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MILKING OUR DAIRY SECTOR

What is so unique about Nigeria that we cannot produce fresh milk, especially since we have a relatively large beef market? Clearly, like most issues in our agribusiness landscape, the response to this question is rather complex.

Have you ever wondered why fresh milk is not readily available in Nigeria? I have! The average Nigerian has grown up believing that powdered and condensed milk are the only two forms of milk  – and both forms are imported and often prohibitive for the average family. This same reality applies to milk-based products, including butter, cheese, yogurt and ice cream which are either imported or produced locally with imported powdered milk.

While there are a few examples of local companies attempting to fill this gap, such as Fresh Farm in Jos, they occupy less than 1% of the dairy industry, and are struggling to meet latent customer demand, as local retailers are often out of stock.

What is so unique about Nigeria that we cannot produce fresh milk, especially since we have a relatively large beef market? Clearly, like most issues in our agribusiness landscape, the response to this question is rather complex.

I will focus on just one issue – most of the cattle in the country are owned by pastoralists who are excluded from the formal dairy industry. One Fulani family settlement that I have visited in northern Nigeria is composed of approximately 15 families who collectively own 500 cattle. However, the current approach used by these families is out-dated, leading to significant waste and limited financial returns. For example, even though their cows are milked twice a day, like in other parts of the world, their yields are much lower. This is due to the breed of cows, the availability of lush grazing opportunities, especially in the dry season, and the lack of veterinary support services. The milk generated by the cows is cooked over an open fire and stored in small plastic plates, until the following morning, when it is sold in the local markets. A percentage of the milk goes to waste, and the returns on the milk that is sold is relatively small. Interestingly, women control the milk production and sale in these communities and all the income generated by their activities remain with them!

It is important to note that these families are completely cut-off from the formal economy. They do have bank accounts or access to any financial services, their children do not go to school, they only visit distant hospitals when there are critical medical emergencies – and typically have to sell a cow to cover the costs. The only sign that they are living in the 21st century is their cellular phones.

Imagine what would happen if these women could deposit their harvested milk into collection points which consist of sterilized tanks. Imagine if the milk could be tested, pasteurized, packaged and then sold in milk cartons or bottles to local supermarkets and establishments, or transformed into butter, yogurt or cheese for sale as well. This would enable the women to generate better sales, and will transform their communities. It will also enhance our nutrition landscape, especially given the high rates of malnutrition among children in Nigeria. This vision may seem like a pipe dream, but it is definitely not farfetched.

In fact, in neighbouring Senegal, a young veterinarian – Bagoré Bathiln, who I have met on a few occasions, established an innovative company in 2005 – La Laiterie du Berger to fill this gap.   According to him – “In Senegal, more than 90% of milk is imported. This is an aberration, because 30% of people live only on livestock.” He established a network to collect fresh milk twice a day from 600 families, within a radius of 50 km around his first plant in Northern Senegal. Using refrigerated trucks, Bagoré’s team transport the milk to Dakar where it is tested and pasteurized, and then packaged for sale to retailers across the city.

Since La Laiterie du Berger’s inception to-date, the company has grown from a production of 500kg to 4000kg of finished products per day, supplying 4,000 retailers. The company has definitely improved the lives of the farmers and pastoralists, who generate incremental income from their higher milk sales. In addition, the company also provides cattle feed for the farmers, and offers training to improve their productivity.

In recognition of its early impact, La Laiterie du Berger has received support from Dannon, one of the world’s leading yogurt producers, and more recently, AFD, the French investment corporation  made a sizable investment in the company.

Clearly, for an enterprising Nigerian to replicate  La Laiterie du Berger’s business model, there have to be at least three changes in our environment – 1) significant improvements in our road networks to ensure easy access to the Fulani farm settlements 2) dramatic improvements in our power situation to ensure that the milk can retain its quality across the value chain – from the settlement, to the factory, to the shop and finally to our homes and 3) increased broad-based support for our pastoralists, who desperately need incentives to enter the formal economy, and access to financing and savings schemes, educational institutions for their children, hospitals and veterinary support and land for their cattle.

Creating high quality local alternatives to imported milk will not be an easy feat. However, it would be a welcome development and one that will definitely play a catalytic role in a range of related industries – ensuring the emergence of more small and medium-sized enterprises across the entire dairy value chain and generating employment for masses of people, especially in Northern Nigeria.

Written By: NDIDI OKONKWO NWUNELI

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