Dairying in Mauritania only flourishes when the grass is green

In the grocery store of Mohamed Vadel (23), in the town of Chinguetti in Mauritania, a large part of the assortment consists of dairy products. “I have milk from all over the world,” he says. On the shelves behind him are cans of Belle Hollandaise and Omela, which contain concentrated liquid milk from the Dutch company FrieslandCampina. In addition, Vadel sells powdered milk, the origin of which is unclear, but which probably comes from Argentina, and sterilized milk in tetrapaks from the German company DMK (Deutsches Milchkontor).

Vadel does not have milk from his own country. “That’s why you must go to a stall a little further on tonight, at the end of the street. Nomads sell their fresh goat and camel milk there.” But, warns Vadel, consuming that milk is not always safe. “You never know for sure if it’s not spoiled. If you don’t want to get sick, you better buy dairy products from my store. It comes from modern foreign companies. Quality guaranteed.”

Millions of livestock farmers live in the Sahel, the transition area between the African rainforest and the Sahara. They travel across the savannah with their camels, cows and goats. Fresh milk can often be bought along the road, but no Sahel country has its own dairy industry of any importance. As a result, local milk is only available right after the rainy season, when there is a lot of grazing land for the animals. During the rest of the year, African consumers rely on long-life imported milk, especially from Europe.

Dairy factory in trouble

Mauritania is one of the few African countries that partially processes its own fresh milk. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, around 20 percent of the total annual consumption of 760 million liters consists of local milk.

Only 1 to 2 percent of local consumption is processed. In the capital Nouakchott, there are four companies that process the milk and sell it in tetrapaks. They also sometimes make yogurt and cheese. But the Mauritanian dairy industry is not doing very well. Most businesses struggle to survive. How did it happen? And what will it take to change that?

The machines stand idle in the Tiviski dairy in Nouakchott. “There is not enough supply of fresh milk,” says production manager Ahmed Baba (53). Dressed in a white coat, with the Tiviski logo on the back, Baba says that local cows have produced little milk in recent months due to prolonged drought. “It has barely rained here for three years. Only since the showers in autumn have the cows slowly started to give milk again. Yesterday and the day before yesterday we pasteurized around five thousand liters of milk.” Baba also has an installation for making long-life sterilized milk. “But unfortunately it’s broken.”

In addition to cow’s milk, Tiviski processes goat’s and camel’s milk. Most of it is sold pasteurized in supermarkets in Nouakchott. “We get the milk from nomadic livestock farmers with a truck,” explains Baba. “They take their freshly milked milk to fixed collection points in the countryside.”

Intensive livestock farming, with cows in stables, does not exist in Mauritania. Local farmers take their animals to places where fresh grass grows after rain. If you keep cattle in stables, you have to grow fodder or buy it elsewhere. “It’s way too expensive for livestock farmers here.”

shop from Mohammed Vadelwhich only sells foreign milk. Photo Gerbert van der Aa

Hit the price

Milk is relatively expensive in Mauritania, given the average monthly income of 130 euros. Locally produced pasteurized milk costs around two euros per litre. Imported milk is also quite expensive. Mauritanians also pay two euros for a liter of sterilized milk from Germany. FrieslandCampina’s cans of concentrated milk, which when diluted with water make about a glass of milk, sell for around fifty cents. The cheapest is milk made from powdered milk: about 60 cents per litres.

Local livestock farmers receive fixed prices for their milk. Tiviski’s production manager says he pays about 60 cents per liters for cow’s milk and goat’s milk. Camel farmers receive 70 cents per litre. Other Mauritanian dairy producers charge roughly the same prices. For comparison: Dairy producers in the Netherlands currently pay farmers around 60 cents per liter of freshly milked milk.

According to some local dairy producers, protection measures are necessary to boost the African dairy industry. “European dairy farmers benefit from agricultural subsidies,” says British Nancy Jones (75), who has lived in Mauritania almost all her life and started the first local dairy. “Local businesses simply cannot compete with that.” Taxing imported milk is the simplest measure to counter this competitive advantage, according to Jones. “Unfortunately, that rarely happens. And the import duties that do exist are largely evaded. Corruption is a big problem in Mauritania.”

On a terrace in the capital Nouakchott, Jones, dressed in a colorful robe worn by most Mauritanian women, says the government should take an example from Morocco. “It is one of the few African countries that is seriously developing its own dairy industry. A few years ago they imposed an import tariff of 113 percent on dairy products. Since then, almost everyone there buys local milk because it is much cheaper. As a result, the Moroccan dairy industry is now the leader in Africa.”

investigative journalists from Follow The Money last year carried out extensive research into European agricultural support. They have calculated that Dutch dairy farmers have received more than €3.4 billion from the EU since 2014, meaning that around a third of their gross income consists of subsidies. The database compiled by Follow The Money shows that a Dutch dairy farmer in the Veluwe with 85 cows received around 90,000 euros in EU subsidies in 2021. That’s 12 euro cents per liter.

Cheap food

Not everyone in Africa sees unfair competition from agricultural subsidies as a problem. The subsidies ensure that there is cheap food. In fact, the EU subsidizes the food supply in Africa. Cattle farmers in the Sahel suffer as a result, but for the African urban population, imported food is often cheaper than the local equivalent. Partly for this reason, most African governments refuse to levy high taxes on imported milk: that’s how they keep the city dwellers happy.

In a nomadic tent in El Beyyed, an oasis in the Mauritanian desert, Disha mint Yeslim (30) fills a bowl with goat’s milk. “Milk fresh this morning,” she says, sitting on a plastic blanket. She adds a little water and sugar to the milk, which she then whips with a spatula. “Due to the drought of recent years, we have had to miss fresh milk for a long time.” But after the rains of recent months, seeds that had often lain in the sand for years sprouted and a green carpet of grass appeared in the desert. “Our animals now have enough food.” Mint Yeslim passes the dish around so that those present can taste it.

Due to the drought, almost all Mauritanians had to rely on imported milk this year. The demand was so great that cans from FrieslandCampina can even be found deep in the desert. Powdered milk is also available in the most remote corners of the country. “Along with dates and meat, milk is the staple food of desert nomads,” says Mint Yeslim. “Fresh goat’s milk is the tastiest, but if it is not available, we make do with imported cow’s milk. We can’t live without milk.”

This report was made possible in part by Support Fund Freelance Journalists.

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