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By Austin Bailey, World Ark editor
Photos by Phillip Davis

Schoolchildren in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands get regular helpings of milk as part of a new Heifer project, and parents and teachers marvel at the instantaneous boost to health, concentration, energy and attendance. Now, Heifer International hopes to expand the project so all children in the region can thrive.

NJOMBE, Tanzania — It’s not clear if it’s the sweet taste of milk that lures 7-year-old Izabela Sambanae up the hill to school each morning, or if the daily protein boost to her otherwise starchy diet simply gives her enough energy to wake up early and get going. Regardless, the pouches of cold, fresh milk Izabela and other students at Itunduma Primary School drink each morning are fueling soaring attendance rates, better concentration in class and improved health all around.

Izabela with her mom Justina and brother Musa
Izabela takes some sweet potatoes to go from her mom, Justina Mgimbadzu, while little brother Musa snacks.

The benefits were immediate when Heifer International’s School Milk Progam launched in July 2017, Izabela’s mom, Justina Mgimbadzu, reports. The daughter who used to sleep in or skip school altogether now wakes herself and darts up the hill to Itunduma Primary without being asked. Tiny Izabela’s newfound strength is evident when she hoists her 2-year-old brother Musa, who is possibly heavier than she is, on to her lap. Izabela’s grades are among the best in her class, and she’s feeling confident about her school work. The milk, she said, “gives me energy to listen to the teacher and answer questions, and to write.”

Izabela’s family of four lives in two church van-sized buildings, one made of adobe walls and thatched with grass, the other of mud brick with a metal roof. The small, squat buildings bracket a packed-dirt courtyard shaded by a mulberry tree, and rows of crops surround the modest homestead. Farming the adjacent acre of land yields enough maize and sweet potatoes for the family, but no more. The skinny white sweet potatoes, boiled in their skins, pass for lunch most days, and Izabela sometimes pops a few into her pockets in case she needs a snack. This bare-bones lifestyle is common in the region, and Izabela’s low-nutrient, low-energy diet is typical among her classmates. A daily glass of milk is a treat that few families here have the means to provide. “We’re thankful for the milk being supplied,” Mgimbadzu said. “Izabela has better health and more energy.”

And it’s not just children drinking the milk who benefit from this project. This new program takes aim at two challenges at once, attacking malnutrition while also helping dairy farmers cultivate new markets. As the health and energy levels of local children improve, so does the local economy, thanks to this strengthening connection between dairy farmers who need customers and children whose bodies are thirsty for calcium and protein. Glowing testimonials from the children, parents and teachers benefitting from the School Milk Program become the best possible advertisements for dairy farmers looking to expand their customer base.

But the ending to this promising story is still to be written. The smash success of Heifer’s School Milk Program in southern Tanzania is bittersweet, throwing into stark relief the diff erences between the children thriving thanks to daily doses of calcium and protein and those who aren’t yet included in the project.

Photos: A Thirst for Knowledge

Kids in Tanzania's Southern Highlands get a daily helping of milk as part of a new Heifer project.

Milk = Money

Drinking and selling milk is not new in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands, where families who kept cows have long made extra money by selling a pint or two to neighbors or passersby. In recent years, though, the market changed drastically as more customers sought out the safety of pasteurized milk and convenient ways to buy it.

Still, the nutritional benefits of dairy are considered a luxury in poor neighborhoods. “We all want to drink milk, but it is not common for us. Only a few here are cattle farmers, and we mostly cannot aff ord to buy milk for the family,” said Edson Joseph Msigwa, a father of three who indulges his children with their favorite treats of rice and milk when he can afford to. As a farmer of chickens, pigs, sweet potatoes and maize, Msigwa said buying a cow would cost more than he makes in a year.

Workers check milk for freshness
Workers check milk for freshness.

Heifer International teamed up with other development organizations to launch the East Africa Dairy Development project in 2008. A five-year extension grant expanded the work to Tanzania’s Southern Highlands in 2014. The dairy hub model in Njombe is the same model being used at East Africa Dairy Development project sites in Kenya and Uganda, as well.

The small-scale dairy farmers participating in the East Africa Dairy Development project in and around Njombe keep meticulous books to track milk at every step to ensure quality, efficiency and economy. The farmers are adopting new production practices and technologies like improved veterinary care, artificial insemination and pasteurization, and the result is a better product in bigger quantities.

