Nepal's Banksy was here!

Nepal's Banksy was here!
Strong message, Simple words

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Milk... a mechanism for changing Nepali lives?

The return trip to the UK, back in July, was all we had hoped it would be. Time to spend with our kids and Grand kids, say thanks to all the friends who had kept in touch during the past year, meet with Ashlea our link with VSO UK,  nip around the country to see bothers and sisters, and chill out in our wonderful Somerset home. Prior to the Nepal trip that description of ‘wonderful home’ would have seemed over the top, but after experiencing the delights of both rural and city life here and twelve months down the line, walking back into our little West Country abode felt warmer, cosier, more familiar than we could have imagined. And we’ve left it all behind again to continue our Nepali experience for another year.

‘What exactly do you do on your placement?’ is a question asked by all those we met during those few days of vacation. Anyone would think that that would be a simple question to answer, since that very question rumbles around your head like an old familiar song you heard at breakfast and can’t stop humming all day long, for most of the hours we’ve spent on placement in Nepal. But when asked straight up, the answer won’t come. It’s as if any answers given will seem superficial, disrespectful to Nepali people and the real problems they face. The questioner seems to want an answer which adds to their image of Nepal - a nation wracked by earthquake devastation. Yet  the real answers are not so easy and they never are. The response to such a question is often muted, with the real answer remaining locked away inside your head. To say ‘I’m helping to improve milk quality’ somehow doesn’t hit that 'sweet spot' that the  questioner wants. However,  perhaps it should and I will try to explain why.

Waiting at the collection centre.

A woman farmer waits in line.

A young girl with the family's herd of cows and buffalo. They are big producers selling 30lts. per day.

Waiting to leave milk at a collection centre from where it will be moved to a chilling centre.
Chilling afternoon milk to below 5 degrees can take 16 hours!

Nepal is a land of subsistence farmers. Unlike the UK where 2% of the population are engaged in farming, here it is nearer 80%. 'Subsistence' means that the farming activity is aimed at providing food for the family, and perhaps when times are good there will be a small surplus to sell for cash. This situation has driven much of the Nepali youth and men abroad in search of ‘cash’ to support their families back home. During recent decades, as society has become more urban, as in many other  developing counties, there has been a rapid rise in the demand for meat and dairy products. This phenomenon itself will stimulate much debate but let me move on and say that I am aware of the environmental costs of rearing animals. At the same time I acknowledge the dietary benefits they bring as they consume large quantities of roughage and bi-products which they convert to something we can eat. Let us say that I cannot alter the inevitable cultural changes that come with development, but perhaps I can make small changes that will make this type of animal farming more efficient or to put another way, less costly to the environment.

Here in Nepal, milk production goes on everywhere and the scale of activity is still at the 1-2 adult animal level, with most milk coming from the buffalo.

Despite the huge numbers of goats in Nepal their milk is not drunk, and the buffalo is the top lactating animal. In a Hindu country it has a dual purpose of milk and meat production.

The majority of  milk is still sold locally with farmers delivering their small surpluses direct to their customers. However, 20% of Nepal's milk finds its way through the formal processing system into the  more urbanised markets. The raw milk supply chain starts with tens of thousands of small holder farmers each taking a few surplus litres to a milk collection centre from where it is transported to a milk chilling centre. Once chilled it is again transported, often for several hours, to urban based processors.

Goats are only used for meat production.
As part of a small Nepali team working on a DFID ( the UK's Dept. for International Development) funded market improvement project called Samarth, it is my job to work on the raw milk supply chain. Our involvement ends at the point at which milk leaves the chilling centre. The aim is to develop a system of good manufacturing practice (GMP) to improve the quality of raw milk in the supply chain. We work on behalf of all the milk industry stakeholders, which include farmers (Central Dairy Cooperative Association of Nepal), milk processors (Dairy Industry Association, Nepal Dairy Association) and the government (National Agricultural Research Council, the National Dairy Development Board, the Dairy Development Council). The GMP process is based upon a ‘Gap Analysis’ of the milk supply chain that we carried out, and aims to give solutions to the shortcomings we found and thereby improve milk quality.

A member of the team, Bhola Shrestha, from the National Agricultural Research Council, chats to a couple of young farmers in our quest to discover where we can improve the milk supply chain.

The most difficult supply chain shortcomings relate to clean milk production at the farmer level, the huge difficulties associated with chilling afternoon milk, and cleanliness once milk is in the collection and chilling system. None of this is rocket science but all the stakeholders are keen to have guidelines for good production that can be audited and thereby controlled. We have built in a ‘foundation’ level that should be achievable by all farmers, and two higher levels that require better chilling, cleaning and animal welfare.

What I have described is phase one. In the second phase the same stakeholders, with the support of DFID will trial the new GMP in several pilot supply chains throughout Nepal with the eventual aim of rolling it out nationally.

My role is to build the knowledge of the Samarth team and all the partners and stakeholders involved. I also set the pace of work (where I can!) and monitor the quality of what we do.

Currently milk in shops has a shelf life on only one day, and is produced in a system riddled with high levels of wastage. Any surpluses produced such as milk powder cannot be exported due to low quality. I guess that improving some or all of these will still not hit the development ‘sweet spot’ for many of you. However, making a more secure source of income for thousands of small holder farming families, often headed by women, whilst at the same time creating a system of training that can pass down ‘knowledge’ to these farmers that will help them produce, at a lower ecological cost for a market that will grow once milk quality is improved, certainly should hit that ‘sweet spot’.

A milk producer shows us the book she brings to the collection centre to record her milk sales.
Milk is an essential source of cash in this subsistence economy.

So there you have an answer to the question ‘What do we do here in Nepal?’ The next question is already framed on your lips, ‘Why should VSO be interested in this type of involvement for its volunteers?’  The short answer could be that potentially this course of action will have several benefits. One is to offer these small holder farming families a way to reduce their poverty and thereby offer them more life choices. Life choices which could result in better education and health outcomes for these rural folk.

One producer proudly shows us her stock.

Potential beneficiaries of our work.