Launched in 2008, the East Africa Dairy Development project aimed to help 1 million people pull themselves out of poverty. The participants aren’t the only ones reaping benefits. These dairy farmers are finding that when they do well, their entire communities do well, too.

Photo by Neil Thomas, courtesy of Heifer International.
Photo by Neil Thomas, courtesy of Heifer International.

By Jennifer Wheary, World Ark contributor
Photos by Russell Powell

If you wanted to transform—not just somewhat alter or even slightly improve—1 million lives in Africa, where would you start?

Pour yourself a glass of milk and think about it.

The whole chain of events that put that glass of milk into your hands is a big part of the answer. By helping to build a functioning and profitable dairy industry in Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Heifer are transforming lives for the long term.

For any glass of milk to get to market, a farmer needs to be able to buy a cow and keep it healthy. He or she also needs to be able to sell that cow’s milk regularly and at a consistent price. Processors who buy the milk need to control quality and ensure safety. The farmers who produce the milk and the processors who buy it need to earn a profit. They require the means—whether it is by cash or credit—to purchase whatever inputs they need, things like veterinary services, land or equipment, to keep their businesses going and growing.

Since it began in 2008, the East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project has connected more than 179,000 small farmers across Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya to a larger circle of institutions and services that give them the collective resources and necessary infrastructure to do all of the above, in short, to earn a living raising cows and selling milk.

Behind every gallon of milk bought and sold by project farmers, there is a behind-the-scenes infrastructure that makes the buying and selling of milk possible and sustainable in the long term. Economists often call this infrastructure a value chain. But EADD farmers and their families—about 1 million individuals in total—call it access to food, jobs, income, education, financial and medical services. Through the project, dairy farmers in Africa are developing the tools to build businesses and create ongoing opportunity for themselves and their children.

Pius Ng'etich gathers milk from farmers by bicycle and delivers to a chilling plant at Tanykina Dairy Plant Ltd. in Kipkaren Salient village, Kenya.
Pius Ng'etich gathers milk from farmers by bicycle and delivers to a chilling plant at Tanykina Dairy Plant Ltd. in Kipkaren Salient village, Kenya.

The work is not just about giving individuals opportunity. It's important to lift individual families out of poverty but what this project is doing in East Africa is much broader. The real foundational change the project is achieving is helping to build a middle class in a region of the world that is characterized by poverty.

While the income one needs to earn to be middle class differs from one region of the world to the next, one fundamental characteristic does not: Being middle class means having enough income to meet basic needs, afford a few extras and plan for the future.

For EADD farmers, that includes educating their children, accessing healthcare, buying new seed varieties and investing in their businesses. While stories of individual growth are inspiring, when added together the impact becomes profound. The effect of 1 million people in East Africa having beyond-the-basics breathing room for the first time in their lives is what makes the work meaningful on a large scale. This is where long-term, sustainable change comes in.

As farmers struggle less for daily survival, they can engage in new business ventures, like selling other crops or starting small enterprises, such as a convenience store. They can build or reopen schools and participate in making their lives and their communities better all around. The end result is a ripple effect felt around the region.

One of the biggest realizations for local farmers is that their economic activities are deeply linked with the opportunities of others and with the institutions that enable them. It only makes sense to grow extra crops for market, or open a store selling household goods, for example, if your neighbors have the extra income needed to buy them. The success of other non-dairy businesses that generate income, and the infrastructure that supports everyone’s livelihood— things like banks, effective local government, roads, schools, electricity— become a community resource, and a community responsibility. As farmers continue to grow their businesses, they see that continued opportunity is not only born of good fortune and hard work, but is vested in their participation in the governance, society and economy of their respective communities.

As participants begin earning more income, they see more clearly that their opportunities are vested in the goings-on around them. From the perspective of those who have just transitioned from meeting basic survival needs to having something extra left over, this is a life-changing moment.

East Africa

Bringing consistency to small dairy farmers was EADD’s first step in catalyzing this transformation. Project Director Moses Nyabila said that before the project, most dairy farmers in the region never really knew if and when they would be able to sell their milk, and for what price. Dairy processing plants would send agents on motorbikes or trucks traveling long distances to collect milk from individual farmers. Sometimes the agents or trucks arrived. Sometimes they did not. An agent would purchase perhaps a half-gallon to just over a gallon of milk from each farmer. With farmers spread over long distances, the collection process was slow and inefficient. Often the milk transported by agents or tankers was warm, and quality was poor.

