Got ‘Underdeveloped’ Milk? – Part III

Low-cost milk production in Uganda.

Low-cost milk production in Uganda.

There’s a queue of thirty-some people who are hoping to bring home milk for dinner at the corner store dairy, and only four employees behind the counter who are busy grabbing weathered notes and heavy coins from hands whilst filling plastic bags with what let’s call ‘white gold” in Uganda.

There’s a booming population in Uganda – a country that holds amongst the highest fertility rate worldwide, increasing at 3% per year – and a traditional small-scale to medium-scale milk operation that, according to some, is struggling to keep up. Many voices are crying out that there’s “milk scarcity” in Uganda, but they are doing so based on different socioeconomic circumstances.

For urban-dwellers, there’s a lack of urban markets that sell processed milk and milk products. For rural-dwellers, there’s a lack of money to buy raw milk from the pasture-fed cows belonging to their next-door neighbors.

Issues of access to milk differs according to who you’re talking to in Uganda.

Given that 85% of the population live in rural villages, practice subsistence agriculture, and earn around $2-3 a day – it’s safe to say that for Uganda’s overwhelming majority, the milk scarcity is less about availability of processed products and more about poverty and lack of purchasing power. Raw milk is there, but money to buy milk is not.

Progress in Canada: the industrialization of milk.

Progress in Canada: the industrialization of milk.

That said, politicians and agribusiness groups are moving forward in the direction of producing more milk, and specifically, more processed milk, in Uganda, which presents, in my humble opinion, both challenges and opportunities.

Got Milk? Part I and Part II provided insight into the complexity of developed countries, including Canada, and their predominantly “mono-milk” large-scale dairy industries. The essays focused on the health advantages and disadvantages of drinking pasteurized versus raw milk, and the difficulty of sustaining large-scale dairy operations due to high financial, human and environmental costs. 

Considering the lessons of milk production in “developed” countries – how should Uganda develop their own local dairy industries? How can Uganda ensure that all socioeconomic groups “got milk?”

80% of milk consumed in Uganda is raw milk.

80% of milk consumed in Uganda is raw milk.

Politicians are Drinking the Rhetoric of Processed Milk

The Minister of Animal Husbandry, Bright Rwamirama, recently announced to the Ugandan public that they should “refrain from drinking fresh or raw milk” due to “deadly preservatives” that it contains, and instead, buy packed, or processed milk (Ssempiija 2013).

Rwamirama’s public stance against raw milk is highly controversial, considering that only 20% of milk consumed in Uganda is actually processed. The majority of the population has been consuming raw milk for centuries, which is generally produced locally and transported short distances from cow to consumer. Despite Rwamirama’s cautioning on “deadly preservatives” there’s been very few large-scale health consequences of drinking raw milk in Uganda. Pastoral and agricultural groups have been taking milk from the teat for hundreds of years, and exchanging cows as dowry for daughters-in-law, so what’s up with Rwamirama’s sudden change of taste buds?

Rwamirama’s motivation may have more to do with money than the actual well-being of Ugandans. His controversial words were timely with the recent construction of the Pearl Dairy Farm in Mbarara, and the soon-to-be construction of another four milk processing factories in the country (Masinde 2013). The push for large-scale dairy production is part of a larger trend that was originally influenced by the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAPs) and neoliberal market policies of the 1990s. As a result, since 1991, the dairy industry’s output has grown steadily with an 8-10% increase in milk produced per year, milk that is, sadly, not being consumed locally, but exported internationally.

On the upside, Uganda remains one of the few low-cost producers of milk in the world, as the majority of milk is produced on-the-farm by small to medium-size farmers.

On the downside, Uganda also has one of the highest rates of child and maternal mortality in the world – numbers that are, indubitably, exacerbated by high rates of malnutrition. In most villages, where Uganda’s milk-for-export is being produced, the majority of subsistence agriculture practicing households are too poor to drink milk.

The fact that processed milk, sold in grocery stores – the same milk that Rwamirama was advocating that the population drink – is also double the price of raw milk is deeply concerning, and reflects the government’s motivation of milking money over working for the well-being of the majority of Uganda’s population.

Nutrition assessment at KIHEFO. (Photo - Nikki Janzen)

Nutrition assessment at KIHEFO. (Photo – Nikki Janzen)

The Problem is the Solution – The Glass (of Milk) Could be Half-Full

How can Uganda produce more milk for the urban-population and international export, and more importantly, more opportunities for rural populations to benefit from the industry and also be able to afford to bring milk home to their malnourished kids?

