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Making a splash: milk for the masses in Haiti

In the slums of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, people have resorted to desperate measures to survive. Since skyrocketing prices put the most basic foods beyond the means of many families, mud "cakes" have become a distressing staple. These circular sun-baked pats of clay-heavy earth contain traces of essential minerals - and are the most nutritious meal many can hope for in this deeply troubled country.

Increasing domestic milk production has benefitted many rural families (Veterimed)
Increasing domestic milk production has benefitted many rural families

But this time of great need is also one of great hope: a rapidly-expanding national cooperative is gathering momentum, supplying an affordable, nutritious, locally-produced drink all Haitians love: milk. Appealing for calm during the food riots of April 2008, President René Préval cited the award-winning Lèt Agogo ("Milk in Abundance" in Creole) initiative as one justification for his optimism about the future.

The price of dependence

Haiti imports three-quarters of its food and after rice, milk is the second most important, with around US$40 million-worth brought into the country each year, mostly from the European Union and Canada. But, at a cost of up to US$2.30 per litre, it is well beyond the means of most Haitians who earn less than US$1 per day.

But Lèt Agogo, through its growing network of smallscale dairies, is encouraging Haiti's milk producers to compete in the domestic market. Established by the NGO Veterimed, the first dairy opened in 2002 in the northern city of Limonade and the initiative has since spread around the country. Currently, each of the 14 dairies produces between 150-400 litres of milk every day and ten of them also make long-life milk - important in a country with virtually no cold-chain infrastructure and an unreliable electricity supply. Some of the dairies also produce yoghurt, and all run on solar power. In the coming months ten per cent of all their production will be dedicated to cheese.

Buying local

Lèt Agogo dairies are community-based businesses run by local investors and farmers' associations. Each dairy employs ten staff, and relies on a network of between 50-150 local farmers to supply the milk. "Every dairy has its own story," says Michel Chancy, formerly of Veterimed and now with Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture, who helped establish the scheme in 2002. "Some of them are initiatives of local young people, most of them children of small farmers. One was created by a cooperative of young farmers. Others have been created by local development organisations and NGOs, or through government projects."

Lèt Agogo dairies process up to 400 litres of milk per day (Veterimed)
Lèt Agogo dairies process up to 400 litres of milk per day

Veterimed provides training, technical and managerial support, and animal health assistance to those involved - farmers and dairy workers. It has also provided credit for some women's groups to buy their own cows. By the end of 2009, Chancy expects the number of dairies to almost double, and hopes to set up 100 new dairies in the next ten years.

Crucially, the Lèt Agogo system allows rural milk producers to bypass Haiti's many smallscale milk merchants - often simply one man with a bicycle - who collect containers of fresh milk and travel to the cities to sell them. Cases of merchants watering down milk are well known, and even when the milk is sold, farmers sometimes have to wait several days to get paid. Depending on the region, the Lèt Agogo farmers receive between US$0.24 - US$0.40 per litre, paid in vouchers which are cashed either weekly or fortnightly. This is more than the merchants pay, but the farmers have to wait at the dairy while staff test the quality of their milk. If it passes, the milk is pasteurised, sterilised and bottled. Some is flavoured with vanilla and chocolate - popular with the Haitian palate - and all is are is branded with the Lèt Agogo logo prior to distribution.

Firm foundations

The initiative is more than simply a good idea for exploiting a gap in the market for domestic milk and crowding out the imports; its success is founded on years of background work by Veterimed to strengthen Haiti's rural livestock sector. The organisation has supported thousands of livestock keepers, providing veterinary assistance and advice on fodder systems, organising vaccination campaigns and raising awareness about improved production methods, sustainability and profitability. Now, with the organisation's help, around 2,000 farmers have strong links to markets and have seen their incomes rise.

Domestically-produced Lèt Agogo milk is much more affordable than imported varieties from the EU and Canada (Veterimed)
Domestically-produced Lèt Agogo milk is much more affordable than imported varieties from the EU and Canada

The Lèt Agogo milk is not just popular with the public; the Haitian government is now the biggest single client, buying and distributing milk to around 13,000 children in 44 state schools. With 900 schools in the country, demand is set to rise further.

The project has already become internationally recognised and has grown significantly since it was awarded first prize as the most innovative social project in Latin America and the Caribbean by ECLAC and the Kellogg Foundation. So, what was it like to have the country's president gunning for you during a crisis? "I had a strong feeling of responsibility because much more will be expected of us," replies a characteristically modest Chancy.

Date published: November 2008


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