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Professionalisation of milk production in the rural areas of Nepal can provide economic security.

In the mountainous region of eastern Nepal, on the frontier with Indian western Bengal, lies the district of Panchthar. It is a relatively undeveloped area, characterized by structural poverty and a rural exodus. In Panchthar agriculture provides the main source of income, based on the cultivation of cardamom, ginger and Asian Broom (or Tiger) grass, which are mainly grown for export to India, but farming is also essential for household subsistence. Unfortunately, in recent years the prices for ginger and cardamom have been rather volatile and have escaped the growers’ control. The price of cardamom has fallen by half in the last ten years. Many young people leave the region to work abroad. The region desperately needs economic security.

Local milk production

Good Neighbors International (GNI) is an international NGO that supports and facilitates underprivileged groups through projects relating to education, health and entrepreneurship. Recently, with support from the BPF, GNI implemented a project to professionalise milk production in the region. In addition to farming, around 30% of households produce milk, to sell or for their own consumption.

Whilst milk constitutes an important part of food for numerous families, local production is not enough to satisfy demand. “In the towns, we have noticed a big increase in the demand for milk products” says Bishnu Poudel, of GNI. “Today, Nepal is a net importer of milk products from abroad, mainly from India. Yet here, we have everything we need to keep cows ourselves: pastures for grazing, fodder and plenty of workers looking for a job with a decent income. We should not miss the opportunity to provide local milk.” As part of this project, GNI is helping the cooperatives of milk producers to gain better access to the market and promote techniques to transform the milk into quality products.

It is estimated that there are some 11 million milking cows and buffalos in Nepal today, but this does not result in large milk production. There are several reasons for this, according to a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. For instance, there is a lack of nutritional fodder because of a decline in forested areas, due to logging, agriculture and construction. Public aid is limited and this means that veterinary  services, for instance, have not been sufficiently developed. Raising cattle has not been professionalised either and there is also a lack of training and professional guidance. Finally, many of the farmers have no outlets for their products because they are far away from a market, or they have no training in selling techniques or lack up-to-date information.

“There are few milk producers today and where milk is produced, it is generally for the producer’s own consumption” explains Rupa Mishra, Bishnu’s colleague. “Of course, it’s not easy for a milk producer to produce, process and commercialise milk. Moreover, the price of milk is low and milk production has no centralized organization. And yet, there is a market for dairy products, such as milk, ghee, cheese, butter, and dog chews.”

Support for cooperatives

“This is why, in 2016, we launched a project in the districts of Panchthar and Morang, in which we help cooperatives to collect, process and sell milk”, says Rupa. “The results have been promising. There has been an increase in cooperative membership, from 110 to 290 in Panchthar, and from 1,272 to 1,705 members in Morang. For the project, average daily milk production in Panchthar rose from about 300-400 litres to 1,200-1,500 litres. And in Morang too, production went up considerably, from 1,500 to 2,700 litres per day.

Thanks to the success of this pilot project, the local authority in Panchthar asked for the project to be increased from one cooperative to three”, explains Rupa. “Together, we asked the King Baudouin Foundation for support for three cooperatives in the rural municipalities of Phalgunanda, Miklajung and Kummayak.

“Today, Nepal is a net importer of milk products from abroad, yet here, we have everything we need to keep cows ourselves. We should not miss the opportunity to provide local milk.”

“Good Neighbors International helps small farmers to buy milking cows. The local milking cows yield around two litres per day, a productivity that is much lower than in cows specially bred for milking, such as Holsteins, which produce around 25 litres per day” explains Bishnu Poudel. “The RNB helps farmers to increase their milk production and provides knowledge about the production and storage of milk. Farmers are also provided with a milk urn to store the milk and transport. We teach them how to make healthy fodder using locally grown plants. Further down the chain, we support the farming cooperatives in the collection, cooling and transformation of the milk into dairy products such as ghee, dog chews and concentrated milk. And finally, we help them to find links to nearby markets and businesses.”

Objective: a decent life

Participants in the project are rather diverse. “We target marginalized groups in the region” explains Rupa. “Slightly fewer than one in three participants is a woman and around a half are young people. Our programme enables young people to have a future in their own country. And if the women and young people secure greater financial power, they will almost certainly be listened to in the family and there will be more place for education and health” she says. “Altogether, there are 1,750 milk producers who will join the three cooperatives. Indirectly, our impact is even greater because what we do also affects the families of our participants.”

“The objective is to build a decent life”, says Bishnu. “By guaranteeing the quality of the milk processing, farmers can increase the price of their milk from around 30 to 50 cents a litre, which is really the minimum price in our opinion. And the farmers see their production rise by a factor or two or three.”

“The first training sessions have been completed. In the next stage, we will support the local milk producers by organizing fairs” says Rupa. “The cooperatives are linked to the local authorities, which support them and provide them with local technical support. It is thanks to this anchorage in local bodies that the RNB will eventually no longer be necessary and that the project will make a long-term difference. And perhaps this also will help young people to find their place in the region again” she concludes.