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close this bookCERES No. 157 - January - February 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)
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Agribusiness: Making cheese a money-maker

The Fulani women of northern 1 and central Benin have developed a simple way of keeping their cows' milk from spoiling without refrigeration. Thus they add protein to the family diet and make money. Using surplus milk that would otherwise go bad and a vegetable rennet extracted from a common shrub, they produce a cheese highly appreciated in Benin and neighboring Togo and Niger.

Cheese-making is a craft women in other countries of the region could easily take up. Farmers keep cattle throughout West Africa, especially in the Sahel countries, and the rennet-producing shrub, called Dead Sea Apple or Apple of Sodom (Calotropis procera), is found throughout the tropics and subtropics. But at present, cheese-making is foreign even to other Fulani beyond Benin's borders.

In Benin, cheese is so much a part of the diet that each of the languages spoken in the country has a word for it. In Fulfulde cheese is gasiigue, in Dendi warangashi or wagassi, in Baatonu gasaru and in Fon amon.

Benin produces an estimated 2 000 to 2 500 metric tons of cheese annually, mainly in the northern and central parts of the country where most of the Fulani cattle is found. Because campements (farms) with large herds need extensive pasture for grazing they are located far from towns and villages. Simple logistics make it more efficient to market cheese, which can keep for days or even weeks without spoiling, instead of more perishable fresh milk. Herdspeople carry it with them on their seasonal migrations.

On the campements, milking is men's work, but the women decide how to use the milk. They think first of their household needs, then try to sell the rest. Fresh or soured milk bring the best price. But if there are no customers nearby the women make cheese to sell at the local markets held every four days.

In Atacora Drtement of northwest Benin, which has 300 000 head of cattle, a litre of milk sold in 1993 for 50 to 100 CFA francs, depending on the season and the location of the market. At that time, 100 CFAF equalled US$0.36. The price earned from a kilogram of Fulani cheese works out to 50 to 70 CFAF per litre of the milk that went into it. The price does not reflect the value added to the milk in the cheese-making process, but at least the milk is not wasted and in cheese form can be more easily transported.

Farmers in the province sold more than 235 000 cheeses, totalling 300 metric tons, in 1993 - 35 per cent of all the milk they marketed. More than half the cheese was resold in south Benin or Togo. Transported in baskets to the capital city of Cotonou, some 600 kilometres to the south, it fetched three or four times the producer price.

The cheese is popular as a cheaper alternative to meat. The average price for cheese in the Atacora Drtement in 1993 was 330 CFAF per kilogram, compared to 500 CFAF per kg of meat. Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, the cheese is generally free of pathogenic germs because it is boiled during its production and again by consumers, who then dice it, fry it and serve it in a sauce with rice or pates as a main course.

To make the cheese, Fulani women heat fresh milk over a low flame. Where heating milk is a taboo, as is the case with some Fulani, women of other tribes nearby do the work.

They crush the leaves and stalks of Calotropis procera to obtain rennet, which contains an enzyme that makes the milk coagulate. This juice is mixed with some milk in a gourd and sieved into the hot milk, which soon begins to coagulate. The curd is simmered for another 20 to 30 minutes, drained and turned out.

Five litres of milk will make about one kilogram of cheese, and a normal batch ranges from half a kilogram to five kg. If a Fulani woman doesn't have enough milk to make cheese she either borrows milk from a neighbor, using a loan-and-repayment system called pooney, or heats what she has to keep it from turning sour and adds fresh milk when it becomes available.

The soft, white curd cheeses, each weighing 400 to 1500 grams, are dried and stored in a hut or on a straw roof. Before they go to market they are boiled in water dyed with millet stems or chaff. This colors the cheeses red to give them what is considered a more attractive appearance and to mask any traces of dust and dirt.

If a dealer buys the cheeses for resale later at a regional market or in the urban centres of south Benin, Togo and Niger they are boiled again in red-colored water to which salt and potash have been added and dried in the sun. As the process is repeated the cheeses gradually become hard and can keep for several weeks. Occasionally, they are preserved by smoking them over charcoal.

Marlis Kees