Almaty, the country’s commercial capital, even know about Ulytau and often discover the company’s products only by chance. Sharmanov is relying for now on word of mouth to build his brand. “Personally, I am always skeptical when something is advertised. My inclination is usually to disbelieve them,” he said.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, 22-year-old Iskander Iskakov is using guerrilla methods to get the word out about his camel milk ice cream.
For now, he is selling his product out of a single location in the high-end Dostyk Plaza shopping mall. For advertising, he is relying on his Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook accounts.
Iskakov is a devotee of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk. So much so that the slogan of his Kosmyz company is “In Musk We Trust.” The brand name Kosmyz (Космұз) is a play on cosmos – a nod to Musk’s space exploration obsession – and the Kazakh word “мұз,” meaning ice.
Iskakov has been carrying the business bug from a young age. He started his first enterprise at the age of 14, buying and reselling Chinese toys. To fund his current project, he went to the United States on the Work and Travel program. The few thousand dollars he earned laboring in a pizzeria went toward buying equipment.
The start-up phase for his ice cream venture went far from smoothly. “We had trouble with logistics. Fresh milk, fresh fruit, fresh berries. It took a lot of work and energy to bring this stuff in every day,” he said.
Iskakov has gone through around 400 liters of camel milk in a year. During the summer, in peak season, he will see up to 150 buyers daily.
Kosmyz began operations in the summer of 2016 and started out selling its goods from a portable stand near a coffee shop. When the winter approached, they moved into Dostyk Plaza, where they also sell ice cream with regular cow’s milk.
“I don’t want to do things the standard way. I want to go my own way, while also leaving in something traditional,” he said, explaining to EurasiaNet.org how he decided to try out camel milk.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is an independent journalist based in Kazakhstan.