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Small-scale production of dry and condensed milk in East Africa for export to West Africa: Exploring potentials and strategies

The time has come for African countries to craft a unique and distinct production process that honours humanity, the planet and the community, using indigenous resources

In the present age of ease of communication, the colonial shackles that severely limited the production and exchange of goods across Africa are increasingly decoupling. The small-scale production of dry and condensed milk could be one area of business interest for governments, communities, families and individuals in East Africa, with the goal of exporting exclusively to West Africa. East Africa, with its huge cow production, often reports a large amount of milk spoilage and wastage, while many West African countries, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast and others, continue to import dry and condensed milk in massive quantities, mostly from Europe. Given these situations across two sister regions, there is an urgent need for concerted efforts to build a critical mass of East African cow owners who will be trained in the small-scale production of dry and condensed milk for export to the huge West African market. I will explain below why the emphasis is on small-scale production rather than industrial-scale production.

Fresh milk wastage in East Africa

It has been widely reported that the milk industry in East Africa is characterised by waste due to spoilage. According to a dated Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, “post-harvest spoilage and waste are costing the dairy sectors” of the East African countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda tens of millions of dollars annually. About 30% of all milk produced in these countries goes to waste, mostly due to spoilage. By litre, Kenya is reported to lose up to 95 million litres of milk every year. According to the FAO report, the loss of milk begins at the farm and continues during transportation and marketing. In Uganda, 11% of the 27% of wasted milk occurs during transport, while 10% takes place during marketing, with farm loss wastage hovering at 6%.

From 2014 to 2022, Uganda is estimated to have grown its raw milk production from 1.9 billion litres to 3.2 billion litres. Yet, this exponential growth does not tally with increasing exports. Uganda has been overly dependent on Kenya milk importation. In 2023, Uganda suffered a loss of tens of millions of litres of milk as a result of Kenya’s refusal to import milk from the country. This glut in milk uptake in Uganda and other East African countries is causing severe hardship since the dairy sector employs millions of people and is considered a key aspect of the national economy of these countries.

Why powdered and condensed milk in West Africa?

West Africans are dependent on powdered and condensed milk for their dairy needs. Unlike East Africa, where fresh milk is known and consumed, the idea of fresh milk consumption is alien in many parts of West Africa. The weather in West Africa is hotter and more humid, which does not allow for the safe handling and transport of fresh milk. West African factories use dry and condensed milk in making all dairy products as well as in baking and for use at homes for teas, coffees, porridge and cereal. Indeed, outside of the Fulani group and herdsmen who are conversant with raw milk, many West African communities are used to dry and condensed milk. Additionally, many West Africans are lactose-intolerant and are unable to liberally engage in downing gallons of fresh milk as their East African counterparts. As few adults are comfortable with fouling the air without a care, the patronage of fresh milk in West Africa is highly hindered.

Dry and condensed milk import in West Africa

The West African country of Nigeria spends around $1.5–2.5billion annually on the importation of dairy from Europe, the US, Australia and other non-African countries. This importation is mostly in the form of dry and condensed milk. Dairy products are ranked as the third most consumed food in Nigeria perhaps because Nigerians utilize milk in the production of many foods, such as yoghurt, cheese, chocolate, and baked goods, as well as for the consumption of cereal at home. By litre, Nigeria’s annual milk production is estimated at 672 million litres, with the annual demand pegged at approximately 1.6 billion litres. According to the country’s Minister of Agriculture, “the annual dairy consumption is met by 60 per cent imports and 40 per cent local production.”

This dependence on the Global North for its milk consumption has not sat well with the government, as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in July 2019, banned the granting of foreign exchange for the importation of milk and dairy products. The aim was to stimulate the local fresh milk production industry. However, due to the fact that many Nigerians do not own cows and have no prior experience of being cattle owners, it was impossible for Nigerians to suddenly begin producing milk. Instead, prices of dairy products in the country skyrocketed, resulting in a severe shortfall in supply, hardship and malnutrition. By 2020, the government of Nigeria was forced to lift the ban on the import of milk after the noticeable effects on the population and the inability of Nigerians to suddenly begin to keep cows for milk production purposes. However, permission was given to only six companies to import milk. By March 2024, however, all restrictions were lifted, and any registered party could source foreign exchange for the importation of milk.

