Red flags in East Africa’s green dairy plan

The sector emits greenhouse gases such as methane when cows belch.

In Summary
  • Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
  • Kenya has set a target of growing milk output from an average of seven litres per cow per day to 15 litres per cow.
Dairy cows at a farm in Miteero village, Gatundu North subcounty. Cattle theft in the area has been on the rise.
Dairy cows at a farm in Miteero village, Gatundu North subcounty. Cattle theft in the area has been on the rise.

A new dairy programme championed by global players has lifted the spirits of smallholder farmers in East Africa, with many potentially seeing it as the answer to their many problems.

But sharp concerns loom over whose underlying interests exactly the project is serving.

Dubbed Pathways to Dairy Net Zero, it has the backing of large industrial agricultural companies and their lobby groups such as the Global Dairy Platform (GDP), who have historically not had smallholder farmers’ interests at heart.

The GDP represents some of the world’s largest milk producers, distributors and processors. Its board and leadership committee feature familiar faces from the Dairy Farmers of America and Land O’Lakes, among other heavy hitters.

The dairy project promises to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania) by promoting methods and technologies that improve the efficiency of dairy production.

The dairy sector emits greenhouse gases such as methane when cows belch, as well as from manure and during the processing of milk and feeds.

Farmers in the region, like elsewhere, grapple with extreme weather conditions, stoked by climate change, from frequent and severe droughts to devastating floods.

Other challenges specific to East Africa include long calving intervals, poor conception, low milk production, poor animal health/diseases, inadequate feed supplementation and rickety dairy equipment.

“We hope it won’t be all smoke and mirrors; a green-washing stunt to push the interests of the big players at a cost to smaller ones in the region,” said Dr. Isaac Kalua, a Nairobi-based sustainable development expert and environmentalist.

The proposed project is designed to run for seven years after the ongoing preparations are completed.

“I wouldn’t mind joining the programme since from the look of things it might improve our fortunes. Smallholder farmers need all the support they can get to grow and expand,” said Joe Njogu a keeper of 25 dairy cows in Kirinyaga, central Kenya.

Njogu cited the high cost of producing fodder, a sharp rise in the cost of concentrates and unreliable vet and artificial insemination services to be some of the challenges giving him sleepless nights and eating up his farm’s margins.

However, analysts say that while efficiency gains may indeed help the industry produce more milk, without limits on overall production, they will likely increase rather than cut GHG emissions.

Small-time keepers such as Njogu, who lacks a full picture of the project, might potentially be elbowed out of the market as large dairy firms put their interests first.

Indeed, this ‘green dairy’ project follows a 20-year push to make the region’s dairy industry more accommodating to multinational dairy concerns and East Africa’s large dairy companies, at the expense of the small farmers that dominate the sector.

Experts say that the group’s rhetoric and recommendations overlap considerably with past efforts to undermine small dairy producers in the name of “nutrition” and “food safety.”

Who benefits?

“Improving feed quality” and “improving productivity”, as the promoters put it, would mean selling new feed types and health supplements to farmers. Basically creating themselves a market, according to sector analysts.

Further, “changing herd management and structure” means changing the way farmers manage their herds to be more like the way other larger dairy producers manage their herds.

These interventions would necessitate connections between farmers and the industry’s biggest players—further tipping the scales in favour of East Africa’s biggest dairy companies and global dairy companies.

Behind the Pathways to Dairy Net Zero is a consortium comprising the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Global Dairy Platform (GDP), among others.

Risper Chepkonga in Baringo wants in; she keeps 15 dairy cows of Ayrshire breed, each producing 10-15 litres on average per day.

The story is mirrored across the border.

Gahiga Gashumba, a dairy farmer of the Jersey breed in northern Rwanda, said he couldn’t wait to join the programme and cushion himself from the climate blows. His sentiments were echoed by Rahma Agasaro, a herder of the Ankole cows (long-horned local breed).

In Uganda’s Nakaseke District, Stephen Muvunyi, a keeper of 70 Boran crosses and 30 Friesians says accessing water and pasture has become a challenge lately.

It’s for this reason that he says that he would be happy to jump on the project bandwagon if indeed “it would ride him out of his woes.”

As East Africa emerges from a prolonged drought, the aftermath has been a steep rise in dairy feed costs.

The rising cost of feeds is equally producing a growing trend where farmers are cross-breeding their Friesian breed, a heavy eater, with Ayrshire.

Others are dropping them altogether.

“I have a farmer friend who keeps the Friesian breed, which produces a lot of milk but the cows’ huge appetite eats up the money he makes. He’s ditching them,” said Chepkonga.

$80 million dairy financing facility

According to the organisers, the programme will strengthen national capacities; enhance an enabling environment for low emissions climate resilient dairy sectors; promote low-emission and climate-resilient primary production; establish a green dairy financing facility of at least $80 million.

IFAD will, on behalf of the consortium, develop and implement all activities through the respective ministries/departments of livestock, dairy boards/agencies and the national designated authorities of the Green Climate Fund.

Emission reduction target

The programme targets will be aligned with the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, which is expected to reduce global warming by 0.20 C by 2050, according to IFAD.

The promoters sought to allay fears around the programme, insisting that, if anything, it was specifically designed to empower smallholders in the region, by boosting their productivity while lowering on-farm emissions.

“Small-scale and medium-scale dairy farmers are very much our target group. We’re strongly committed to giving the right technology and support to smallholders on how to better look after their cows,” said the GDP development and policy advisor, Brian Baldwin.

The Kenya Dairy Board (KDB) managing director Margaret Kibogy said that the country had signed up to the programme to boost productivity and lower local emissions in line with global targets.

Kenya has set a target of growing milk output from an average of seven litres per cow per day to 15 litres per cow.

“At the farm level, we’re looking at manure management and also looking at growing the uptake of biogas plants by farmers. We have 1.8 million dairy farmers but the installed biogas plants are only 8,000 at the moment,” said Kibogy.

Her counterpart in Rwanda John Musemakweli held similar sentiments about the project.

Although the project’s declared goal of reducing the dairy industry’s contribution to GHG is laudable, one shouldn’t take its ambitions at face value, experts warn.

In East Africa, its motives look especially suspect, given the recent history of global dairy companies’ efforts to assert more control over the industry,” analysts say.

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