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13.11.2019 Africa

Under-pressure West African dairy farmers swap ideas in France

By Isabel MALSANG
Dairy farmers in arid portions of West Africa are nomadic, making developing business to fully meet demand difficult.  By Luis TATO (FAO/AFP/File)
NOV 13, 2019 AFRICA
Dairy farmers in arid portions of West Africa are nomadic, making developing business to fully meet demand difficult. By Luis TATO (FAO/AFP/File)

There is little that farmers in the Sahel need to know about the art of survival.

They nurture scrawny cows on the edge of the Sahara, scratching a living in the shadow of jihadist threats and of crushing competition from European imports.

Their lives are very different from the dairy farmers of the emerald-green meadows of central France.

The two unlikely groups came together when farmers and ministers from the arid Sahel visited the lush Auvergne region last month.

The meeting brought a sense of camaraderie and the opportunity to share experiences, despite problems sharply at variance in type and scale.

Moktar Diallo said that among his Fulani people -- an ancient herding community also known as Peuls who traditionally roam the Sahel with their cattle -- "a meal isn't complete if there's no milk".

He stroked a calf on the farm of Pascale Chassard, who produces Saint-Nectaire cheese at Saint-Diery.

"In towns, our milk is mostly powdered milk" imported from Europe or elsewhere, said Diallo, a Burkinabe.

Critics blame European subsidies for incentivising overproduction by EU producers, which has led to milk being sold to developing nations at prices that are almost impossible to beat.

"The vast availability of products at a low import rate encourages decision-makers to take the easy way and to rely on them to meet local demand, rather than developing local supply chains," said a recent report from Coordination SUD.

The organisation, which is composed mainly of NGOs defending small farmers on environmental grounds, urged the European Union to reform its Common Agricultural Policy to help address the issue.

There are efforts within the Sahel region to boost local dairy production, which meets only 50 percent of regional demand, according to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Despite European dumping, demand for milk is high, said Diallo.

"The supermarket buys everything we produce and we could even make more," he said.

But the vast majority of African farmers lack the infrastructure to preserve and bottle milk -- a situation coincidentally exacerbated by European giants that have set up giant plants to reconstitute imported powder.

Similarities

Small dairy producers in France have been struggling with problems of their own, including changes to EU support.

The abolition of EU milk quotas in April 2015 triggered a collapse in prices to a point that many small farmers were barely able to cover their costs.

The lush pastures in France are worlds away from the Sahel, but their experiences can still be helpful to African farmers.  By LOU BENOIST (AFP/File) The lush pastures in France are worlds away from the Sahel, but their experiences can still be helpful to African farmers. By LOU BENOIST (AFP/File)

Last summer, this part of France's Massif Central highlands was so badly hit by heat and drought that green pastures turned into dusty tracts.

The tough experiences brought the cattle farmers of the Auvergne closer to Moktar Diallo and Alimata Ouedraogo, who run "The Magic Cow" mini-dairy in Ouagadougou.

"The system of mini-dairies in Burkina Faso is much like that used for producing the Comte cheese of the Jura region, bringing together many farmers to pool their milk production to make the cheese," Chassard observed.

Deadly violence

Chassard has gone into direct sales from the farm, in local markets and on the internet, and joined a cooperative to purchase and bring down the costs of necessary items, such as lactic ferments used to make cheese.

"We so often don't have the ferments for our yoghurts, and we depend on a single supplier, which makes them very expensive," Ouedraogo said.

But the lives of the two sets of farmers were thrown into sharp relief when talk turned to the seasonal migration of livestock and security.

Far from the tranquil Auvergne, the Sahel is in the grip of a jihadist insurgency and ethnic unrest.

Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of others forced from their homes.

Fatimata Diallo, president of Suudukosam, a cooperative in the Sahel, said violence was a daily peril for her 13 farmers.

"Our cattlemen are getting killed and herds can disappear from one day to the next," she said.

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