Linking global knowledge to local realities in dairy


Professionalising the dairy sector in East-Africa.

Africa’s population is booming. Within decades, over half of Africans will live in its rapidly expanding cities. All these people will need to eat food with enough nutrients to keep them healthy, since good health is the mother of all development goals. One valuable source of nutrients is milk, as it contains a lot of calcium and proteins. Recommendations for consumption vary between 100 and 150 litres per year. An average African drinks about 40 litres. Only Kenya is meeting the recommendations, an average Kenyan now consumes 115 litres per year. And demand is growing by the day. Good news, except for the fact that the country’s milk production will not be sufficient to quench this thirst.

Meeting future demands is no small achievement if you realise that most African farmers are smallholders with just an acre of land for some crops and a few cows, mainly to feed themselves. Relying on traditional subsistence farming alone just won’t do for the task ahead. Let’s take a look at such a smallholder. He sells most of his milk in small quantities at the backdoor. Yesterday evening’s milk has been stored in uncooled plastic containers all night long, where bacteria happily multiplied. The next morning this breeding ground is mixed with fresh milk and sold off to a middleman who scoots away on a motorbike while the bacteria continue to fester. Anton Jansen team leader of the Kenya Market-Led Dairy Programme (KMDP) project, “Some say these middle men buy anything that looks white.”

In the dry season, there’s often not enough water for the cows and their fodder is of such low quality that experts speak of ‘empty calories’. Subsequently milk production drops. This year for example, Kenyan shops ran out of butter for two months. Milk is sometimes mixed with water and starch to make it more voluminous. When cows get ill, they are randomly treated with antibiotics. Their milk would tell this story if tested.

However, a mere 30% of locally produced milk makes it to the cooperative where testing and cooling takes place before the milk moves on to a processor to be properly treated. Consequently, the bulk of milk is sold raw. In other words, dairy farms are still a long way from income generating enterprises and their milk a long way from feeding the city.

A mere 30% of locally produced milk makes it to the cooperative

SNV therefore also implements projects aiming to provide farmers with innovation

Accelerating growth: Connecting Kenyan demand to dairy expertise

In 2011 the Dutch embassy in Kenya wanted to complement its aid oriented programmes with a more business-like approach that would serve mutual interests. Converging aid and trade establishes more symmetrical relationships with the (quite developed) private sector in Kenya. Still, these sectors need to be professionalized in order to increase production of higher quality, at lower prices. Shaping these markets requires expertise from developed countries where the dairy industry has evolved into a high-tech business. The embassy chose three nutrition sensitive sectors; horticulture, fishery and dairy. For dairy, they asked SNV to set up the Kenya Market led Dairy Programme (KMDP). Its goal would be to establish a professional and commercially viable sector by linking dairy expertise to local realities at various levels of sophistication. In this way, future Kenyans can satisfy their growing demand for proteins through regular market mechanisms, and farming will become a professional income generating business.

Of course, one doesn’t change subsistence farming to professional agri-business overnight. Changing the system is a long and winding road. In the immediate future, the multitude of farmers at the bottom of the pyramid will remain essential to fulfilling local demand. SNV therefore also implements projects aiming to provide farmers with innovations that might seem modest, but may trigger a chain of transformations improving the quality of their lives. Better seeds for better fodder, access to silage techniques and veterinary advice, biogas installations and the likes all come to play their role.

From seed to feed

One of the biggest issues hampering milk production in Kenya is the lack of nutritious fodder, especially in the dry season when up to 50% of the milk flow dries up. Demand for fodder is high because farmers generally haven’t stored enough to last the season. You may think that this is an age-old problem, but in fact it has only recently come to light. For centuries, cows freely roamed around and the shrivelling of the abundant green grass during the dry season was just a fact of life. “People think grass just grows, making human intervention seem strange.” Judith Kitinji and Fridah Gacheri, dairy experts of SNV know all about it. They have been working with traditional subsistence farmers in the remote and semi-arid Serengeti area. Only now that land is becoming scarce and farmers have started to keep their cows in stables (zero-grazing’) the issue is becoming clearer.

However, buying fodder is expensive and therefore many farmers still leave the cows to graze or they sow sub-optimal seeds on tiny plots, with insufficient knowledge and technology at their fingertips. This is where SNV steps in, demonstrating the possibilities of silage. Farmers can learn the right techniques themselves or buy fodder from specialised farms that use proper seeds and store their fodder in plastic, making it easier for farmers to concentrate on their cows. This diversification of roles is one of the signs of a professionalising sector.

Innovations only work when they solve the needs of the farmers

Now that land is becoming more scarce, farmers started to keep cows in stables

Milk safety from grass to glass, a bit of an animal

To improve the quality of processed milk, one Kenyan processor by the name of Happy Cow has been piloting quality based payment to farmers, with support from SNV. For several months, they took samples of milk and discovered high levels of pollution with bacteria, antibiotics and other residues. These findings were presented to the national dairy board by Happy Cow. It persuaded the government to put stricter dairy regulations in place. But life isn’t as simple as it might seem from behind the drawing board. There is a lack of law enforcement. Added to that, long established interests in the informal market have put up hurdles each and every step of the way; a farmer is unfazed when a processor refuses his polluted milk, because the informal market will buy it anyway. Informal middle men on their motorbikes simply undo the higher price they pay by adding some water. And last but certainly not least, poor consumers lack the luxury of being choosy. They face bigger problems; demand for milk by far outweighs supply, and prices are increasing by the day.

You might think all this is like fighting an uphill battle, but ultimately it makes our work extra relevant. Think about fodder preservation again, if we manage to advocate for a strategic fodder reserve in periods of drought, we can overcome shortages in future!

The future is always bright, but what have we achieved till date?

Let’s be clear, we are still a long way from reaching our final destination; sustainable dairy production that will feed the growing cities of East Africa while allowing a sustainable income for farmers. Private companies are not yet lining up to invest in the sector, but we do manage to attract entrepreneurs wanting to innovate. At sector and government level, we join in to advocate these innovations. And our KMDP approach inspires SNV dairy projects in various countries. This broadens our scope and increases the efficiency of our interventions.

The KMDP project works with 18 dairy cooperatives that collect milk from their member farmers and sell it to processors. Three milk processors have also joined in. So what is the result? Well, over the last five years these dairy cooperatives have raised their total production by almost 50%. Sorting out the exact reason for this isn’t an easy thing to do: the whims of nature, demand, legislation and professionalization all play a role, as they always do in systemic change. Many parties are involved, as they should since they are there to stay.

The TIDE project professionalises the dairy sector in Uganda

The EDGET project works with smallholder dairy farmers in Ethiopia

SNV’s dairy projects beyond KMDP

SNV implements several projects to professionalise the dairy sector in East Africa. The goals are the same everywhere but approaches depend on local context. In the remote areas of Kenya, KMDP insights are used to improve dairy production of subsistence farmers, like the Enelerai women cooperative in the Narok for example. In Ethiopia, the Enhancing Dairy Sector Growth in Ethiopia (EDGET) focuses on access to markets for livelihood farmers and providing nutritious milk for children.

In Uganda, our Inclusive Dairy Enterprise (TIDE) project faces a dairy industry that is still in its infancy. TIDE has selected several products that are essential for dairy farmers (such as fodder chopping equipment) and we encourage private enterprises to enter the market by showing them potential demand. Once they are interested, we will link them to farmers. Up to 20 innovations have been identified and the first ones are being tested in the market as we speak. The company that sells chopping equipment for example, now visits training sessions for farmers to demonstrate their product. This has translated into a promising uptake of their sales and, more important to us, farmers’ professionalising their business.