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Curds, and why

How can milk be conserved in regions where temperatures are often high and where producers are widely dispersed? One answer can be to process the milk into cheese. Cheese not only keeps better than fresh milk but it also provides an alternative income for producers as well as adding an interesting food to the everyday diet. Even though the number of milk products in Africa remains very limited, small dairies which add value to the milk produced are now being set up.

Many people in Africa, particularly those living near towns and in areas where livestock farming is practised, drink milk, be it from cows, sheep, goats or camels. However the potential of this nutritious food is not always exploited fully. At the beginning of the rainy season, itinerant herders dispose of the surplus milk that they cannot sell because their new pastures are often remote from areas of habitation and roads are barely passable. As a result a useful source of food is lost to consumers and revenue is lost to producers.

Among pastoralist societies in Africa there has long been a tradition of fermenting milk and, more rarely, of making cheese. But modernization of the processes has been slow, they remain small-scale, artisanal and are most often carried out at family level. Many recipes are handed down from generation to generation and since they are not widely known they have not been studied with a view to improving the quality of the product.

A choice of cheeses

The cheeses that are made in Africa are mostly of the soft cheese variety and are very simple to make. "Fermentation is the most commonly used form of processing and fermented milk is often preferred to fresh milk since it keeps better, is easier to digest and it is also supposed to have a therapeutic value," explain those responsible for dairy activities at the Groupe de recherche et d'anges technologiques (GRET). These cheeses are not left to mature but are simply allowed to drain once the milk has curdled. As a result, they will not keep very long and have to be consumed fast.

In the more arid regions of the Sahel, the Touareg and the Moors make a very hard cheese which can be kept for several months. Takammart, tikomart and tchoukou are cheeses made with cow's milk, goat's milk or a combination of the two. A piece of dried goat's stomach provides the rennet to curdle the milk, which is contained in a large wooden bowl. The curdled milk is drawn out with a big ladle and put on a mat to drain. The cheeses are shaped by hand before being placed on stems of wild fennel for flavouring. They are so dehydrated that they cannot be chewed. A pestle and mortar are used to break off a piece for eating which is then soaked in tea or mixed into millet porridge.

In Sudan, Benin and Niger, pastoralists make a highly appreciated white cheese from cow's milk called Wara, Woagachi or Waranski. The milk is heated in large pots and the juice of Calotropis procera or from pawpaw leaves which contain a milk curdling factor is added. After the curdled milk has been heated for ten or twenty minutes, it is allowed to drain and is then kneaded. The cheeses are then ready to eat. But if they are to be sold at a market some distance away, they are usually cooked in salty water. The cheeses are soft to begin with but gradually become harder as they are left to dry out on the house roof for several days. The Beninois colour their cheeses with a heated solution of leaves and stalks of red sorghum whereas in Sudan, Wara is sold as a white cheese. 1993 production in Benin was estimated to be 2,000 to 2,500 tonnes. The cheese is usually washed and boiled before being eaten and small pieces are fried in oil or incorporated into sauces or in different dishes.

In the Central African Republic, the Peuls make a cheddar type of cheese. As soon as the animals have been milked, the milk is filtered through a cloth, then heated for half an hour before being put with rennet into a large gourd to curdle. The fresh cheese has salt added before it is shaped and put on a large stone overnight. After a period of drying the cheese can easily be stored for several weeks.

Carry on cheese-making

Even though there are a number of different types of cheeses made in various parts of Africa, Memina Sanogo of GRET, who has written a book about the subject, confirms that cheese making is under-developed in Africa. There are a number of reasons for this. With the exception of pastoralist communities, Africans consume very little milk or milk products and there are few commercial outlets. High temperatures mean that it is difficult to conserve or make cheeses and cold chains are rare.

However, in many countries, efforts are being made to encourage those who would otherwise discard milk, to turn it into cheese. FAO has introduced a portable cheese making kit which has been distributed to tchoukou producers in Niger. The kit is sufficient for producing about ten cheeses a day and all the equipment necessary is contained in a jute sack (strainer, churn, pipettes, etc). According to J.C. Lambert of FAO, who is responsible for distribution, these kits improve the hygiene quality of the cheeses since they avoid the need for direct handling and provide protection from dust, flies and other physical impurities. They also improve the commercial quality of the cheeses which can be produced to a uniform weight and a consistent, more pleasing shape that also makes handling and transport easier. More than 400 producers have formed an association in order to take advantage of the new technology. Now, instead of standing by the side of the Tahoua-Agadez road to sell a cheese which has taken 1.5 litres of milk to make and for which they get only 100F CFA, Niger producers can avoid the uncertainty and risk of roadside selling, and sell direct from home, a cheese which takes only one litre of milk to make and yet fetches a higher price, often more than 125F CFA.

