Local milk: an enormous potential for West Africa

Antoine Delers
20 May 2019
The local dairy sector is an important driver for sustainable development in West Africa, where agro-pastoral breeding and agriculture play a central role. Despite the various constraints faced by farmers, there are many initiatives to promote local production.

The economic potential


Breeding and agriculture are fundamental for the members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which Mauritania has re-joined. Local milk production has enormous potential in this region of Africa for economic and sustainable development, representing billions of litres every year (600 million in Nigeria, 500 million in Mali, 200 million in Burkina Faso, etc.). The milk is produced by around 48 million nomadic herders and agro-pastoralists, accounting for about 50% of local consumption. Between 2000 and 2016, production increased by more than 50%. Selling milk locally is an important source of income for the producers. However, the local milk sector does not yet meet the region's needs. The remaining consumption in West Africa is accounted for by imported powdered milk. For example, in the city of Bamako in Mali, 90% of the milk consumed comes from powder.

In the city of Bamako in Mali, 90% of the milk consumed comes from powder.

The advantages


Producing local milk makes it possible to achieve several Sustainable Development Goals:

  • No poverty (SDG 1);
  • Zero hunger (SDG 2);
  • Gender equality (SDG 5), as women are involved in milking cows, then processing and selling the milk.


In effect, local milk production plays an important role in food and nutritional security, but not only that. It also makes it possible to valorise the economic potential of pastoral and agro-pastoral areas, create rural employment (nearly 80% of the population lives in the countryside), reduce poverty and the rural exodus, and reduce West Africa's food dependence. It is a promising market that represents a genuine opportunity for the local sector, provided that the policies pursued in both the North and South encourage local production, rather than imports.

African children drinking milk
© Vétérinaires Sans Frontières

Competition from European milk powder


However, the local sector faces major constraints: problems in terms of animal feed and health, lack of infrastructure, equipment and quality control systems, lack of investment by African States, climate change and low soil fertility. To overcome these constraints, a veritable dairy policy is required, which favours local production. The actors in the local sector in West Africa are also confronted with increasing imports of European milk powder, which is sold at a lower price than local milk.


The European Union is in effect the largest milk producer, with 145 million tonnes in 2018. The abolition of quotas in 2015 prompted an explosion in EU milk production, which turns to the world market to sell its surplus cheese, butter and milk powders. Exports have doubled in 2 years, from 6% of total production in 2017 to 12% today. A new blend of skimmed milk powder re-fattened with vegetable fats (primarily palm oil), which is exported from the European Union, is taking an increasing share of the West African market. It is sold around 30% cheaper than whole milk powder.


This is unfair competition for local producers, who suffer heavy consequences. Moreover, contrary to what might be assumed, European producers do not profit in any way from exports to West Africa. They often sell their milk at prices below production costs. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) encourage this trend to overproduce milk and increasingly export the surpluses. Strengthening the local and fair dairy sector in West Africa will require a review of European policies.

The actors in the local sector in West Africa are also confronted with increasing imports of European milk powder, which is sold at a lower price than local milk.

Some initiatives in favour of the local sector in West Africa


Vétérinaires Sans Frontières

Belgium supports the local dairy sector, in particular through Vétérinaires Sans Frontières, an NGO that supports agriculture and breeding in eight African countries (Burkina Faso, Burundi, DR Congo, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda). They help people to improve their production and build a better future for themselves. To achieve this, Vétérinaires Sans Frontières is involved at all stages of the production chain: livestock feed, the health of the herd and animal hygiene; milk collection, storage, transport and processing; and finally, marketing. Thanks to its efforts, the NGO has increased the quantity and quality of milk processed into dairy products, but has also created many jobs for both men and women.


Fairebel and Fairefaso

Belgium is also helping to reverse the trend with its Fairebel fair trade milk label. European and West African farmers have in fact been working more closely with each other for a long time. In recent years, these relationships have intensified and new projects have emerged. For example, the Fairefaso fair trade milk "advocacy brand" was set up in Burkina Faso, thanks to the partnership between the 'Union nationale des Mini-laiteries et Producteurs du Lait local au Burkina Faso' (National Union of Mini-Dairies and Local Milk Producers in Burkina Faso) (UMPL-B), Fairebel, Fairefrance and Oxfam. These quality and fair trade labels are a springboard for resilience for small-scale local producers, as they are able to maximize sales of their products at a profitable price. Other fair trade milk brands have been launched in West Africa, including Fairesen in Senegal and Fairemau in Mauritania.


ECOWAS and the European Union

Institutional initiatives are also emerging. A good example is the Regional Initiative by ECOWAS to promote local milk, launched under pressure from producer organisations. This initiative aims to increase the production and collection of fresh milk, and foster an environment which is conducive to the development of the local sector. An overhaul of taxation and customs duties could be envisaged.

Within the European Union, calls for change are also beginning to get louder. For example, the European Committee of the Regions is calling for market regulation, while the European Parliament's Committee on Development is calling for greater policy coherence during the next reform of the CAP.


"Mon lait est local"

There are also initiatives in the field, including "Mon lait est local" (My milk is local), launched in June 2018 by 6 national coalitions in West Africa. The aim is to give priority to the local dairy sector, by setting up partnerships with dairies, public institutions, European producers, as well as urban and local consumers.

Overproduction of milk: here and elsewhere, local producers bear the brunt.

For several years, the European dairy sector has been overproducing. This leads to a fall in prices and prevents European producers from making a living from their work. Their milk is bought at low prices and then sold off on West African markets. But when it arrives there... it's not really milk anymore! It's more of a skimmed milk powder that has been re-fattened with palm oil, and which costs up to 30% less than local milk. This fake milk overwhelms and suffocates the local industry and African producers.


Let's not export our problems. Here and elsewhere, let's support producers!

To call out this situation, SOS Faim, Oxfam-Solidarity, Vétérinaires Sans Frontières, CFSI, the European Milk Board and the "Mon Lait est Local" campaign in West Africa have launched the "Let's not export our problems" campaign.


To find out more, visit the campaign's website www.nexportonspasnosproblemes.org. You can watch a short animated film to understand the problem in 2 minutes, and download the explanation file. Share it without moderation!

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