How to Turn Africa into a Land of Milk and Money

By Bhatnagar, S. S. | African Business, October 2007 | Go to article overview
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How to Turn Africa into a Land of Milk and Money


Bhatnagar, S. S., African Business


India is the world's number one milk producer today but in the 1960s it was at the same stage as Africa's dairy industry is now. In this essay, adapted from an address he made to Comesa delegates in Lusaka, Zambia, S. S. Bhatnagar, with 30 years' experience of working within India's dairy industry, discusses what lessons Africa can learn from the sub-continent.

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Dairy farming has been a human occupation since the dawn of time, and milk has long been viewed as an essential part of man's diet. It is considered a staple, nutritious food. It is balanced as it includes amino acids and vitamins in addition to carbohydrate, protein and fat. Many believe that it is essential for children until they attain adolescence.

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It is consumed in various forms such as liquid milk, in beverages, curds and yogurt. Furthermore, dairy fats, such as butter or ghee are also used in cooking and various milk forms are incorporated in sweets and other delicacies.

Most countries in the Comesa economic bloc have a large proportion of fertile lands suitable for agricultural purposes, and the conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes seems to be under control.

Average temperatures across most of Africa are below 30C, unlike India where temperatures can exceed 45C, so the dairy cooling chain is more easily manageable. In addition, the culling of cattle with poor milk yields is culturally more readily acceptable in Africa which means dairy farming can be more efficient and profitable. Dairy farming is also a sector that is more easily managed than growing crops during extreme weather patterns that lead to drought or flooding.

India has recognised the need to encourage smallholder farmers to own milch cattle since dairy farming has various advantages as a socioeconomic development tool. A farmer can produce milk daily and can be paid for it, assuming there is a ready market and a distribution system in place. And a farmer can also feed an immediate family or village with just the surplus milk sent for processing to urban areas.

Within the Comesa region, total imports of dairy products into the bloc in 2006 amounted to $383.2m. That is a substantial amount of foreign currency spent by African countries to import milk powder and other milk products. This vital foreign exchange can be saved through a deeper development of the dairy industry. However, there are several other benefits in improving indigenous milk production, many of which are not directly just economic. As in India, greater milk production in Africa can kickstart programmes such as community education and resource development.

However, dairy farming, as an instrument of socio economic development, needs a carefully drafted implementation plan. The lessons from India could be instrumental. In the sub-continent it was discovered that it is vital to promote milk and milk products and aim at maximising milk production for the manufacture of products from surplus milk.

Per capita milk consumption in Comesa countries has been reported as running at 36 litres of milk a year. If you consider that there is an affluent population of even 5% that consumes cheese, butter, yogurt and other milk products, the rest of the population probably does not consume more than 20 litres, against the World Health Organisation's recommended consumption figure of 200 litres.

The India model suggests that Africa should focus on the producer farmer and not the large-scale commercial dairy farm. It may be hoped that the producer farmer, with one or two heads of cattle, might aspire to eventually own a larger herd and possibly a large-scale farm. However, the promotion of commercial and large-scale dairy farms, as a government policy, should certainly not be made at the expense of the small-scale producer--although this may be easier said than done. Agricultural policies, in general, are always driven by a mix of political, socio economic and other complex issues.

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