June 8, 2006: Halimata Bâ slowly stirs a
giant vat of creamy milk as it roils and churns atop a gas stove.
Halimata is the treasurer of the Fedde Rewbe Fulbe Aynaabe (FRFA),
loosely translated from the Pulaar language as the Fulani Herders
Women’s Association. The FRFA is one of many women’s
cooperatives in Senegal generating income from value-added transformation
of an agricultural product.
After the milk is pasteurized, it is sealed in small plastic packets,
emblazoned with the group’s name and an illustration of a
corpulent Holstein cow grazing a green pasture, and the words “Kosam
Moyyam”—"quality milk". While the picture
of the cow hardly represents the bony, humped Zebu cows that actually
graze the sparse grasses of the jeeri, Senegal’s northeastern
savanna, it succeeds in lending the product a professional air.
The FRFA is based in Ourossogui, a dusty crossroads town on the
highway connecting the far northeastern Matam region to the more
populous west coast. The village is about 10 miles south of the
town of Matam. The vast majority in this part of Senegal are Halpulaar
or Pulaar speakers, called Fulani in English or Peulh in French.
Renowned for their business savvy in West Africa’s urban areas,
many Halpulaar continue to live as nomadic pastoralists, following
the rains and greening grasslands with their large herds of cattle,
goats and sheep. Halpulaar women traditionally sell fresh or curdled
milk in rural markets or door to door. The FRFA has carried on that
legacy, but in an inspiring manner that capitalizes on cooperation.
The FRFA was founded in 1998 by 52 women with a vision of increasing
economic opportunities for themselves. A year later, the group approached
PRODAM (Project for the Agricultural Development of the Department
of Matam), a non-governmental organization, in search of ideas.
PRODAM sponsored two group members’ visit to a similar women’s
group in Mali, the next nation to the east across the Senegal River.
Many of the Malian group’s members were also Fulani, but spoke
Fulfulde, a variant of Pulaar. “They could understand us,
but we couldn’t understand them!” laughs Habi Sow, the
group’s secretary general. The Malian group trained the visiting
FRFA members in organizational skills and revenue-generating activities
such as soap-making and painting.
“That visit gave us a lot of ideas,” Habi adds. Upon
their return to Ourossogui, the members rallied together to identify
their needs. First-thing-first, they built a classroom and found
a teacher to lead classes in Pulaar literacy. These were held in
conjunction with classes in financial management skills.
Two years ago, the FRFA embarked on its milk-production project
after hearing about the success of a similar project in the Kolda
region to the south. As in Matam and Mali, Fulani herders play a
significant role in the agriculture of the south. The FRFA’s
president and secretary general accompanied four Fulani herders
and a veterinarian to a five-day training workshop there to learn
how to make the traditional activity of milk production profitable.
Soon after, PRODAM provided the group with the necessary equipment
and goods to get started—a refrigerator, three small gas stoves,
vats, milk tanks, a thermometer, and 15,000 empty sacks with the
picture of the Holstein. The group provided local herders with animal
feed to supplement the cows’ traditional diet of wild savanna
grasses. This boosted production. Once they’ve milked the
cows, the herders bring the milk by bicycles or donkey carts for
transportation into Ourossogui, which may be up to 20 miles away.
In exchange for the feed (which augments milk production considerably)
from the co-op, the herders provide the group with milk.
The first day, the women received about 3.5 gallons of milk. By
the second month, up to 21 gallons per day were coming in. “We
couldn’t sell it all, we lost a lot,” Habi Sow remembers.
They’re now processing between 5 to 7.5 gallons daily. “We
got 26 liters [about 7 gallons] in this morning,” she reported,
illustrating the co-op’s adjustment to fit its current marketing
Once the milk arrives, the group pasteurizes it in giant cooking
pots on a gas stove. Once it cools, they either package it as milk,
or let it curdle to become lait caillé (liquidy sour cream),
which they sell either sweetened or plain. They also make butter.
Most sales are local: customers either come in to the cooperative,
or the packages are taken to small shops that line the neem-shaded
streets in nearby Matam.
While the milk sells for a reasonable price— roughly 50 to
70 cents for a half-liter [about 1 pint] packet, sales provide FRFA
enough revenue to pay the handful of women workers about $20 to
$30 per month. “That kind of income helps the family out a
lot,” says Habi.
The coop is also interested in expanding its efforts to include
dried milk production. Outside of milk processing, the group is
interested in offering micro-credit loans and small business capacity
building workshops to help improve petite commerce on the Mauritanian
side of the river. “AIDS education is also very important,”
another women adds.
The FRFA project, while modest, provides an inspirational model
for cooperative enterprise to women through the region. In addition,
its activities help to show young people a wider range of economic
opportunity. When asked if their daughters have been inspired, one
of the women in the group says, “Yes, it is often our daughters
who come to help. They are already eager to learn.”