There doesn’t yet exist an animal that will grow, excrete or secrete money. We can always hope that this will one day be developed, but modest, well looked-after animals are already capable of providing the raw materials for products of great value, both nutritional and monetary, and yet in Africa we don’t break open the cow-shaped piggy bank that dairy farming and, in particular, cheese production offers us.
Dairy farming is an extremely profitable, and in some ways low-demand, form of agricultural income generation. The skills involved are not as demanding or technical as certain other types of farming, and not as weather-dependent as crop farming.
Milk is a key commodity, and one with a fixed price which is more likely to go up than down, meaning that if you (or rather, the animals) keep on churning out the product, the money will follow. However, milk consumption and production in Africa are much lower than in Europe, the United States or Australia, and the quality is not always as high as in these countries.
The leading African consumer of milk on the continent is Kenya, but even the Kenyans lag behind the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommendation of 200 litres a year per person, with only 120 litres consumed by each Kenyan over a calendar year.
Though some countries seemingly have a surplus of production the quality of such milk is often questionable. Most notably, Rwanda’s milk production (where authorities introduced a ‘one-cow-per-family’ initiative in 2007) has until now not been regulated by the government, and the raw product is often not treated, transported and processed in a safe and controlled manner. Legislation to control this is encouraging greater healthy competition between producers striving for higher standards of dairy farming. However, many other African countries are lagging behind and dairy farming is not commonplace.
The irony is that milk production produces by-products which can also be profitable and useful, either for the dairy farmers themselves or for the people they can sell the products on to. Whey, the yellowish, thick gloopy liquid which is produced when milk ferments, is used to feed animals, or as a protein culture in the cheese-making process. Animal manure can be used as a fertilizer, and fleece or skin can be put to good use if treated in the correct way. The animals can also be used for meat even if that’s not the original intention, and some dairy farmers make nice side-lines in selling their meat.
In Australia, artisan cheese-making is big business. As a writer, I’ve taken on a personal mission to learn about the cheese-making process in Southern Tasmania (Australia) and this has opened my eyes to the large amount of goods that can be produced from a small number of animals, and at reduced cost.
Grass is a natural product that costs nothing, but is a delicious treat for sheep, and they love supping some of the whey extracted from their own milk during the cheese-making process; a coincidentally practical circularity, which serves dairy farmers well. A sheep can give a good 360 litres a year, and a cow 12,500l over the same period. However, cows in Sub-Saharan Africa countries average a meagre 200 litres.
So what are Africans doing differently from Australians? They have just as much sun, have access to the same quality animals on the international animal stock market, and to the same knowledge, in theory; however, accessing this knowledge proves more difficult for African farmers who don’t know about the latest developments in dairy farming, and sometimes don’t know the basics about good feeding and breeding practices, which you can easily find on Google if you know how to use it. This skills drain is being countered by initiatives such as the EADD (East African Dairy Development) project, run by Hiefer International, the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Technoserve, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and African Breeders Services (ABS).
The EADD project explores the use of VFTs (Volunteer Farmer Trainers) who are trained by professionals over a two-day intensive course on essential feeding and management practices, before going on to pass these lessons on to other members of their communities, in their village, or neighbouring villages. This cascade method of training has been proven successful by the farmers taking part, as they saw their total sales volume go up by 102% over the initial three-year period. Given that the return on investment of a dairy farm is significantly quicker to come about than most other forms of farming, this stands any potential dairy farmer in good stead.
A big advantage on the part of the Australian producers is the prolific use of WOOFFers (volunteers working on organic farms for free). This cheap way of having willing helpers has revolutionised the smallholder farming possibilities in the country, allowing farmers to have free workers, who cost just the food they eat and the beds they sleep in.
All WOOFFers are provided with board and accommodation, but can do the equivalent of half the work of a full-time employee, on average. Having a group of four WOOFFers at any one point is therefore equal to having two full-time paid employees, but they cost a fraction of the price, and they’re there to learn about farming, spend some of their free time in a more productive way, or validate a visa. Whatever the motivations, the result is a huge support network for dairy farmers, and all farmers alike in Australia. The practice has not yet reached Africa, much like the milk-drinking and cheese-eating excesses of certain European countries, as well as the States and Australia.
In Australia’s top dairy farms, the average operating profit on a single dairy farm cow (the money earned from a single cow, once all costs have been accounted for) is $AUS832 ($US599) annually. Estimates would give a figure for operating profits in Kenya as $US1740, given the rarity of the product and the possible selling opportunities. However, the initial costs necessary to purchase a cow are prohibitive for too many people, and so investing in a dairy farm’s first cows is only able to be afforded by the lucky few who have $US2000 spare to buy a cow, then increase the stock, and build the necessary sheds and equipment.
In Australia, a staggering amount of the population are migrants who arrived in the country during its boom years of financial opportunity, and made their money setting up the country’s first major businesses and providing the necessary services for the influx of migrants. They have the capital to invest in a venture such as dairy farming, and keep it up.
Moving away from raw milk, we can address the issue of cheese, which isn’t being produced on a large scale in Africa and has yet to become a popular commodity. Cheese is a European invention, one which hasn’t quite reached Africa (or several other areas of the world) in a big way. Australia was colonised by the British, and not only that, but it was populated by them so that the coloniser population far outnumbers the native population, meaning that food habits and culture have been directly imported from Britain and the wider European community.
Cheese demands a lot of work to go from the raw milk, direct from the animal, to the hard, creamy, or oozing final product which anyone with any sense (and without a lactose intolerance) wants on their plate. At the sheep cheese farm I mentioned earlier in Tasmania, Australia, it can take up to 10 months for a cheese to go from the animal to a neatly-packaged block of cheese, and throughout this time the cheese is nurtured, loved, provided with a plethora of treatments and processes, and stored in exactly the right temperature and atmosphere. This doesn’t come cheap, or easy, and given modern-day cheese making standards, it’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3 “cheese” to mount a successful cheesery.
Some small-scale African cheese makers are making their mark on the world, most notably from cow’s and goat’s milk. The DRC is the home of one of Africa’s finest cheeses, made by the Masisi people in the east of the country. However, production remains small due to limited resources and craftsmanship, so the cheese never reaches the tables of cheese-lovers abroad.
South African raw milk cheese (made with unpasteurised milk, and therefore less complicated but potentially more troublesome to make without contaminating the cheese with nasty bacteria) is a world-renowned delicacy, which is paving the way for cheese revolutions elsewhere, as a part of the Slow Food movement, and adapting European techniques to local climes and ingredients.
Perhaps with increasing access to mobile data, international exchanges and community-based learning programs, dairy farming in Africa will tame the cash cow and crack the piggy bank to expose the riches that lie inside. In the meantime, it does no harm to pay more attention to which cheese and dairy products are on offer in different types of supermarkets and shops in Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly, to note where they are produced. Let’s hope they’ll all say ‘Made in Africa’ some time soon.