Unreliable collection and the lack of quality control meant that prices were low. Nyabila estimated that farmers were able to sell perhaps 30 percent of the milk they produced. The rest went to waste or was otherwise forced onto the market, further driving down prices. Before the project, a dairy processing plant collected perhaps 20 percent of its capacity at best. Plants running at that low capacity were not profitable, creating no incentive or real opportunity to treat small farmers well. Farmers and dairy processors survived any way they could, often undercutting each other to survive in the short term. “The relationships between farmers and processing plants were not strong,” Nyabila explained.

One of EADD’s first priorities was to organize groups of farmers into cooperatives to collectively invest and build milk-chilling plants. Dairy farmers own shares in their cooperatives, meaning they reap the benefits of ownership while also assuming the responsibility. These chilling plants serve as hubs, central locations where farmers can bring milk to be packaged and sold in bulk to larger processors. Dairy cooperatives have not only created a physical location to buy and sell milk of higher quality, they also serve as a central organizer and point of access for the training, technical assistance, services and other inputs that small farmers need to thrive and expand.

These dairy cooperatives have been able to negotiate larger contracts from dairy processors. “Now farmers are organized, and collection is consistent. When you make collection routes consistent, farmers know they will be able to sell their milk, and processing plants know they can rely on a certain level of production and quality. The relationships between farmers, collectors and processors are stronger. Everyone can invest and build a business,” Nyabila said.

In part because of EADD, the buyers’ market is shifting to a sellers’ market. Processors now have to compete for milk and therefore offer better prices. A whole collection infrastructure has come to life to serve cooperatives. Village banks and other businesses are growing. There is more trust and predictability within the market.

According to Nyabila, “The temptation that used to be there for an individual farmer to side-sell milk is gone. The cooperative provides a better relationship. It lets people get credit. If you need a loan, if you want a vet to see your cow, if you need money to pay for school, you can see your cooperative. Farmers can now lead a very predictable life. And they don’t want to go anywhere else.”

One chilling plant collected 132 gallons on the first day it opened. By the end of its first month it had collected nearly 4,000 gallons. Nyabila said that dairy processors have shifted from collecting 90 percent of their milk from individual farmers to purchasing 80 percent of their milk from cooperatives. “This creates a business relationship,” he said. “That is the way that sustainability comes. People realize now they need each other.” That ongoing cooperation is a big part of making sure the market functions.

In East Africa, milk is money. When there was no healthy market for milk, there was no income. Stores were shuttered, and schools closed. Now that the project has started to unlock the economy, other changes are happening.

There is more milk available for purchase in villages, increasing access to good nutrition for everyone. There are also more stores where people can buy a range of food and household goods. Villages now have pharmacies and public and private medical clinics, improving access to healthcare. Many villagers have access to financial services for the first time in their lives through village banks established and cooperatively owned by dairy farmers.

Agnes Namusoke Mulindwa harvests cabbages.
Agnes Namusoke Mulindwa harvests cabbages.

‘A Godsend’

Agnes Namusoke Mulindwa sees these types of changes firsthand.

Mulindwa is a 46-year-old dairy and vegetable farmer living in the village of Butale, Uganda. Together, she and her husband support 15 children. Five are their own, and 10 are nieces and nephews who became their responsibility when Mulindwa’s brother died.

Mulindwa grew crops and raised livestock to support her family well before joining the dairy development project. Everyone in the household worked hard, but yields were often low and rarely supported the family. In 2000, Mulindwa received a Friesian cow through a community development organization. By 2002 she was barely able to maintain the heifer. She had no knowledge of dairy farming practices and limited access to the veterinary or extension services that would help her better take care of her cow.

Things began to change when she joined the EADD-supported Aggali Awamu dairy cooperative in 2008. Mulindwa received training on modern animal husbandry practices such as breeding with artificial insemination. She also learned how to better feed her cattle. She joined a study tour to Kenya in 2009 to learn about dry season feeding.

With increased milk production and profits, Mulindwa can save and invest for the future. She expanded her garden to grow cabbage, watermelons and tomatoes, harvesting these items not just to feed her family, but also to sell. She and her husband were able to build a three-bedroom house, and they can now pay school fees for their children, including sending three of them to university.

Mulindwa describes cooperatives as a godsend. She says her dairy cooperative provides a market for her milk and essential knowledge to improve and grow her business. It also provides extension services, financial opportunities and regular encouragement from her peers, including other female dairy farmers. Mulindwa looks forward to the future and is saving to buy a van to carry her produce to market. Because her dairy cooperative established a village bank, Mulindwa has a secure place to save her earnings and get a loan if she needs one to expand her business.

