Published: Aug. 15, 2013

Nourishing people—and an economy

Milk has a reputation for strengthening bones. In Malawi, the growing dairy industry is strengthening the livelihoods of small dairy farmers and the health of the country’s inhabitants.

In an effort to double the capacity of Malawi’s dairy value chain, MSU researchers led by Puliyur MohanKumar, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are applying successful outcomes from a similar MSU partnership project that helped transform India’s dairy industry. India, now the world’s top milk producer, shares similar environmental and cultural traits with Malawi.

With colleagues from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi and Tamil Nadu University in India, the MSU team is working with dairy farmers to improve all aspects of the dairy chain—from cow nutrition, reproduction, and genetics to milk production, processing, and marketing. A new breed of dairy cow has been introduced, and technologies, education, and training are empowering farmers in Malawi to take ownership of the industry.

These advances bode well for the many small dairy farmers—especially women—who make up the majority of the Malawi’s farmers. And as milk production increases, it’s bringing better health and nutrition to the people. You might say it does a country good.

Puliyur "P.S." MohanKumar

MohanKumarMohanKumar, professor of pathobiology and diagnostic investigation, College of Veterinary Medicine

Milk. It’s such a staple of life, most Americans don’t even think about it. We simply go to the dairy aisle at the grocery store and have our pick—skim, 2 percent, organic, a variety of brands. But in many places around the world, it’s just not that easy to get healthy, nutritional milk.

P.S. MohanKumar and his MSU colleagues Deepa Thiagarajan, assistant professor in the Institute of International Agriculture, and John Kaneene, University Distinguished Professor of epidemiology, are working to help communities in Malawi improve every aspect of the dairy value chain. The chain encompasses everything involved in producing dairy products, including: cow nutrition, cow reproduction, genetics, breeding, milk production, processing, and marketing.

“This project is important because Malawi really needs a lot of help,” MohanKumar says. “What has happened in the past is lots of organizations have brought in purebred animals that don’t work well in the climate and with the diseases that are prevalent there.”

MSU is working with two partners on the project—Tamil Nadu University in India and Lilongwe University for Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi. The project receives funding from USAID, which is dispersed through the USDA.

MSU, which is providing overall leadership for the project, has a long history of working with Tamil Nadu University and a long history of working with various groups in Malawi, so it seemed a good fit to bring the three groups together.

“What we are trying to do is help people learn more about the different aspects of the dairy value chain by bringing in expertise from India, where people have succeeded in doing these types of things,” MohanKumar says. “Climatically and also in terms of diseases and production and husbandry practices, Malawi and India are very similar. So it makes sense to bring them in and do that with MSU’s leadership piece. That’s the whole idea.”

The goal is to use strategies learned in India and apply them to Malawi. Forty years ago, India imported much of its milk and other dairy products. Today, the country has milk sufficiency, meaning it produces as much milk and other dairy products as the country consumes. The process, which MohanKumar called the “white revolution,” took about 20 years to happen. MohanKumar says that today, Malawi is where India was 40 years ago.

MohanKumar doesn’t know how many dairy farmers are in Malawi because no formal census has been taken, but he estimates there are about 2 million animals, including 20,000 Holsteins and 50,000 to 60,000 native cows.

“Malawi has more than 400 dairy job openings,” MohanKumar says, “but can’t fill them because of a lack of well-trained people.”

One of the goals of this project is to increase the dairy value chain certificate program so people can get trained in specific areas.

“What I would like to accomplish is to just be able to work with native farmers in Malawi so they can be successful and can improve their economy,” MohanKumar says. “If we can accomplish that, I will take that, as that’s the important thing.”

Field note: Transforming milk production in Malawi 

Fanny C. Chigwa is the head of the Department of Animal Science at Lilongwe University of Agricultural and Natural Resources

I am a ruminant nutritionist and head of the Animal Science Department at Lilongwe University of Agricultural and Natural Resources (LUANAR), previously Bunda College of Agriculture.

At LUANAR, we’re implementing a dairy value chain training program for frontline staff in collaboration with Michigan State University and Tamil Nadu University in India. My role in the project is principal investigator for the Malawi Researchers Team.

The project is being carried out to address the challenges facing the dairy value chain and to increase production of milk and other dairy products. Compared to other countries in Africa, milk consumption in Malawi is the lowest. The average milk consumption per capita annually in Malawi is 5 liters. Africa’s average is 80 liters and the World Health Organization recommends 200 liters.

There are several constraints to dairy production in Malawi. The project will conduct a needs assessment of the country’s entire dairy value chain—including production, breeding, nutrition, reproduction, health, processing, and marketing of milk and other dairy products.

After the assessment, researchers from the three universities will develop e-learning training materials, modules, short courses, and a dairy certificate to be offered by LUANAR to frontline staff. This holistic approach will increase milk production and consumption and also allow Malawian dairy farmers to produce adequate milk for the country without needing to import, which in turn will improve the livelihood of its people.

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