This technology has also been shown to have positive economic and social advantages since the output of cheese is higher and yet the work involved is easier. Not only do tchoukou and other cheese varieties keep longer than milk, they help to smooth out seasonal irregularities in milk production by absorbing the surplus. Cheese producers, like those making tchoukou, can both increase and regulate their income since, on average, a litre of milk made into cheese doubles its value. Furthermore there is a strong and growing market for cheese and yogurt among urban populations and in recent years people have started to raise livestock semi-intensively on the outskirts of towns in order to supply milk for this market.

The Mauritanian experience

It is not easy to produce cheese and, as Memina Sanogo explains, in developed countries milk production and processing have become very sophisticated. However neither the technology nor the end-products transfer well to developing countries. The constraints of cost, lack of commercial opportunities and lack of expertise in production management all argue in favour of a more modest intervention at an artisanal level using simple technology.

Setting up cheese production units helps to stimulate the development of the dairy industry generally and improves local milk production because it gives farmers a guaranteed outlet for their milk. And yet because the basic cheese making equipment is unavailable in many countries, there is very little cheese made even in modest dairies constructed from local materials. However, in Mauritania there have been some attempts to develop the processing of, mainly, camel milk. At a seminar on Camels and Dromedaries as milk producing animals held in Nouakchott in October '94 and organized by UCEC (see box), the President of the Mauritania Dairy, Nancy Abeiderrahmane, related the Dairy's experiences which illustrates well the hopes and the difficulties experienced by those who attempt to develop the dairy industry in Africa.

The Mauritania dairy began operating in April 1989 with a capacity of 600 litres per hour. By 1994 the unit employed 26 people and treated 3,100 litres of camel and cow's milk per day. The original idea was simple. In the hinterland there was a large reservoir of unused milk and yet in the capital city there was a huge market of consumers who had no access to either fresh or processed milk. Camel's milk was chosen for the pragmatic reason that it was the only fresh milk available in and around Nouakchott. Initially, and before an independent supply of milk could be set up, the dairy opted to buy milk from semi-traditional producers close by. There was no attempt to introduce any modifications to the way these producers operated. This respected the biodiversity of the local animals and, as Nancy Abeiderrahmane explained, it was considered better to encourage improvements rather than to impose them.

The dairy organized milk collection using its own vehicles and milk churns. In order to avoid the unhealthy conditions in town the livestock farmers moved away, sometimes as far as 100km. The dairy staff sometimes had to wait until midnight and beyond, especially in the rainy season, for the milk to arrive because of poor organization by the producers themselves who operated at the whim of their animals. Collecting milk during the rainy season is always problematic because of the daily search for the herders who move on with their animals while some give up altogether preferring to travel much further away. Camels do not produce very much milk in such arid environments because there is little natural forage and there is no local source of forage other than the byproducts of rice. Everything else is imported and a camel has to be fed 10 kg of food per day to produce a marketable quantity of 3 to 4 litres of milk. The dairy provides its staff with protective clothing which is laundered daily and requires that everyone wears a turban that acts as a mask to cover all of the head except the eyes.

The dairy has to find a way of disposing of surplus milk because, in order to secure the loyalty of the producers, it has to buy their full output throughout the year. The only camel's milk product that has been developed by the dairy is fermented milk, which is commonly drunk in the area, but it has proved difficult to sell. It can only be produced at times when there is surplus milk and this coincides with low demand for milk products. Furthermore, the production costs of fermented milk are higher than those for fresh milk although traditionally it is sold more cheaply. Now that an enzyme has been discovered which can be used to turn camel's milk into cheese, the Mauritania dairy plans to set up cheese production. Unfortunately the Mauritanians are not used to eating cheese and it seems likely that it will have to be exported.

Among the many other countries in Africa where there are dairies (Burundi, Central African Republic, Kenya, Mali, Southern Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe) there are many differences in processing technology due to environmental factors. Most of the processing units encounter the same problems not least of which is ensuring a regular supply of milk. To begin with the units can use powdered milk to supplement local fresh milk in order to guarantee supply. Powdered milk makes a good cheese and also creates an interest among livestock farmers who want to sell some of their milk. By helping such farmers improve the feeding and hygiene of their animals, it should gradually be possible to obtain a constant supply of locally produced fresh milk.

For further reading:

Milk and dairy products: production and processing costs, FAO animal production and health paper 62
The technology of traditional milk products in developing countries, FAO animal production and health paper 85, 1990, MO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, Rome, ITALY
Traditional cheesemaking manual by Charles O'Connor ILRI, PO Box 5689, Addis Ababa, ETHIOPIA.


