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Why Ethiopia’s dairy industry can’t meet growing demand for milk

Ethiopia produces about 4 billion litres of milk per year. Flickr/Morgana Wingard, USAID

The demand for dairy products is rising rapidly in Ethiopia. Prices are being pushed up as demand is met by imported products, particularly powdered milk. The Conversation Africa’s Moina Spooner asked Azage Tegegne for insights into the challenges facing the sector.

What does Ethiopia’s dairy sector look like?

With a population of about 110 million people, Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa. This is a huge market opportunity for milk and milk products. Ethiopia also has one of the highest cattle populations in Africa, estimated at 60 million heads. Though camels, goats, and to a lesser extent sheep, are used as milk animals about 90% of milk comes from cows.

Unfortunately, milk production and consumption is very low. This is driven by a number of factors.

In rural areas the animals used by smallholder farmers are local breeds which aren’t selected for milk production. And animals are managed in a traditional way, meaning they mostly depend on natural pasture with no supplementary feeds and that the quantity of milk is low. Milk is mainly used for household consumption, not marketed and any surplus is usually converted into butter and sold in local markets.

The situation is very different in more urban areas where farmers use crossbred, as well as high grade, dairy animals. They have access to artificial insemination, use more intensive systems, concentrate feeds and have access to animal health services. But these farmers account for only 1% of the dairy cattle population in the country. They supply milk to consumers in major urban centres, mainly through the informal market, though some is also sold to processing plants.

But because this system uses such a tiny proportion of the dairy cattle population, milk supply is low.

The country produces about 4 billion litres of milk per year. Per capita consumption is very low, estimated at about 20 litres, though rising consumption levels in Addis Ababa have brought it to about 40 litres.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation recommends that the per capita consumption of milk be about 200 litres, meaning 22 billion litres of milk is required. At the current production rate, there’s an annual shortage of about 18 billion litres.

What challenges does the sector face?

There are many.

The first is that local breeds provide about 1.5 litres per cow per day. In the UK the average cow produces about 25 - 30 litres. The local breeds used in Ethiopia also have a short lactation length of about 150 days. Ideally for improved dairy breeds it is about 305 days.

Although there is a National Artificial Insemination Centre, smallholder farmers have limited access to improved dairy genetics. Improved dairy animals are very few, estimated at about one million, and they’re often too expensive for smallholders to buy. The artificial insemination delivery system is also weak and less effective.

There is also a critical shortage of feeds and water. Livestock mostly feed on grass hay and crop-residues – like cereal and pulse straws. Most of it is poor quality, highly affected by seasons and low in quantity. Supplementary feeds, like cereal bran and oil cakes, are either too expensive or in short supply.

Dairy production also needs good quality water. Availability and unreliable supply is a major constraint.

Another problem is that Ethiopia’s animal health services are weak. There are public animal health posts in rural villages. But, in most cases, they are poorly equipped and there is limited access to regular vaccinations. As a result, cows experience infertility problems, high abortion rates and calf mortality.

There is neither a national herd registration and identification system nor a milk recording scheme to provide information for genetic improvement and management decisions.

There is also a lack of education. Most dairy farmers lack formal education and have little to no training in dairy farming. There are no institutions which provide training courses targeted to smallholder farmers which means that farmers get most of their information from each other.

Farmers also aren’t organised. A smallholder-based production system, and the perishable nature of milk, means there’s a need for a strong collective system. But there are few dairy cooperatives that collect milk from their members and supply processing plants. Also, due to a lack of chilling plants in rural areas, the cooperatives only collect morning milking.

And finally, there is a lack of institutional capacity. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Resources is responsible for the dairy sector but it has limited implementation capacity.

What new technologies and practices do farmers need to adopt to address these?

First, farmers need to change their attitude and think of dairy farming as a business. They need to invest in it and change their subsistence mode of production into a more market oriented system. This will require additional inputs and improved management.

Farmers need access to proper feed, water and good quality dairy cows. Animal health care is also vital and so farmers must adopt a strict management system to minimise disease incidence, including annual vaccinations.

Farmers also need to improve their management skills. They need these to be able to run proper animal housing and milking, feed systems, reproduction, milk hygiene and handling, record keeping and collective action and marketing systems.

What should the government be doing?

The Ethiopian government has identified dairy development as one of the economic drivers of the country and has taken steps to support this. But to transform the dairy sector, there are still areas that need the government’s special attention. It needs to:

  • Establish a National Dairy Board to improve production, promote dairy consumption and regulate the sector.

  • Provide appropriate incentives to the private sector so the sector develops. These include access to land, water, electricity, removal of taxes and import regulation.

  • Promote the dairy sector. For instance integrating milk in child feeding programs.

  • Establish targeted dairy extension systems, like dairy advisory services and technical management support.

  • Improve the availability of vital inputs from production to processing such as quality forage seed, veterinary drugs and milk processing equipment.

  • Support dairy development and marketing through cooperatives .

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