Today, a fleet of vans, trucks and motorbikes collect fresh, raw milk from farmers daily, then deliver it to the Njombe Milk Factory. The factory staff of 21 workers clad in pristine white from head to toe churn out shipments of quality-tested pasteurized milk, yogurt and cheese.

Farmers who buy into this dairy cooperative model must pay their own delivery costs, and the factory pays them only 660 Tanzanian shillings (about 30 cents US) per liter. That’s significantly less than the 1,000 Tanzanian shillings (about 45 cents) per liter they could get selling the milk themselves. But farmers who sell to the factory get the benefit of having a steady, dependable buyer. Time the farmers would have spent trying to sell their milk can now go to making their farms more productive. And milk that goes through the factory is pasteurized, making it safer, more expensive and more appealing in this rapidly evolving market. The demand for milk has grown 7 percent a year in the region since the project began in 2008.

The School Milk Program is part of a sophisticated plan to make sure demand continues to grow by cultivating a new generation of customers. Students who get free milk at school are walking, talking testimonials to the benefi ts of dairy foods. As these students enjoy the good health and clear thinking they need to become successful and achieve some buying power of their own, a new generation of consumers is born.

Students take a milk break
Nyumbanitu Primary students take their morning milk break.

"A Golden Chance"

A student whacks a rusty truck wheel with a stick in the courtyard of Itunduma Primary School each morning to announce the beginning of classes, and children in their red sweaters and blue skirts and slacks pour in from all directions. The Tanzanian government funds most of the costs of public schools, but students are responsible for their own uniforms. In poor communities like the one where Itunduma Primary is located, parents do their best to provide frayed sweaters and tattered pants that are worn but clean. All students are expected to scrub their nails and keep their hair tidy and cropped close to their heads.

Itunduma teacher Faraja Mgaya oversees the milk program at her school, an extra duty she took on gladly in hopes of boosting her students’ health and academic performance. “It was a golden chance,” she said. And she’s pleased with the results. The children are cleaner, more alert and in better spirits. Attendance is up an average of 10 percent throughout the school since the milk program began, a boost that other schools participating in the milk project report as well.

A compact delivery truck plastered with cartoon milk ads putters up the dirt road to the school each morning around 10 a.m., and a team of the older students hauls coolers full of milk out of the back. Students hurry to get in line. “Most kids don’t get any breakfast at home, the milk is the first thing they get each day,” Mgaya said.

Glass Half-Empty

Not every student at the school got one of the 8-ounce pouches of milk when the program began. The initial phase served children only through grade 4 and Tanzania’s primary schools typically go through grade 7, meaning the oldest students at these schools still went without. Lots of younger siblings sneaked their milk to older brothers and sisters who were aged out of the program. Sometimes, teachers said, older children stole milk from younger ones. Teachers caught children pawing through the trash to suck the last dregs of milk from discarded packages.

Faraja Mgaya leads her class
Teacher Faraja Mgaya is in charge of the milk program at her school.

Festo Kiswaga, a father of three whose children go to Uwemba Primary, counts on the milk and lunch provided at school to keep his children healthy. He and his wife eat two meals a day at their home, but on school days the children get a third meal of makande, a stew of beans and maize that’s long been the standard schoolyard meal. Kiswaga’s youngest two children got a daily helping of milk, but his oldest, a fifth-grader, didn’t qualify. So Kiswaga’s middle child handed over his milk to the oldest twice a week. “It is not allowed, but we do it,” he said.

To fix this problem, Heifer revamped the program to provide milk to all children at participating schools, but only for four days a week, rather than five. Cosmos Mfugale says he doesn’t mind that the program was scaled back by one day a week because now more children benefit.

“I can see a difference,” he said. “If you look, you find that those who drink milk are good-looking students. Those who do not drink milk are not attractive in terms of skin complexion.”

Tanzania’s Southern Highlands are plagued with a high rate of HIV infection, and children with the virus have elevated nutritional requirements. Matrida Peter, a math teacher who oversees the School Milk Program at Nyumbanitu Primary, said all of her students seem to have gained weight and vigor, but her HIV-positive students show the most improvement.

“Their skin was dull and dry, but now their skin is shining,” she said.

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