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Dairy Industry Emerges in Cameroon with Help from Minnesota

This article by Jackie Crosby appeared in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune on Sunday, December 13, 1998.

JAKIRI, CAMEROON -- High in the rolling hills and volcanic mountains of Cameroon's Northwest province, the Fulani dairy farmers live a life rich in the traditions of their ancestors. For centuries their livelihood has depended on their cattle and the freedom to move about to find grazing land.

Today, however, their ancient traditions are clashing with modern demands. Overcrowded cities are expanding into the grassy highlands, and years of overgrazing have destroyed much of the pastureland. Uneducated and politically powerless, the Fulani can no longer survive by operating outside the mainstream.

A typical Fulani settlement in the Northwestern highlands

Their best hope for the future may come from a Minnesota-educated Cameroonian who, with a boost from Arden Hills-based Land O'Lakes Inc., intends to put the Fulani at the forefront of a much-needed dairy industry in Cameroon.

“We need to feed the country, pure and simple,” said Lawrence Bayenah Shang, 40, who earned an economics degree from the University of Minnesota in 1985.

“We don't have the resources to buy the imports, so we have to build on what we have. The Fulani have the cattle, and they have the customs and traditions that have stood the test of time. We're trying to modernize those traditions and make them relevant in an economic context.”

For nearly a decade, Shang has been consumed with his plan to harness the Fulani's expertise in cattle into a viable dairy business.

Jeynabou Ije makes butter in a calabash.

Cameroon's population of 14.6 million is increasing by more than 3 percent a year, according to the World Bank, but locally produced dairy products currently meet less than 30 percent of demand. Shang's challenge is to transform the Fulani's milk-making from a home-based task handled by families into an organized, commercial process.

But moving from cottage to factory hasn't been easy. Cameroon lacks infrastructure to support businesses of any kind. Unpaved mountain roads often are impassable, especially during the long rainy season. The nation's banks are notoriously mismanaged, and political instability has hampered many foreign aid programs designed to spur business development.

Building the foundation

Shang's destiny as a Minnesota student was sealed when his father, who worked for Cameroon's Ministry of Agriculture, met Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey while on government business in Minnesota in the late 1960s. Solomon Shang was so impressed with Humphrey that he would consider no other school for his oldest son's education.

Aysatu Ije wakes at dawn to milk her family's cows.

While studying in the Twin Cities, Lawrence Shang made an important connection with executives at Land O'Lakes, who saw potential for developing a dairy industry in Cameroon.

In 1990, Shang began building the foundation. He organized about 200 Fulani herders in the Northwest province into a cooperative and persuaded Land O'Lakes to help teach them modern dairy techniques.

In the traditional Fulani society of this region, men and women have distinct roles. Women handle the milking duties, and men manage the herds and buy and sell cows.

With a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Land O'Lakes brought 10 cooperative members to Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1991 and 1992. The men studied artificial insemination to crossbreed better meat and dairy cows. The women learned techniques to make milk cleaner and safer for their families. The payoff was immediate.

“Our milk stays fresh for one to two days now in room temperature,” said Ma´ro Daaso, a cooperative member. “Children are now drinking milk and have less stomach problems. We have better marketability and more money for our families.”

Shang talks about a Holstein crossbreed with Fulani herder Adamu Isa Sheni.

In the early '90s, the cooperative made progress. In-country visits from Land O'Lakes member farmers helped teach more than 100 women how to improve milk quality, and the first Holstein crossbreeds were being raised in Fulani settlements.

“Land O'Lakes did more for democracy than anything a government could ever do,” Shang said. “They came in here and gave power to the people. They gave us skills to help ourselves.”

In 1995, the co-op hit a roadblock. USAID shut down its office to protest voter fraud in President Paul Biya's reelection campaign. With the pullout went money and support from Land O'Lakes and the U.S. government.

Today, the cooperative is in a holding pattern. Piles of gravel and concrete blocks sit alongside the foundation of a building that was to be the centerpiece of the cooperative -- a dairy factory.

Shang surveys the foundation of the unfinished dairy factory in Tadu village

Located atop a mountain in Tadu village, the building was to be a place not only to make milk, cheese and yogurt, but also a spot to gather for meetings, attend training seminars and maintain a sense of community.

“When USAID left, the Fulanis needed to be reassured,” Shang said. “They needed to know the cooperative wouldn't collapse, that we had the resources in country to continue. With USAID, they saw money. They saw concrete things happening. People were hopeful. All of a sudden it stopped.”

“It seemed bad at the time; now I see it as a blessing. We had already crossed a bridge, and we were forced to move forward on our own.”

Building on new skills

Like most Fulani, Mallam Ibraham Tandaye didn't finish high school, but he is one of Shang's brightest students. He and his wife, Abiba Ma´muna, were among the co-op members who traveled to the Midwest for training. They returned to their home in Tadu to teach other Fulani.

Along with a dozen other men, Tandaye has excelled at artificial insemination. His success has allowed the cooperative to tread water in the years since USAID pulled out.

Shang has engineered contracts with local businesses to hire the Fulani to breed Holstein crossbreeds. With semen from Wisconsin-based 21st Century Genetics, the Holstein crossbreeds mature twice as fast as local animals and are worth more on the market because they're bigger, meatier and better suited to milking.

Lawrence Shang reviews artificial insemination records with Fulani Adamu Isa Sheni.

“No one in this region can touch the Fulani when it comes to artificial insemination,” Shang said. “The Fulani live with their cattle. They see and understand subtleties that no one else can see.”

The Fulani women, who as the milk handlers in the family stand to gain the most economically if the dairy factory gets built, also have benefited from membership in the cooperative.

With a grant Shang helped them get from the Global Women's Fund, the women have formed a mini-cooperative to buy supplies such as kerosene, soap and cooking oil. By pooling resources, the women have access to these staples during times when they can't make much money selling milk and butter.

“The fact that the cooperative is still going at all is a testimonial to Lawrence,” said Martha Cashman, vice president for international development at Land O'Lakes.

“This is the end of the line for the Fulani,” Shang said. “If something isn't done, it'll be once upon a time. The cattle may still be here, but they'll belong to someone else. And what will be lost is the traditional knowledge, brought with them across the Sahara. We just hope there's a once upon a time and a happily ever after.”

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