Refusing to be cowed, Somali opens country's first dairy

Monday August 06 2018

Workers are pictured at Som milk farm in the outskirts of Mogadishu on July 13, 2018. AFP PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB


Starting a dairy in Mogadishu was not an obvious choice: Islamist bombs go off with startling regularity, electricity is patchy and expensive and most Somalis don't even drink fresh cow's milk.

But Abdulkadir Mohamed Salad, 40, who spent most of his life as a refugee in Britain where he worked for a dairy, is convinced the business can work in his home country, where cattle abound yet tonnes of powdered milk are imported every year.

"It is very difficult to invest in a hostile environment like Somalia in the first place and secondly, people here know very little about the dairy business," Salad told AFP at his small factory, where a stainless steel machine pumped milk into blue sachets.

As a result of unsanitary handling of milk in the past, many in the country believe that cow's milk is dangerous for their health and prefer to drink camel milk or powdered milk.

Salad left his country shortly after the fall of president Siad Barre's military regime in 1991 which plunged Somalia into civil war and anarchy, destroying state institutions and the economy.

He worked as a taxi driver before getting a job at a dairy in Leicester. His wife and three children remained behind in the United Kingdom as he returned to try and start a business in his home country.


Wasted resources

Surprised by the amount of cattle in the country, and the fact that aside from a few farmers selling raw, untreated milk, there was no proper factory treating the product, he and two colleagues decided to set up their own, called Irman Dairy, in 2017.

"Livestock is one of the economic resources of Somalia ... but tonnes of powdered milk are imported every year while our resources are wasted here, and few are benefiting," said Salad.


A worker looks into a tank at the Irman milk factory in the outskirts of Mogadishu. The milk factory startup that was established by some local businessmen in Somalia for the first time in 27 years to restore quality of the country’s cows dairy milk products and cover the needs of their community. AFP PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB

Located in southern Mogadishu, Irman has to contend with the constant security challenges in the capital, which affects both production and distribution.

The city is hit by regular car and suicide bombings by the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab Islamist group which has been fighting to overthrow the government for over a decade.

Sometimes their small distribution van, brightly painted with a giant cow on the side, returns without having delivered anything, due to road closures when there is an attack or security concerns.

"There are days when we don't start the factory because of the security situation in town, this affects our business since we have staff and need to pay their salaries and other administration costs," said Salad.

"The production capacity of our factory is 10,000 litres per day, but we can only produce 2,000 litres a day currently because of constraints, including the lack of a market," he said.

The factory's owners have on several occasions considered throwing in the towel, especially because of the high cost of electricity.

However, this problem was solved when the company received a donation of a solar energy system under a US-funded project to encourage entrepreneurship.

"We are very lucky that we got the solar system to run the factory now, otherwise we could have closed it down because energy is big issue here," said Salad.


A worker prepares dairy products at the Irman milk factory. AFP PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB

'I really like it'

Irman distributes to various supermarkets in the city, selling each 500-millilitre sachet of milk for one dollar.

"Some members in my family think fresh cow milk is not good for your health and they instead consume powdered milk," said Abdirahman Ali, who was buying a sachet at a local supermarket.

"But for the past few months I have been using the milk produced by Irman Dairy and I really like it, now my whole family has grown to like it."

Sayid Ali, who owns a supermarket in Mogadishu said he was happy to finally have locally produced milk on his shelves.

"We used to sell milk from various brands imported from outside the country but now we also have Irman Dairy produced locally, the number of people who are interested is also increasing," he said.


A man feeds a young calf at the Som milk farm. AFP PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB

Despite being one of the most dangerous capitals in the world, new businesses have been popping up all over Mogadishu in recent years with both local traders and members of the diaspora opening supermarkets and small factories.

Most commodities are imported.

"The government needs to encourage local production otherwise there will not be local investors like the Irman Dairy, my family is now using this fresh milk which I know is coming from our local cows," said Omar Ahmed, a Somali politician.