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1.3 Dairy production systems in sub-Saharan Africa

Milk production in sub-Saharan Africa amounted to 1.27 m tonnes in 1988, of which three-quarters was produced in East Africa. Cow milk accounted for 80% overall, but only half of the milk produced in East and West Africa, and nearly 100% in Central and Southern Africa. Output TLU-1 (250 kg LW) averaged 70 kg yr-1, being more than twice as high in East Africa as in the other regions due to the high yield (78 kg hd-1) of local cattle in the Sudan and the contribution of intensive dairy production systems in Kenya (Steal et al., 1 997b).

Table 1.6 Annual milk supply (kg per caput) and percentage from domestic sources by region in sub-Saharan Africa in 1988







Kg caput-1 Y-r






% domestic






Source: Walshe et al., 1991

Self-sufficiency levels varied (Table 1.6); in West Africa, levels in Sahelian countries were high (60-70%) and low in coastal countries with large cities along the seaboard (8-50%). In contrast, all countries in East Africa were relying on local sources (>90%), whereas in Central and Southern Africa, imports ranged from 75% in Rwanda and Burundi to <10% in Zaire and Zimbabwe.

There are three major land-based systems producing milk in SSA, pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and crop-livestock farmers (Walshe et al., 1991), representing a descending scale of cattle wealth and therefore potential milk off-take. Household demand and market access determines actual off-take, which ranges from near zero to 500 kg per lactation (de Leeuw and Thorpe, 1996). Thus market participation and cattle density are the main determinants of milk supply, which varies from 2,500 to only 80 kg km-2 the latter in areas where farmers rarely milk their cows and/or cattle density is low. However, supplies rise to 64 tonnes milk km-2 in the densely populated highlands of Kenya, where farmers keep high-grade dairy cattle producing 820 kg head-1 year-1 (Peeler and Omore, 1997) (Table 1.7).

Table 1.7 Characteristics of milk production in selected farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa

(Agro-) pastoralists






Guinea Bissau


Cattle density, head km-2







Milk, kg head -1 of cattle







Milk, tonnes km -2







Rural people per km-2







Milk, kg caput-1 yr-1







Sources: see text

An example of pastoralist systems is that practiced by the Maasai in the sparsely populated semi-arid range-lands of Kenya (Table 1.7). The Maasai live in extended families (10-15 people) with herds averaging 100-170 cattle and as many sheep and goats (Bekure et al., 1991). They produce and consume about 0.85 kg of milk per person per day, while the sale of livestock is the main source of income. As few grow crops, most foodstuffs are purchased. Milk surplus is shared with neighbours or exchanged in barter, but is rarely sold except by households living close (<5 km) to main roads and urban centres where there is demand for fresh and fermented milk, and butter. Similar pastoral systems are found in Southern Ethiopia; working among the Borana, Holden and Coppock (1992) reported that frequency and amounts of dairy products traded depended on herd size and distance to the market: butter replacing liquid milk with increasing distance and women from households with large herds trading more often. Butter was sold to lorry drivers and bus passengers en route to Addis Ababa, some 500 km away.

A contrasting pastoral system is practiced in the Gambia by herders, pastoralists who act as managers of communal herds, the cattle of which are entrusted to them by local farmers who each own a few head (Table 1.7). As sale of milk is the major part of the herder's income, cows and calves are well managed and milk off-take per cow is >400 kg per lactation, or 40% above the yields in family herds of agro-pastoral Peuhl living in a similar environment (Itty et al., 1993).

Increasing numbers of agro-pastoralists are found in sub-humid West Africa, where, for example, in Nigeria, small groups of Fulani live among indigenous smallholder farmers, who keep small ruminants rather than cattle. Most Fulani crop small fields of grain (1-2 ha), earning their living mostly from sales of milk and live animals, although in Côte d'Ivoire some have become settled farmers growing cotton as a cash crop (Itty et al., 1994). Being the main supplier of milk in rural and often to urban areas, diverse trading patterns have evolved. In well-populated areas in Nigeria, for instance (Table 1.7), Fulani women head-load 3-5 kg of milk to nearby villages, home delivering milk to their regular customers and selling any remainder on the local market at distances of 2-10 km (Waters-Bayer. 1988). Depending on transport infrastructure, women may trade larger quantities, usually bulking up front neighbours and friends.

Although milk is an important subsistence output of many smallholder crop-livestock systems, it is rarely traded hence the milk supply caput-1 and km-2 are much lower (Table 1.7). Typical of these systems, termed mixed-farming by Walshe et al (1991), are the communal farming areas of Zimbabwe (Steinfeld, 1986) and similar systems in West Africa (e.g. Guinea Bissau: Picaos-Goncalves, 1995), where farms and herds are small (1-5 ha 5-10 cattle), and cattle are used for traction, subsistence milk and manure (Table 1.7).

