Of Milk, Meat and Markets: The Next Step Out of Poverty? Blog Written By: Matthew Pritchard, Team Leader, CLP.
After far too long stuck behind my desk in RDA’s (admittedly lovely) campus just outside Bogra, I recently managed to get out on a site visit to have a look at the Chars Livelihoods Programme’s markets projects.
We’re running two separate but complementary markets-based initiatives, one of which focuses on milk, the other aims to make the meat markets work better for the poor. The projects also aim to support the activities of Chars Business Centres and other market actors such as Chars Inputs Dealers (CBCs and CIDs – you can’t escape acronyms in development work!).
The logic behind a Livelihoods Programme supporting market projects is quite simple. For small-scale cattle owners and agriculturalists, access to markets helps them sell their produce and buy necessary inputs. This makes their livelihood more sustainable, secure and profitable. It also helps create a ‘virtuous circle’ of development, because it helps the buyers and input suppliers find new customers.
Although the evolution of our markets projects could be the subject of several other blog posts, it’s fair to say that it’s had its ups and downs. However, it seems to have steadied and the signs are that good progress is being made. I wanted to get out into the chars and market places myself to see what was happening on the ground. So, early in December, I set out with some colleagues to visit chars Maizhbari and Laxmikola in Sariakandi, Bogra District.
The first sight that met my eyes was a great start to the day: nearly 80 women had assembled in the market place, each with a bucket of milk. A milk collection point had been started by two ‘goalas’ (milk collectors) a few months ago, and it has taken off.
The goalas were working hard, testing the water content of the milk, measuring it out into the collection churns and then making careful notes about the amounts in their ledger so they can pay the milk producers each week.
Taking a brief break, Bulbul Ahmed told us that, before the collection centre, they would struggle to collect 80 litres of milk per day. But today they had at least 260 litres to take to the mainland. It made their life much easier too – instead of having to carry heavy churns around to producers, they just turn up at the market with the empties and leave when they’re full.
This isn’t just a one-way advantage, either. For the producers it introduces stability and certainty, two things any businessperson appreciates. These days the producers know exactly when to milk and where to go to sell it. No more will a goala turn up only after their milk has gone sour; or maybe not turn up at all.
Another thing struck me forcefully as I chatted to the women about their milk yields: the huge advantage that ‘improved’ cattle give in the milk production process. Improved cattle are those that have been cross-bred, usually with a mix of a local breed (for hardiness and adaptation to local environments) and an ‘exotic’ breed from outside the country, usually chosen for specific advantages such as high milk yields, or higher fat content.
One lady was waiting patiently with her bucket, which was nearly full; it probably contained about five litres of milk. I asked her how many cattle she owned, thinking she’d say two or even three. Local cows are known for their hardiness, but they don’t produce huge milk yields under traditional management regimes. “Only one cow,” she said. “But it’s a cross-breed.”
The lady next to her told me that she also had only one cow, but that it was an unimproved local breed. She had only about one and a half litres in her bucket.
Although the experts on CLP had told me this kind of thing many times, seeing the actual results there in the buckets in front of me really brought it home: an improved animal could double or even triple yields, and therefore income. Of course, they are more expensive to buy, need a bit better management and proper nutrition, which adds some costs. But nevertheless, the equation was absolutely clear: cross-breed = better income.
Later on in the day, we visited a milk collection centre set up by Pran, one of the big players in the milk market. Their collection centre, just outside Bogra, can handle over 3,000 litres per day. When we arrived, they proudly showed us one bulk collection tank, brimming full, nearly 2,500 litres of milk, tested and ready to go for processing. Goalas that worked CLP areas were regularly bringing in around 500 litres per day, a great sign of a healthy business.
We estimated that, with this centre and some other links to the formal milk sector, CLP producers are supplying anywhere between 1200 and 1500 litres per day to a range of big producers.
We also had a chat to Emdadul Hoque, a Chars Inputs Dealer (CID). His small shop was stacked high with seeds, ready feed, fertiliser, various livestock medicines and supplements – many of the things a small producer needs to raise healthy, productive livestock on the chars.
He has been doing this kind of work for years and so knows the trade backwards, and has big plans. “I sell about four tons of ready feed per month,” he told me. “But if I can get to ten tons, I can set up as a dealer. I’m already looking for sub-dealers that can help me get to ten tons per month and more.” There’s no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit here!
At the Chars Business Centre, the same go-ahead attitude prevails. The CBC President, Mr Belal Hossain, enthusiastically explained how they were identifying key constraints to business and working towards strategies to overcome them. A key constraint is access to finance: the CBC has started a bank account and is beginning a business savings and loans group. They want to invest in things like a milk chilling plant, but that kind of investment will have to wait – it’s very capital-intensive.
In the meanwhile, producers in the CBC’s area are benefiting from the advice and linkages that it brings. Mrs Chomboli Begum explained how, in days gone past, they’d be lucky to sell one bull per year for meat. But now, with a steady supply of fodder from their own land, they feed up and sell many more. Last year, they proudly told me, they sold six animals, showing us records of a profit around Tk 100,000. A touch of healthy actuarial caution was required, however, as it looked like they hadn’t included all costs in their calculations. Even so, the transformation in their approach and livelihood was astounding.
But the day, inevitably, wasn’t only about the good things. Several constraints and challenges were fairly obvious. Although the milk collection point was obviously a fantastic step forward for everyone, the issue of milk hygiene and handling hasn’t yet been addressed. The open buckets used by the producers allow dirt, insects and other contaminants to enter. Transport to the mainland is also still a major constraint; combined with the contamination, I wondered about spoilage. Although the goalas and producers were upbeat, their optimism and low reports weren’t entirely believable. I suspect spoilage is probably higher than they let on.
Similarly, not all producers that we saw were following 100% improved livestock rearing practices. Of course there will be variations amongst producers, some of whom will be more committed than others. But still, there is room for improvement.
And a major constraint is also the genetic make-up of most of the herd: without improved animals, yields of either milk or meat will be hard to push upwards. But this requires more money and expertise; and as we saw earlier, access to finance is a major constraint. And with the geographical isolation, generally-poor infrastructure and constant danger of flooding or erosion by the rivers, the overall environment is still a relatively difficult one for business people. This means that efforts to ensure the sustainability of CBCs and Livestock / Milk Business Groups will be essential over the next 14 months.
But nevertheless, as we wrapped up our day and shook the dust of the chars from our shoes, it was abundantly clear to me that much progress has been made. Producers’ yields are going up, energetic entrepreneurs are starting to think about the journey ahead, and the ‘big players’ in Bangladesh’s dairy sector are starting to take notice.
It’s not the end of the journey by any stretch of the imagination, but with a little help from CLP, the first few steps have been successfully navigated and the way ahead looks increasingly clear: better incomes and a better chance of sustainable livelihoods for many, many people. And that’s something of which CLP and the participants can be justifiably proud.
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