As small-farmers in Canada can attest, it’s next to impossible to compete with large-scale dairy operations when they’re both selling raw milk to the same buyer: large-scale processing plants who buy up milk in bulk, and at low-prices. That’s part of why most Canadians are drinking milk from the same industrial cow.

Uganda has an advantage of being a country where the majority of milk produced is by small to medium-size farmers who graze small numbers of cows on pasture.

What’s lacking in Uganda is strengthening the capacity of these farmers to have a choice where they sell their milk. The government is currently promising farmers that they’ll have a guaranteed market by selling to processing plants, yet they’re neglecting to strengthen smaller direct-sale dairies, much like my corner store dairy in Kabale, which would diversify a farmer’s option of whom to sell their milk to and for how much.

With an additional cooler, or two, small-scale dairies could increase the volume of milk they purchase from small-farmers on a daily basis, and increase the amount of milk that’s sold to an urban or town-dwelling population.

Farming family from Nyakiju, Muyumbu.

Farming family from Nyakiju, Muyumbu.

Better yet, put the cooling technology into the hands of farmers, or farmer’s cooperatives, and give farmers even more control (and a larger metaphorical glass of milk) in the market. More control for the farmer means more money in her pocket. More money in her pocket means more money in her local village-level economy, and improved health and performance at school for her children.

The government could learn a thing, or two from Ugandan-born engineer, William Kisaalita, who’s currently developing a “dung-powered milk cooler” for small-scale dairy farmers. Cows, of course, don’t only produce milk. They produce a lot of, pardon my language, shit, that could be converted from waste into energy.

The recipe for “milk success” is diversification, and investing in what Uganda already has: small to medium-size farmers with small pastures of cows. With an energy crisis (frequent shortages of electricity and water) – the large-scale dairy operation that requires a lot of fuel to run, simply isn’t a practical fit in Uganda.

By investing in small-farmers and small-scale dairy operations (along with larger-scale processing plants), Uganda could increase more milk for local consumption and international export, while also addressing the issue of poverty and severe malnutrition that’s stunting around 50% of the youngest “next generation” in Uganda.

The glass of milk could be half-full in Uganda.

Heaven's foam.

Heaven’s foam.

“Got Milk?” Yeah, I do. But not because you told me so.

There are many inherent challenges with today’s dairy system in Uganda – and in Canada, for that matter. In Uganda, it’s a tragedy that people are too poor to drink an available protein, body-building and protective food, rendering a large portion of the national population, especially amongst children under five, malnourished.

Canada’s “mono-milk” dairy system is very arguable an unsustainable trade, and causing many environmental problems, including large outputs of sewage run-off and water contamination, along with fossil fuel emissions that contribute to a warming planet.

In Canada, milk is very much a business, and severs consumers from knowing what farm, what cow, and whose “hands” milked their wholesome (or not so wholesome – depending how much has been “processed” away) daily staple. Our dairy industry, no matter how developed or sophisticated the technology, is not invincible, or vulnerable to making sanitation “mistakes” in production, either. Bet the Canadian cheese lover who cut his/her tongue on shards of glass would agree with that.

But what irritates me the most about Canada’s dairy industry has got to be the “Got Milk?” advertisements for deceiving me and thousands of other pre-teen to teen and twenty-something’s, and so on, about the value of ‘drinking milk to lose weight.’

Just take a look at the evolution of their ads (or lack thereof) and count the number of lean, muscular actresses, musicians or athletes you see, with their clever little slogans, encouraging readers to indulge in 1%, Skim or no-fat milk (basically “water” as my friend told me a couple years back) for a perfect body.

It’s terribly ironic when you consider children, youth, women and vulnerable people in Uganda (and in Canada, for that matter) who need to drink milk for precisely the opposite reason.

milk7To me, those “Got Milk?” ads are the epitome of the destructive pressures the North American food system (and business) puts on girls, boys, women and men to be thin, attractive, strong and healthy – versus being their natural selves.

For women, the traditional milk culture in Uganda asserts the total opposite. The more milk you drink, the bigger your hips, butt, thighs, and so forth. With three cups of whole, unprocessed milk a day, you trade in a waif figure for a muscular, full build of a Kinganente – what they call in the southwest as a ‘woman of many cows’ – a desirable woman who will draw many ‘cows’ for her wedding dowry…

Now – let’s not get onto the subject of dowry because that’s another story completely.

But, I will say that, for the time being, I’m enjoying an escape from North America’s incessant advertising of ‘what I should eat and drink, and why’ as I feel my jeans shrinking a bit tighter around the waist, hips, thighs, butt…

And, let me tell you, I’m happy to be drinking my unprocessed milk in relative peace.


Milk - making bums bigger since the beginning of humankind.

Milk – making bums bigger since the beginning of humankind.

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