Man In Rwanda Transporting Milk On A Bicycle

In Rwanda, a transformation after tragedy

Dairy industry is driving a remarkable recovery

Last Monday, I needed a caffeine boost so I grabbed a cup of coffee from the cafeteria at Land O’Lakes, Inc. headquarters. Next to the brewers were three stainless steel containers labeled: whole milk, skim and cream. These caught my attention. Any other day, I wouldn’t have given them any thought. But I had just returned from a trip to Rwanda with Land O’Lakes International Development, and was acutely aware of how lucky we are to have such easy access to this food staple.

In the United States, sophisticated dairy operations are producing thousands of pounds of milk per day. These farms feature customized diets for the cows, high-tech milking parlors, regular quality assurance testing and large tankers picking up, refrigerating, and hauling 50,000 pounds of milk per trip.

In Rwanda, dairy production is growing. In fact, agriculture has been one of the main drivers in Rwanda’s remarkable economic recovery following the 1994 genocide. And yet, milk still faces a number of obstacles on its journey from cow to consumer. There’s an informal market that threatens a farmer’s access to loans; inadequate infrastructure on and off the farm can affect milk quality. Despite these notable differences, in both cases we have family farmers looking to produce the highest quality product while earning a decent living.  Agriculture has helped Rwanda’s economy make a remarkable recovery following the 1994 genocide. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP is increasing by an average of 8 percent every year. Milk production alone has increased ten times since 2000.

Through the USAID-funded Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Program II (RDCP II), Land O’Lakes International Development has worked closely with the Rwandan government and dairy industry players to continue to grow these numbers. Since its start in 2012, RDCP II has created 12,000 new jobs in the dairy industry and facilitated a 787 percent increase in liters of milk sold through formal markets. Since 2000, milk production has increased ten times.

Seeing the numbers is one thing. Seeing the impact on people’s lives is another. That’s why during this trip to Rwanda, I set out to see beyond the numbers. I wanted to meet the people whose lives were transformed. And to get there, I decided to follow the milk.

It starts on the farm

It’s 7:00 a.m. We’ve arrived at Grace Nyirandatwa’s farm, a small plot of land tucked into the hillside amongst banana trees and maize stalks. The kids are laughing as they get ready for school. The oldest son, Leon, just finished putting fodder in the cow shed. I hear a universally recognizable sound coming from the backyard: a moo. It’s milking time.

Leon starts milking the family dairy cow, and tests the first batch. It’s free of mastitis, a condition that results from toxic bacteria building up in the udder. He continues milking and Grace looks on and shares her family’s story.

Back in 2012, Grace’s family qualified for the Government of Rwanda’s one cow per poor family program. This was a big break for them, but there was one problem. She didn’t know how to care for it.

“That’s when Land O’Lakes came in. I was trained how to care for the cow and handle the milk properly. The training gave me the skills and confidence to open my mind and run my small farm as a business. ‘Land O’Lakes,‘ are the only words I can say in English!” says Grace.

It’s 7:45 a.m. Leon is finished milking and has 1.5 buckets—about 14 liters of milk. He pours four small cups for his brothers and sisters. I ask Angelique, Grace’s six-year-old daughter, if she likes milk. Milk mustache and all, she smiles and replies, “Shisha wumva! (In English, Feel the goodness!) I love milk. It helps me to be first in my class.”

Since the trainings, Grace’s cow is producing twice the amount of milk per day. This has doubled her sales to their cooperative’s local milk collection center and doubled the amount of milk her family consumes.

“This cow has become everything to us. Medical insurance, school fees, milk for drinking. We bought a bicycle to take the milk to the collection center and we were able to get a loan to build a better house and latrine. We used to eat one meal a day. We now eat three,” says Grace.

Leon jumps on a bicycle with the full canister of raw milk in tow. He’s headed to the local milk collection center four miles away. Not long ago, he walked this journey, balancing the milk container on his head. It used to take him two hours, causing him to miss a lot of school. And often, the milk went sour on his way there. Now, it takes him 20 minutes.

Grace’s family is one of 63,149 that received training on how to better care for their cow. On average, these household’s net incomes have increased by 943 percent.

A cooperative connection

It’s 9:00 am. We drive past avocado trees, women in colorful dresses carrying goods on their heads and a row of hand-painted store fronts. The smell of sweet milk is in the air and dust from the road is flying from bicyclists like Leon delivering their morning milk. We’ve arrived at the cooperative’s milk collection center.

Farmers line up, milk canisters at their side, to supply and record their daily contribution. From there, the milk is tested, filtered and stored in a large cooling tank.

