The rising sun glints off a silver and jade ring on a rangy hand. It belongs to Abu Sow, a tall, proud Senegalese man in a long green robe, who is watching as one of his wives milks one of the family’s cows.
To reveal the exact number of cattle he has would only invite disaster, according to local superstition, so he vastly underestimates. “I have 100,” he says, looking over the long, elegant horns of his sleepy herd.
Across the scrubby plains of their home in northern Senegal, Sow spots the approaching milk collector on his motorbike, dragging a trailer full of urns.
When he arrives, Coumba Diallo stops milking and pours her last gourdful into one of them. The collector tests the milk for acidity and writes down how much of it the family is selling this morning, before hurrying off with his load.
He and his three colleagues have to get to around 300 herding families, starting at 6am, and be back at the Dolima milk factory before the sun gets too hot and the milk turns sour. With some herders pooling milk collections it means around 30 stops for each collector.
These days, Sow is a wealthy man. He has four wives – the maximum a man is allowed. But eight years ago, his family’s situation was much more precarious. They had nobody to sell their milk to, and usually just poured it away.
Although 4 million people – 30% of Senegal’s population – are herders, almost all the milk drunk in the west African nation is mixed up from powder imported from countries such as Ireland.
Over a decade ago Bagoré Bathily, a Franco-Senegalese vet in his 20s, saw struggling herders having to sell their animals at low prices to survive and decided he had to find a way to connect the country’s milk producers with its drinkers.
“They were very proud people living in the desert, but they had no money. They had skills, they just had to produce something and sell it,” he says. “But nobody was buying what they had to sell.”
He founded La Laiterie du Berger (French for the herder’s dairy) in 2006 in Richard Toll, a town in the heart of herding country on the Mauritanian border, and began pasteurising milk and making yoghurt to sell in Dakar, the capital, and other Senegal cities.
The milk collectors trundle into the factory yard at 10am and haul the pails on to a large steel table to be weighed, strained, tested and refrigerated.
In Europe, where everything is done by sterile machines, milk is pasteurised at 70C for six seconds. Here, it is heated to 97C for three minutes, to kill off all the microbes that creep in from fingers and gourds. Then it is made into yoghurt and fermented milk, put into green pots and packages lettered with Dolima, the brand name, and sent off to Senegal’s major cities in refrigerated trucks.
The company has grown by 30% a year on average and is now the country’s second biggest industrial milk producer. Ardo, a Lebanese-owned company, is twice as big, but Bathily expects to catch up with it within five years.
The Senegalese market is dominated by informal traders, who buy imported powder and mix it up themselves, mostly to make the fermented milk that is popular locally. Informal traders sell £130m of dairy products, including fermented milk a year. The 10 biggest industrial players in contrast have dairy sales of £24m, of which La Laiterie du Berger’s share is £4m.
Only La Laiterie du Berger sells milk from Senegalese cows, but even it has to mix most of its fresh milk with powder. Otherwise, it could not keep up with demand. Fresh milk is not an easy product to handle in the heat, and collecting it from an area of 32km is a tricky business. Hardly any of the families are accessible by road so the motorbike-trailer is the only way to get to them. Sometimes, by the time it arrives at the factory, it has gone off.
Most of the milk products that make the long journey south from Richard Toll are destined for shop refrigerators. A year ago, however, La Laiterie started a premium service. Every week, recyclable glass bottles of milk and pots of creamy yoghurt are delivered to the homes of wealthy Dakarois. Unlike the Dolima products, these are only made with Senegalese milk, with no powder mixed in.
“There are 10,000 families here that earn more than €5,000 a month. These guys want quality. The market exists,” says Bathily.
Two funds linked to Danone, the multinational dairy giant, hold a 45% stake in La Laiterie between them. But despite the international interest, Bathily says that his focus will remain on helping herders. He has already started buying wholesale feed to sell to herders at affordable prices. This has stopped the need for the herders to migrate 400-600km every year to find grazing for their cows during the dry season.
Despite the stellar growth, this year is the first in which Bathily expects to balance the books, partly because the tax situation makes it very difficult to sell at competitive prices. The tax on imported milk powder is 7%, while all the taxes associated with collecting local milk add up to 30%.
Still, what he calls “the crazy milk of the desert” will stay at the heart of his business. It has transformed the lives of the herding families and he wants that to continue.