Ari Hara/Johannesburg — Women are pioneering Mauritania's fledgling dairy industry and trying to get Mauritanians to support local small producers, but they face steep competition from the heavily subsidized European milk sector.
Ari Hara, a women's cooperative in Ari Hara Village, turns milk into sweetened yoghurt, which is supplied to shops in the nearest town, Boghé, 350km southeast of Nouakchott. Since the cooperative was established in 2009, it has helped its members - who practise farming and pastoralism - ensure their families have enough to eat in times of drought.
"I still remember the day I could buy 50kg of rice for the house with my own money," Ramata, a cooperative member, recalled, beaming.
They could increase sales if they had the capacity to market their yoghurt in towns farther away, for which they would need better roads and a refrigerated van. The local NGO Association mauritanienne pour l'auto-développement (the Mauritanian Association for the Self Development, AMAD) raised about US$30,000 to help Ari Hara set up the business, but it does not have the funds to help them expand.
But it is not only Ari Hara that should extend the reach of its dairy products - the entire country should, as well, experts say.
The Mauritanian market is flooded with cheap milk products imported from Europe.
Sixty percent of the population depends on the livestock sector in some form for income, and the sector contributes almost eight percent to the country's GDP, yet the country imports 65 percent of its milk requirements, a joint report produced by the NGOs Intermon Oxfam , ACORD and AMAD noted.
"It would be ideal if the government were to identify villages that had the capacity to produce enough milk to set up similar ventures," said Sy Moussa of AMAD, which continues to provide technical support to Ari Hara.
"People should also buy Mauritanian milk and milk products," Moussa said.
Creating a dairy industry
Sixty percent of the population depends on the livestock sector in some form for income, and the sector contributes almost eight percent to the country's GDP, yet the country imports 65 percent of its milk requirements
Nancy Abeiderrahmane, a British engineer married to a Mauritanian, established Tiviski, Africa's first camel-milk dairy, in Nouakchott in 1987. At the time, there was no fresh milk available in the markets in Nouakchott. Powdered or ultra-high temperature milk imported from Europe and elsewhere was the only product available.
"She did not like the idea of making milk from imported powder, as others were doing. She saw semi-pastoralists, who would sell their milk outside the city - it was good-quality, fresh milk. She felt she had to help them and make that milk available to people in the cities," said Maryam Abeiderrahmane, Nancy's daughter, who now runs Tiviski.
"She had to struggle to find the funds, and finally La caisse centrale de coopération économique [Central Fund for Economic Cooperation] lent her about a million French francs [about US$195,000]."
But money was not the only problem. Perhaps the biggest was milk collection, as the pastoralists could not sustain a supply throughout the year, particularly during dry conditions. To address this, Abeiderrahmane created an NGO called the Association of Milk Producers of Tiviski (APLT), which offers animal feed on credit at low prices and recovers the loans in milk payments. APLT also provides veterinary care and medicine, as well as extension services related to animal hygiene and feeding.
She also had to address the stigma attached to selling milk. "Selling milk was [regarded as] something to be ashamed of, because it was seen as something only the poorest and most desperate people would do," said a UN Development Programme (UNDP) paper, which used Abeiderrahmane's efforts as a case study. "She had to convince the pastoralists to sell, to organize," said Maryam.
"At the same time, Tiviski needed to convince some urban people [who preferred European imports] that it was perfectly acceptable to consume locally produced milk and milk products," the case study said.
Today, Tiviski, which means 'spring' in Arabic, collects between 10,000 to 20,000 litres of milk a day from about 1,000 pastoralists. "The only condition is that the milk should not contain any water and the container it is brought in should be clean," said Maryam. Tiviski now also sells goat and cow's milk.
The UNDP paper indicates Tiviski's dairy-production model could be scaled up in Mauritania and perhaps replicated elsewhere in the region to improve the livelihoods of semi-nomadic herders.
Unable to compete
But European milk products continue to stifle domestic dairies like Tiviski.
Poor producers in Mauritania are unable compete with the heavily subsidized milk sector in developed countries in Europe and elsewhere, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted it is report Why has Africa Become a Net Food Importer? Between 1986 and 2007, industrialized countries provided at least $20 billion worth of support to their milk sectors, the report noted.
"The government does not provide us any protection from them. We could also do with some subsidies for fodder, which we import for our suppliers," Maryam said.
Across West Africa, customs duties are low, and "local farmers are squeezed out of the dairy value chain by subsidized European milk powder," said Concord, the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development, in its 2011 report.
"Regional production is therefore unable to meet domestic market demands. In Burkina Faso, nearly one out of every two litres of milk consumed in the country was imported in 2006, and in urban areas the figure was as high as 9/10 litres. European subsidized milk powder accounted for half of the cheap imports. Today, unfair market conditions continue to undermine local milk production," the report noted.
The European Commission, in an effort to mitigate the impact of its subsidies, in 1984 introduced a quota on the amount of milk that it could produce, which would inhibit dumping surpluses in developing countries' markets. The Commission also banned export subsidies for dairy farmers in 2008. However, in 2009, when production slumped and milk prices hit a record high, it reintroduced export subsidies for dairy farmers, and its quota arrangement is expected to be eliminated in 2015.
"Combined with the EU's current practice and further market-orientation of the sector, this raises serious concerns that the external impacts of the EU's milk policy may even worsen," said the Concord report.
But the local milk sector also needs to get organized, and government support will be critical to their efforts. Between 30 and 40 percent of locally produced milk in West Africa is wasted or lost because pastoralists do not have the knowledge or the capacity to process their surplus, pointed out Anthony Bennett, a dairy expert at FAO.
Reversing this trend could very well save lives. Jean-Bosco Mofiling, from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Mauritania, noted that helping pastoralists realize the potential of marketing and selling their surplus milk could make them more resilient, better enabling them to withstand the region's increasingly frequent droughts.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]