Airplane wing in flight.

Dairy takes to the skies

A dairy farmer’s journey to supplying Rwanda’s largest airline

Headphones on, knees scrunched in, clouds passing by—after a long journey, the RwandAir pilot announces you are 30 minutes away from landing in Rwanda’s Capital City of Kigali. The flight attendant comes by to take your food tray just as you are enjoying the last creamy bites of a delicious yogurt cup. You lay back, blissfully unaware of this yogurt cup’s journey to your refreshing moment.   

A distant 36,000 feet below, are the green, misty, majestic hills of Rwanda’s countryside. Here, in Rwanda’s Northern Province, is where the story of your yogurt cup begins.

From dairy farm to RwandAir

Milton Ngirente started out as a dairy farmer in Rwanda’s remote district of Gicumbi. With business savvy and a drive to bring the Rwanda dairy industry into the regional playing field, in 2004, Milton ventured into milk transportation and marketing. For eight years, he bought raw milk from farmers and co-ops, then sold it to retailers and Kigali’s main processor. But, more often than he liked, Milton had more milk than he could sell. He saw an opportunity.

“We encountered business losses, and it was disheartening to see disappointed dairy farmers, whose milk was dumped due to a lack of a market—this was their livelihoods. To create a reliable market for dairy farmers and to help absorb milk surpluses, I decided to venture into processing dairy products with a relatively longer shelf life,” he says.

Milton opened Blessed Dairies—a dairy processing plant—in 2012. In its first year, he and his team of 14 were going through 1,000 liters of milk each day—pasteurizing milk and processing yogurt, fresh cream and mozzarella cheese. Business was steady, but Milton knew in order to grow, his products had to meet international quality standards.

Modernizing for growth

Milton had the vision, and he saw it come to life with the help of Land O’Lakes International Development. From a small office in Rwanda, a team of mostly local staff run a program called the Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Project II (RDCP II). The entire operation is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Leveraging 95 years of Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s experience in food quality and safety, the RDCP II staff provided Milton with support to ensure that his plant was meeting international quality standards. This included provision of an 8,000-liter milk transportation tank, milk testing kits, and training on food safety, cheese production and butter-making.

Land O’Lakes sponsored Milton to attend the East and Southern African Dairy Association conference in Zimbabwe in 2013. He learned about modern dairy processing technologies and established connections with equipment manufacturers. The following year, Milton invested $150,000 (112 million Rwandan Francs) to purchase modern processing equipment, including six cooling tanks, a batch pasteurizer, a second mobile insulated tank, and…wait for it…an automatic filling and sealing machine for yogurt production. Muraho (hello, in Rwanda), delicious yogurt cup.

In 2014, with new and improved processing procedures and equipment, Blessed Dairies hit a major milestone: it became the first Rwandan dairy processor to secure Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) certification—a factor that undoubtedly gave Blessed Dairies a competitive advantage for a deal that emerged in 2015: RwandAir.

Blessed Dairies takes to the skies

Today, RwandAir passengers devour 600 Blessed Dairies yogurt cups each week, not to mention the 30 kilograms of fresh cream and seven kilograms of mozzarella cheese that the dairy also supplies. These products come from the 30,000 liters of milk that Blessed Dairies—now employing 45 people—supplies to its clients each day. What’s more, these client relationships have created a reliable market for more than 8,000 dairy farmers—absorbing the milk surplus and providing them with a sustainable income.

As for Blessed Dairies, Milton recognizes the many benefits that come from selling products to the nation’s largest airline carrier. He believes it will open up additional opportunities from the export market.

“From a business expansion standpoint, displaying my brand aboard RwandAir carries more significance than just revenue,” Milton says. “It’s a great promotional platform to grow our brand even beyond Rwanda.”

When Milton is asked about his future plans, he looks up. “The sky's the limit!”