Demand for milk products in Africa is rising faster than supply. In fact production of milk and milk products is almost stagnant and increased demand has been met by steadily rising imports. Yet milk is produced in abundance in sub-Saharan Africa at certain times of the year and failure to make optimum use of this production is a very great loss in nutritional and economic terms, both to rural families and nationally. The objective of the Dairy Technology Unit of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) based at Debra Zeit, Ethiopia is, says DTU Head Dr Charles O'Connor, to improve the nutritional and economic status of the African smallholder, his family and the community at large.

"The valuable nutrients in milk must be preserved in a form that makes them available at periods of low milk availability," says Dr O'Connor, and he explains that the main activity of the DTU is to research appropriate products and processes. "We look at the process by which smallholders produce existing products and we try to improve the quality of the product and the efficiency of production," he says. The philosophy is to help farmers initially to improve on their current practice, not to introduce new concepts or technology. "We try to show farmers how, by making really quite small changes or modifications to his or her tractional way of doing things, they can achieve meaningful improvements in the quality, quantity and consistency of their products," he adds. "Later, when these improvements have been implemented and the market expands we can then introduce new products."

ILRl's Dairy Technology Unit concentrates on processes for making butter, ghee (clarified butter), yoghurt and soft and hard cheeses. Locally, farmers have used spices in an attempt to extend the shelf-life of butter and Dr O'Connor believes upto 20 spices may be used for this purpose. Most are known at present only by their local names but ginger is one of those commonly used. Unfortunately, it has yet to be proved that the addition of spices materially extends storage life, but it certainly adds variety. The safest way of storing butter is to convert it to ghee.

Cheeses, particularly hard cheeses, have a longer shelf life and the DTU has many years of experience of processing milk into a variety of cheeses using processes appropriate to small-scale producers in East Africa.


Ayib is a soft curd cheese made in many parts of Ethiopia. It can be prepared either from skimmed milk (after removal of fat) or from the buttermilk produced by churning sour whole milk. In Kenya and Tanzania many smallholders produce a soft 'Pasta filata' type cheese called Scamorza. It is similar to Italian Mozarella. Scamorza is made from whole milk or milk from which some of the fat has been removed. Thus both cheeses can be made from milk which is also used as a source of fat to make butter.

The processes for making these two cheeses differ. Whereas Ayib is made by heating the buttermilk or skimmed milk to about 50'C until a distinct curd mass forms, milk for Scamorza is heated to only 36 C and a yoghurt-type culture must then be added. Heating should be gradual in both processes. With Ayib, heating up to 65 C will result in a cheese with a longer shelf-life, but too high temperatures during cheesemaking can result in cheeses having a 'cooked' flavour.

While a thermometer is a useful aid to consistent cheesemaking, many experienced smallholders hay" learned to judge temperatures remarkably accurately. They have also learned that personal cleanliness and clean milk and utensils are essential to avoid bacterial contamination which introduces 'off' flavours and reduces the shelf-life of cheeses.

The methods for making Ayib and Scamorza, as well as of her cheese types, are described in the Traditional cheesemaking manual by Charles O'Connor and published by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There is also advice on converting some soft cheeses into harder cheeses; while this reduces the yield of cheese, it can considerably extend shelf-life.

To convey this technology to smallholders the DTU conducts demonstrations and training courses but Dr O'Connor is sensitive to existing farmer knowledge. "Smallholders are usually clever people and know their business very well," he says. "So we do not dictate what products or processes they should use. The farmers and trainees from the national agricultural research systems who attend our training take back our ideas for modified processes and in their own time they apply those improvements or new technologies that they find most appropriate."

There is no question that dairy processing has enormous potential for forming the basis of small agro-industries in rural and peri-urban areas in Africa. With encouragement African dairy producers and processors could contribute substantially to local economies and reduce the current level of imports and the outflow of foreign exchange.


The taxation system does not always provide sufficient incentive for local production. In Mauritania, for example, the dairy which makes cheese from camel's milk complains that the packaging that Europe insists is used for wrapping local cheeses which has to be imported, is taxed at 32% whereas imported milk products are taxed at only 10%.

In the Central African Republic, a local cheesemaking dairy has been set up among the herders of Foulbnd M'bororo. 3,000 litres of milk are collected every day at 14 collection points and the herders themselves deliver a further 1,000 litres. A full milk cheese, an enriched milk cheese and a cheese of the Camembert type are produced. Despite a strong demand for dairy products, these cheeses are not easy to sell: their quality is not always perfect and they cannot compete with the standardized imported product which sells without difficulty. In order to remedy the situation, the government has imposed a regulation that requires traders to buy local and imported products at the same rate.