FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia

Got yak’s milk?

In one of Earth’s most remote and forbidding places – the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast of Tajikistan – life just became more interesting.

The newly formed Zenghi Baba company in Murghab district is the country’s first commercial producer of dairy products from yak milk, and Murghab’s first processing company of any kind. Hard cheese, yoghurt, cottage cheese and sour cream are now being turned out, with luxury hotels in Dushanbe keen to offer yak cheese to their clientele.

People in these highlands, mainly the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz, are among the poorest in the former Soviet Union. Because of the harsh climate, no crops are grown and practically the only source of income is livestock – yaks, sheep and goats. 

Linking yak herders in remote areas to markets in the capital city by advancing yak product value chains was the project’s main objective. FAO partnered with the Aga Khan Foundation’s Mountain Societies Development Support Programme, and with the Association of Veterinarians of Tajikistan to address animal health and food safety concerns – vital for market acceptance. The project was implemented by FAO’s Investment Centre under the Agrarian Structures Initiative of the Organization’s Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia.

A yak dairy expert from Mongolia was brought to Murghab to conduct training, for women from several different jamoats or rural municipalities in the district. Mongols have a long tradition of processing yak milk, which differs in chemical composition from cow’s milk, particularly in fat content (about 6.8 percent).

The trainees learned the fundamentals of ensuring milk quality, pasteurization techniques, collection schemes, processing technologies, financial literacy and marketing principles.

Knowledge of milk collection and processing found in the highlands of southwest Mongolia was particularly suitable, according to Inna Punda, program officer with FAO’s Investment Centre and leader of the project.

“The environment and culture are very similar to Murghab in Tajikistan,” she said. “The goal was to adopt technology that we know works in similar conditions:  no continuous power supply, high altitude, bad roads.”

The Mongolian trainer even spoke Russian, Punda added. “There was no language barrier, no cultural barrier, and many similarities. It was the key to success and it paid off.”

After the course, several of the women went to work at Zenghi Baba, a company that had its start as a supplier of premium yak meat cuts to upscale markets in Dushanbe. Zenghi Baba now buys raw milk from local families, processes it into yoghurt, sour cream, cottage cheese and hard cheese, and sells the products at its shop in Murghab’s central bazaar.

Despite the harsh climate and remote location, up to 500 tourists pass through the community every year. Zenghi Baba hopes that these intrepid backpackers – lured by Silk Road legends and the tales of Marco Polo – will want to sample the local yak milk products.

A festive inaugural ceremony for the new dairy processing unit and shop was held in mid-summer. Jamoat head Mamat Tumarov opened proceedings, which included music, folk dancing, and statements by FAO Representative in Tajikistan Viorel Gutu, head of local administration Mirzobay Dzhoushbaev, and Zenghi Baba director and founder Abdulaziz Gulamaydarov.

“Bringing in top international expertise with hands-on training was central to achieving tangible results with a small budget and in such a short time span – only six months,” Gutu said.

The project not only supported the poorest communities in the region, but also promoted improved ecosystem management. With fewer, healthier, income-generating animals, herding at these altitudes is more environmentally sustainable.

“The herders now look at their animals in a different way: from a commercial stand-point,” said project leader Punda. “The positive impact of this shift in perspective cannot be overstated.”

To scale up this success, Murghab district will need serious investment in processing infrastructure and power supply. The FAO Investment Centre continues to support the mobilization of funds for projects such as this.

10 November 2014, Murghab, Tajikistan