In the pert-urban areas around larger cities production and marketing systems are more complex. For example, milk to Bamako, the capital of Mali, is supplied by two types of producers: high-input large scale dairies using crossbred cattle close to the town, and pert-urban (within 25-40 km) communal dairies producing milk from herds of local cattle assembled from several owners (Achuonjei and Debrah, 1992). Many of the large-scale owners (herds of up to 200) delivered milk directly to the cooperative processing plant to be added to imported reconstituted milk. Others, selling directly to consumers, accounted for half of the informally marketed milk; the rest was delivered to consumers through one to three intermediaries. Similar peri- and intra-urban production systems operate in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Steal, 1995), where over 70% of milk was sold directly to consumers mainly from small land-less dairy enterprises located within the city (Debrah, 1992). The remainder was sold through itinerant traders, small shops, kiosks and larger grocery stores.

When smallholder crop-livestock systems are supported by market infrastructure, dairy can become a major component, especially as systems intensify in the face of increasing human population pressure. In the densely populated Kenya highlands (Table 1.7), after independence milk production shifted from large-scale herds to smallholder crop-livestock farms, which also grew coffee and tea, and vegetables and fruit closer to the urban centres (Tiffen et al., 1994). Hence, the milk enterprise became integrated into multipurpose farming systems, relying on cash crops, maize and beans, supported by off-farm income from towns through the extended family network. Farms are frequently 1-2 ha with 1-2 cows (generally Holstein Friesian or Ayrshire) comprising 50% of the herd, the other half consisting of female calves and heifers. Feeding is mainly cut-and-carry with planted Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) and crop residues, especially from maize and bananas (Steal et al., 1997a). On average total daily milk output is 10 kg per farm, of which a quarter is for home consumption and the rest sold. In the late 1980s, sales were mainly through local dairy co-operative societies, with some to neighbours, but since economic reforms and liberalization of trade, marketing channels have diversified, with a larger proportion of direct sales to private and institutional consumers (Staal et al., 1997b).

Characteristic of tropical regions with good market access, the development of smallholder dairy systems in the Kenya highlands is marked by three elements: declining farm size, upgrading into dairy breeds and an increasing reliance on purchased feeds, both concentrates and forage, resulting in milk yields per lactation increasing by as much as five times, while milk yield ha-1 of land planted with forage rose by a factor of 40 (de Jong, 1996).

Table 1.8 People, cattle and milk in Tanzania

Farming system

Livestock Extensive

Crop-livestock Semi-intensive

Livestock-crops Intensive

Scale, cattle HH-1




Rural HHs, % of total;




Cattle, N × 103




Milk output, kg hd-1 yr-1




Total milk, tonnes × 103




Source: Omore and Staal, 1998.

The range of systems found in sub-Saharan Africa is captured at a country level in Tanzania, which has some 15.5 m cattle distributed across three major systems producing milk (Table 1.8). It is estimated that there are 110,000 (agro-) pastoral households, who own and manage 7.8 million cattle, many of which are in large herds similar to those of the Maasai in Kenya (Table 1.7). Potential milk production is probably 55 kg milk head-1 yr-1, but since milk is mainly used for subsistence, only half (28 kg) is actually extracted for human consumption, because households with large herds only exploit 20% of the yield potential (Grandin, 1993). In areas of higher rainfall, over 3 million crop-livestock farmers with smaller herds (5-8 head) form the largest production system, producing some 45% of milk nationally. They realise yields of 45 kg hd-1 yr-1, which is closer to potential.

In the third system, in 1997 246,000 crossbred and high grade cows in 60,000 holdings produced 0.19 m t of milk (Omore and Staal, 1998). Over 70% of these dairy cattle are found in the small-scale intensive production system in the highlands and in pert-urban herds, the majority stall-feeding crop by-products and planted forage or harvested natural pasture. The remainder practice grazing of natural pastures, often supplemented with crop residues, some fodder and/or concentrate. There is significant intra-urban dairy production from small herds (often owned by civil servants) based on purchased forage or grazing public land. Larger herds, some grazing fenced paddocks, are found in the pert-urban areas.

In spite of their relatively small numbers, these dairy cattle contributed some 90% of all marketed milk. In 1997, about 90% of the marketed milk was delivered informally, either by direct sales to customers (60%) or through vendors (30%); the remainder was marketed by co-operatives and retailers (Omore and Staal, 1998). The very small contribution of the extensive and semi-intensive production to milk markets (10% of market flow from 98% of the animals) is indicative of the separation of these systems from the major urban consumption centres, and the inadequate market infrastructure to link them. This is further indicated by large price differentials between rural and urban areas, indicating relative deficit and surplus areas.

These production systems in Tanzania illustrate the principles common to dairy production in SSA: the potential to increase milk production from pastoralist and agro-pastoralist systems depends on the cost of collection and transport, particularly where distance-sensitive informal (raw milk) markets predominate. In turn unit costs of the support services (input supply: animal health services; milk marketing) decrease as production increases (Walshe et al, 1991). Consequently production systems nationally can become highly differentiated in structure of production and achievement of biological potential.

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