Similar to Nigeria, Ghana is overly dependent on the importation of milk from New Zealand, Ireland,  France, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States.  In 2021, Ghanaians imported milk worth $127 million, a figure that represents a 30% increase over 2020’s $97 million. Domestic production of fresh milk in Ghana meets less than 20% of annual demand and is concentrated among Fulani pastoralists and native herdsmen in the north, very much like the situation in Nigeria. Across West Africa, the same story is replicated. In 2021, Cote d’Ivoire imported $212 million dollars’ worth of milk, mostly from the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, New Zealand, Malaysia.” Similarly, “in 2017, national milk production in Senegal was estimated at 243.5 million litres, with more than half coming from pastoral livestock. In the same year, imported milk and dairy products reached 211.6 million litres and consisted mainly of milk powder (93%).”

These figures clearly demonstrate that West Africa is a huge market for milk. While milk is being wasted in East Africa due to spoilage, West African countries are spending millions of dollars in milk importation, which creates a clear gap for East Africa to maximise.

The preference for small-scale production

The emphasis here should be on small-scale, widespread production and not industrial, mechanized and large-scale production for many sound reasons. Shortly after independence, many formerly colonized African countries embarked on huge white elephant projects under the illusion of rapid industrialization.  Those efforts failed woefully for many reasons, the chief of which being that the continent’s indigenous technological base was uprooted during colonialism, and the colonial education system was not designed to build a technological base.

In more recent times, it has become obvious to much of concerned humanity that the Global North’s kind of industrialization is detrimental to the physical, mental, emotional and social survival of the planet and its dwellers. This predatory, individualistic, often violent approach to production has scraped the planet of renewable resources and human beings of community, dignity and essence. There is, therefore, a need for African countries to reconnect with a people-oriented and planet-centred mode of production. This is where the small-scale, widespread approach to dry and condensed milk production begs exploration.

A situation where individuals, families and communities in West Africa, for instance, who are interested in dry and concentrated milk production connect with individuals, families and communities in East Africa where milk is found in abundance would be a great starting point. There are many freely available written and video resources online on how to make dry and condensed milk at the small-scale level. Interested parties in East Africa can avail themselves of these resources. Moreover, bodies (including governments, interest groups etc) can also provide training to willing individuals on how to engage in small-scale dry and condensed milk production.

It must be emphasised that hygiene is a key issue in milk production, and government intervention is therefore needed. Regulatory agencies will have to work with producers to ensure that hygiene standards are strictly adhered to. Additionally, for those who can afford it, live streaming on websites, of East African production spaces, could be utilized. This can give a double layer of assurance to the end-users.

The kind of small-scale widespread production envisaged in this instance holds the potential to bring deep and lasting prosperity to both sellers and buyers. Moreover, it is the kind of production that keeps families united and communities intact, stemming the rural-to-urban migration that has left families and communities displaced, with many living in squalor in urban spaces. Under this arrangement, people are not leaving their culture, extended families, or aged relatives in search of greener pastures in another place where a huge milk processing industry has been established. This strategy will ensure that communities are strengthened, and that they are able to continue farming, thereby reducing dependence on the mass production of food or on mechanized agriculture with all the toxicity, violence on the earth, and displacement it comes with.

Beyond trade, connections built around cows and milk have historically forged strong social bonds in East Africa. It is hoped that such bonds will transcend regional boundaries to extend to the Western part of the continent, where West African buyers and East African sellers will form deep partnerships towards an even more united Africa.

The role of AfCFTA

The African Continental Free Trade Area’s role in ensuring the success of the free flow of dry and condensed milk from East to West Africa is crucial. The continental body will have to, like the United States has done towards China’s electronic vehicles, take strong measures to protect African countries from the import of products that can be produced locally. Free trade remains a mantra of ultra-capitalist countries with excess manufacturers who are in search of markets to exploit. Africa, under the powerful AfCFTA, must no longer embrace that fallacy.

In all, the time has come for African countries to craft a unique and distinct production process that honours humanity, the planet and the community, using indigenous resources. The small-scale, widespread production of dry and condensed milk in East Africa for export to West Africa presents an excellent opportunity to pilot this process.


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