He devised a business plan that’s improved livelihoods in his native Senegal

Bagoré Bathily opened Senegal’s only fresh milk production company in 2007, capitalizing on the fact that 30 percent of the population lives off cattle rearing. Hundreds of cowherds have earned more income.

Amanda Fortier
Bagoré Bathily stands in front of the office in Dakar, Senegal, that serves the business he launched 10 years ago.

Like all veterinarians, Bagoré Bathily loves animals. But he never wanted to work in a clinic. The Franco-Senegalese, born in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, and vet-schooled in Belgium, was more interested in how healthy animals could boost food production and how that production could improve people’s livelihoods.

For 10 years now, the result is Dolima, Senegal’s second-largest dairy brand under the milk production company La Laiterie du Berger (LDB). It’s been a thriving social enterprise for some 500 Fulani families in the country’s northern region.

That might make it sound as though launching the enterprise was easy. It wasn’t.

“If we had known it wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t have done it,” Mr. Bathily says amusedly. “And had I known it would have taken this long to make this amount of money, I would have stopped.”

He’s joking. Or at least partly.

For sure, it’s been quite an odyssey for Bathily. With no formal business training, he at times found himself in over his head. Even now, a dispute over taxes is posing a major hurdle.

Bathily began thinking about issues related to Senegal’s food supply as a teen.

“At 16 or 18, I started realizing that there was this problem of food in this country and this question of how we were going to feed everyone,” he recalls from his office in Dakar, the shamrock-green walls pasted with stickers displaying the name Dolima, which means “give me more” in Wolof.

“This situation seemed so absurd,” he muses. “The milk market here is three times what it is in Europe, so it’s huge! It became a game for me: How could we manage to produce here what we also eat here?”

He eventually spent a long and difficult year drafting his business plan “alone in [his] room with [his] newborn daughter,” and he took another 12 months to build a factory in Senegal’s northern industrial town of Richard Toll. After raising 700 million CFA francs ($1.1 million), Bathily opened the country’s only fresh milk production company in 2007. It started with 200 cowherds and reached a peak of 800 in June 2016.

But managing the balance between social realities and business has been tough. “Laiterie is a very complicated project,” Bathily acknowledges. “Having few benchmarks for this type of business makes it even more difficult.”

Powdered versus fresh milk

Indeed, Senegal mostly relies on powdered milk instead of fresh milk, and it imports 90 percent of its powdered milk from Europe and New Zealand. That’s what every other dairy company uses to make its products.

“So this made me think, OK, if a company wants to buy milk, how can we help the local dairy farmers organize to supply this?” asks Bathily, his eyes brightening as if pondering the question for the first time.

It seemed a logical idea. There are more than 3 million cattle in Senegal, and some 30 percent of the population, or roughly 4 million people, live off cattle rearing. The Ferlo region, bordering the Senegal River and just across from Mauritania, is a prime area for the Fulani people, a nomadic pastoral population whose livelihoods depend largely on dairy production and sales. But this group is also among the most vulnerable in the country, subject to poverty, harsh living conditions in the Sahel, and the lack of access to sales markets.

“This area has everything in place to produce milk – there’s water and food – but it’s not used in the best way. It’s still used as it was 200 to 300 years ago,” Bathily says.

So Bathily went about devising a collection system in which his business would buy milk directly from the herders. The system had to provide appropriate supports for the herders, and it had to ensure quality standards for the milk.

Where the cattle are

About 25 miles outside Richard Toll, the barren landscape is a smattering of thorny acacia trees and spindly shrubs interspersed by groups of meandering goats and thatch-roofed mud huts. It’s the dry season now, and yet villagers are still here. Families can be seen huddled around small fires in the early morning, and young boys with colorful turbans are out herding their cows.

“In the past, these villagers wouldn’t be here,” says Ngaary Sow, a local Fulani and the milk collection logistics manager for LDB. “When the dry season came, all these families would go south where there’s more food for the cattle. Now since the collection started, we’ve seen a lot of changes here.... Their quality of life has changed. They’re sending their kids to schools, building bigger villages, getting access to water.... Dolima has been at the base of all this.”

As part of the collection, motorized wagons zip around local villages seven days a week. When a wagon arrives, groups of mostly women and young children come running, carrying churns of fresh milk that’s ready to be tested, filtered, and weighed. The collector must then take the milk to the factory, where more tests are conducted and the milk is pasteurized.

LDB pays 225 CFA francs (37 cents) per liter. “The herders have proven they are interested in working with us,” Bathily says. “They don’t make a ton – about 60,000 CFA francs ($98) on average every month – but this is already two or three times what they were making before.”

Ramata Ba is a Fulani cowherd with four children who supplies, on average, 10 liters (more than 2-1/2 gallons) of milk per day to LDB. She has found many advantages to working with the collection. “I am less tired and making more money,” she says, noting that although her children went to school before, now they can continue for the entire year. “[Joining this collective] has awakened me. I ... have made many new relations.”

One expert who has observed what Bathily’s business has accomplished is Tania Beard, project manager at Dalberg, a strategic advisory firm that specializes in international development.

“[LDB] is an inclusive business that is trying to make their core business inclusive of smallhold farmers,” she says. “LDB found a niche in the market that no one else occupies and is having a direct impact through knowledge generation, technical assistance, and direct-to-market access.”

A complication

However, one thing has brought Bathily much stress. Normally LDB would be able to take off a significant amount of value-added tax, but the government is reclaiming VAT from a side activity, in which LDB sells animal feed to the herders. That side activity effectively enables villagers to stop migrating every season. Bathily estimates that if this issue is not resolved, it will cost the business 50 million CFA francs ($82,000) per year. For the survival of the business, LDB has had to reduce its pool of 800 herders by nearly half.

“This situation means we are not as financially lucrative and we make much less money than a company that imports powdered milk and has its factory in Dakar,” says Bathily, adding that LDB’s revenue was 3 billion CFA francs ($4.9 million) in 2015 and 3.5 billion CFA francs in 2016. “The state needs money of course, but they need to think about what kind of development they really want.”

It could bring an end to the milk collection. Dolima products would then have to be made with powdered milk, and the Club Dolima brand – higher-end items especially for the expatriate and middle-class population in Dakar – would have to be discontinued.

“For me, it would be a failure if the collection stops,” Bathily admits candidly. “But it remains a good business. And it should continue with or without the collections. We have more than 250 employees, hundreds of thousands of clients.... But for the state to not have a solution to help one-third of its population earn money ... this is very serious.... We’re simply trying to do our part.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that work with people in developing areas to boost their livelihoods:

Global Partners for Development is dedicated to empowering communities in East Africa so they can achieve sustainable improvements in education and other areas. Take action: Donate funds to a program that works with women’s groups and gives them cows.

World Food Program USA builds support and resources for the United Nations World Food Program, the globe’s largest hunger relief organization. Take action: Help pay for a project in which smallholder farmers learn about good techniques.

Lambi Fund of Haiti aims to strengthen civil society in Haiti, which the organization sees as a necessary foundation for democracy and development. Take action: Support sustainable agriculture and bolster food security.

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