Jeremiah Kimno owns Metkei Agro-Vet Services Limited, a business that provides veterinary supplies to EADD dairy farmers in Kamwosor Centre Village, Kenya.
Jeremiah Kimno owns Metkei Agro-Vet Services Limited, a business that provides veterinary supplies to EADD dairy farmers in Kamwosor Centre Village, Kenya.

Staying Strong

As EADD director Nyabila explained, whole communities throughout East Africa are now invested in the success of their dairy cooperatives. As part of EADD, Heifer and its partners— International Livestock Research Institute, Technoserve and African Breeders Services—help cooperatives develop tools and expertise to make sound business decisions and plan for the long term. Sustainability will come through good governance, good planning and good communication between dairy cooperative managers and farmers.

"To stay strong, dairy cooperatives must continue to benefit cooperative members", Nyabila said. Right now cooperatives pay farmers about 90 percent of the price they receive from dairy processors. “When you take care of your farmers, pay them on time, pay them dividends on time, when they participate in [board] elections and see this as their own enterprise, that means they will continue supplying milk,” he said.

Having an accurate, functioning accounting system, good governance and consistency in all business practices is essential to the ongoing success of dairy cooperatives. Partners and member farmers need to be able to trust and rely on each other.

In rural Africa, achieving this trust and reliability has its challenges. As Nyabila put it, “Boards must remain clean and be able to supervise operations, manage money and manage growth. They are managing maybe $3 million to $4 million a year. This is a huge amount in rural areas. As they grow, operations are becoming more complex. They need to hire the right people and have the right people on their boards to handle the increasing complexities.”

“That is where we are,” Nyabila said. “Management, governance, planning.”

This is right where the project needs to be to continue to make a lasting, large-scale difference in East Africa.

EADD farmers understand that their participation ensures their own health and growth, and is permanently altering the East African economic landscape. The change will be felt not just for this generation of farmers. The ability to hope, and to plan, for the future is already being taken up by their children, children who are being educated both in schools and by the example of their parents as successful entrepreneurs making their own decisions, growing businesses and taking ownership of their communities.

Heifer's Heart: Project Partner Profiles

Steven Ssentongo

Ssentongo is a 34-year-old father of seven living in the Ggulama Kigangazi, Masaka district, Uganda. He is a member of Aggali Awamu Dairy Farmers Cooperative. He said there is now more milk available for purchase in his village, increasing access to good nutrition for everyone. He has seen the more successful members of the dairy cooperative open kiosks or small stores where they sell a range of foods and household goods. The village now has a pharmacy, a government dispensary and three private medical clinics, improving access to healthcare. Ssentongo’s dairy cooperative has also created a village bank, owned by the dairy farmers, where members can set up savings accounts and access loans.

Before joining the Aggali Awamu dairy cooperative, Ssentongo could not meet his family’s basic needs. Purchasing basics like medicine, soap, salt and kerosene was often impossible due to his lack of steady income. He had purchased a cow, but was unfamiliar with dairy farming. His family struggled to find affordable medicine and veterinary services for their heifer.

Through the Aggali Awamu cooperative, he received education, training and the technical assistance and veterinary services needed to keep his cow healthy. He has doubled the milk production of his cow and now earns enough to cover basic needs, send his children to school and to start a savings account to one day buy more cows and expand his farm.

-Jennifer Wheary

Kenneth Metto

Kenneth Metto is a 28-year-old husband and father of an infant child living in Ndalat, Kenya. Metto earned a certificate in sustainable agriculture from the Kipkaren Training Development Centre in 2007. He tried to earn a living through growing cabbage, but the lack of an organized market and of customers who could afford to pay for goods meant that much of what he grew would often rot in the ground. Metto struggled to put food on the table without a steady source of income.

The Tanykina Dairy Company, another EADD cooperative, hired him as an extension worker to train farmers on topics such as feeding, ensuring milk quality, breeding practices and record keeping. In his role as a trainer, Metto has seen firsthand how the project changed the ways of most dairy farmers in his area. The changes in Metto’s own life are as great as those he sees in the farmers with whom he works. Through his earnings as a trainer, he is not only able to feed his family but also had enough to purchase his own cow. His cow produces enough milk to nourish his growing family and to sell several liters each day to the Tanykina Dairy.

The project also brought other benefits to Kenneth’s community. For example, Tanykina now offers a Community Healthcare Plan so that farmers can access medical care at an affordable rate. Metto and his family benefited directly from improved prenatal care, with a child born in 2011 at new local clinic. Schools in Metto’s community that used to be made of mud have been upgraded into cement structures. Classrooms that were empty once again have students as farmers have an income to pay for school fees by using the check-off system implemented at the dairy cooperative.

-Jennifer Wheary