Patrick Byabagam emerges from the group to greet us. Patrick, 65, is one of the founding members of this cooperative, which has been operating since 1997—just three years after Rwanda’s devastating ethnic genocide.

“I was a refugee. So when I returned [to Rwanda], I wanted to find something to unite us,” Patrick says.

For Patrick and others in his community, a dairy cooperative was the answer. Much like the founding members of Land O’Lakes, they joined together to collect, market and distribute their milk. Though their unifying purpose was simple, the obstacles they faced were great.

Patrick knows a thing or two about these obstacles. Using his local knowledge, he and the other co-op leaders started working with RDCP II in 2012 to identify and address areas that were limiting the cooperative’s growth. Take co-op management. RDCP II worked with local partners to train board members on topics like governance, financial management and gender inclusion.

With RDCP II’s support, the co-op also established milk quality standards for farmers, including the trainings Grace took on how to handle milk. RDCP II also provided small grants to match the co-op’s investment in purchasing a large cooling tank, stainless steel containers and a truck for transporting the milk to the processor.

“In 2012, the collection center was rejecting up to 800 liters of milk a month due to poor quality. Today, it is close to zero,” says Patrick. “We’ve gone from collecting 50 liters a day to 4,000.”

The co-op used to sell only to the local police academy and restaurants. Now, with proper equipment and training, they’ve acquired a reliable buyer contract with the largest dairy processor in Rwanda, Inyange Industries. “It’s transformed life for every member in our cooperative,” says Patrick.

Up until recently, banks rarely distributed loans to dairy farmers due to an unreliable, informal market. Today, thanks to high quality standards and reliable private sector partnerships, co-op members like Patrick have credentials that they never had before, allowing them to invest in their own businesses.

“Thirty-six of our members have received a loan to grow their dairy business. This benefit is attracting new members to the cooperative. In 1997 we had 12 members. Today we have 157,” says Patrick.

It’s 1:00 p.m. Except for the humming of the tank keeping the milk cool, it’s quiet inside the collection center. Outside, Damas, in his early 20s, is preparing the truck for his first delivery of milk to Inyange. Damas’ job is one of 11,882 jobs created in the dairy industry as a result of RDCP II’s work.

The processor

It’s 2:00 p.m., as we drive to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, the roads are busier, bustling with roadside markets. Damas pulls his truck up to a large production facility. We’ve arrived at Inyange Industries headquarters. Damas parks near a warehouse where employees meet him to unload the milk. From here, it will be tested, filtered and processed into pasteurized milk, yogurt or butter.

Chris Kabalira, Inyange’s marketing and sales manager, crosses the parking lot to greet us. As he shows us around, he reflects on the change the industry’s seen in the last five years.

“Since the start of RDCP II in 2012, Inyange has seen a dramatic increase in quality and quantity of milk produced by smallholder farmers,” says Chris. “Five years ago, we were rejecting 60 percent of milk coming from milk collection centers across the country. This limited our ability to increase milk volumes and create value-added dairy products.”

Now, with better quality milk coming from cooperatives, Inyange’s milk processing volume have increased from 20,000 liters a day to 100,000. Rejection is close to zero percent. These numbers open countless opportunities for processors. Inyange and others have added 58 new dairy products to Rwanda’s shelves since 2012. The increase in number of products has not only strengthened Inyange’s business, but also the lives of farmers, like Grace and Patrick.

“Support a Rwandan farmer is our company’s purpose, and we believe in it,” says Chris. “We provide five billion Rwandan Francs (6.2 million USD) in income to farmers every year. When we [Inyange] do well, farmers live better, and vice versa—we do better together.”

With such progress, I ask Chris what is next for Inyange. Sitting at his desk, he points behind him at a map of East Africa. Inyange is expanding internationally.

It’s 4:00 p.m. We are back in the car, heading to Kigali. I look up to see a billboard with a smiling pair of kids holding glasses of milk and sporting milk mustaches. My colleague translates the sign for me.

“Drinking milk regularly helps children grow healthy and strong. Shisha Wumva, or Feel the Goodness,” she says, “It’s a dairy consumption campaign, kind of like Got Milk? in the U.S.”

RDCP II worked on this campaign with Inyange. It reached 1.5 million consumers, and continues to be an active piece of Inyange’s strategic marketing plan.

It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m back in Kigali at a restaurant overlooking the city, thinking about my day. A healthy cow. The fragility of milk. Angelique yelling “shisha wumva!” Leon biking barefoot. Cold storage. Cooperative benefits. Dairy processing. Butter. Market demand. Each piece has a different story to tell.

At the end of my meal, I order a cup of decaf coffee. The server brings a hot kettle and pours it before my eyes. She looks up at me and asks, “Do you take milk or sugar?”

I think of Grace.