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Notes On Dairy Goats and Artisan Cheese Production in Central Africa

D. de Treville.  Forthcoming in :  NEWSLETTER OF THE SOCIETY OF DAIRY TECHNOLOGY, Cumbria, United Kingdom

Dairy Animals & Traditional Dairy Production in Central Africa –A  Brief Background

Cattle and goats are important components of small farm agriculture in Burundi, Rwanda and the eastern Congo.  Tradition has it that ethnic Hutu agriculturalists were the first migrants into the area, many hundreds of years ago.  Of West African Bantu origin, Hutu groups brought with them the Guinean strain of West African Dwarf goats.  Over hundreds of years, these goats have evolved into a taller, but still meat-based breed that is known as the Central African Goat.

Zebu bull downtown
Zebu bull in downtown Kinshasa, Rwanda- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

CAG doe & buckling
A Central African Doe & Her Buckling

In the Seventeenth Century, groups of Nilotic tribesmen from the Northeast of Africa are said to have gradually penetrated into the central African Highlands of Burundi, Rwanda and eastern Congo.  Known as Tutsi, these cattle-raising pastoralists brought their zebu cattle with them.

Zebu cattle have always been important sources of milk and  meat.  Although rich in fat, zebu milk was usually skimmed of its cream, which was given to other livestock and sometimes coagulated to use in cooking.  Because the local meat goat had poor milk production goat milk was not a part of local diets until the introduction of dairy goat breeds in the 20th Century .

Origins & Current Status of Cheese Production

Cheese production appears to have been  introduced to the central African region by Italian and Belgian missionaries.  Although exact dates are unclear, this certainly occurred in Burundi and Rwanda by the time the Belgians took over the colony from the Germans in 1916.  After that time, increasing numbers of Belgians and other foreign nationals immigrated into the area in order to follow government, military or commercial interests.  Hence, cheese production went to supply the growing international communities.  Initial production was established in the central highlands of Burundi-Rwanda, where the climate is far more moderate than along the coastal areas of Lake Tanganyika.   


Belgians arrive in Burundi 1916
Arrival of Belgians in Burundi in 1916, following the defeat of the Germans in WWI when their central African colonies were given over to the Belgians to administer
- Collart et Célis

Bugenyuzi Cheese
Charcoal Stoves
Due to tuberculosis, milk is always boiled.  This cheese kitchen uses large charcoal stoves

Today in Burundi, cheese production continues to be organized by missionary groups, including the 'The Little Apostles of Jesus', who built an artisan cheese production center at Mutoi, in central Burundi.  They later developed a similar  cheese center in the neighboring province of Karuzi. 

Both of these installations rely on the purchase of cow milk from surrounding farms, and have also helped to improve dairy cattle farming in their areas.  However, with the civil war of 1993 and ensuing decade of unrest, the great majority of cattle were lost.  While cheese production has continued, it has been on a much reduced scale.

-Bugenyuzi Cheese-
Individual Pressing
One of the stages of cheese pressing at theBugenyuzi cheese facility

-Bugenyuzi-Cheese Room
Cheese room at the Bugeyuzi cheese facility

Several artisan cheese producers – both private and mission-based – were also established to the west of Burundi, in the eastern Congo highlands, some decades ago.  In spite of civil war and unsettled conditions, several of these producers continue today.  In fact, some of the best cheese of central Africa comes from this area and can be found in the markets of Bujumbura – the capital of Burundi.

In the late 1970's, the most ambitious artisan cheese production scheme of central Africa was established by the German development organization GTZ in the north of Burundi, in Ngozi Province.  The project aimed to establish small farmer dairy goat husbandry by importing German Alpine does and bucks and building  an artisan cheese production facility.  For over two decades GTZ worked with Burundian counterparts to establish small farmer dairy goat associations to whom bucks were supplied for crossbreeding with the local goat so that an improved dairy goat breed could be developed.  These small farmers sold their goat  -as well as cow milk to the scheme at guaranteed prices, and the milk was then processed into several different kinds of cheese.

Ngozi Farmer
 Cattle 0-Grazing
Cattle whose milk is sold for cheese production at Ngozi are often 0-grazed and fed by cut-&-carry fodder grasses


Ngozi Farmer2 & Goats
Farmer-to-farmer field visit to a dairy goat farmer who sells milk to the Ngozi cheese project

The GTZ project faltered with the civil war and the departure of German technical assistance.  Although cheese production was continued on a much reduced scale, key supplies, technical training, and replacement animals could not be brought into the country and by 2000 remaining animals in the area were considered  highly inbred.

Last year, the scheme was converted into a private enterprise with assistance from the European Union.  124 Saanen and Toggenburg have been imported, staff are being trained, and cheese production is again on the increase.  The next phase will be working intensively with farmer goat associations to improve goat husbandry and milk production.


Ngozi Caprin Toggs & Saanans
Recently-imported Toggs &  Saanens by the Ngozi project

Ngozi Weanlings & Exterior Mangers
First crop of weanlings born at the Ngozi project.  Bucks will go to small farmer dairy goat associations

Artisan cheese production at Ngozi is similar to that found elsewhere in central Africa and is totally independent of continued electrical supply.  Milk pasteurization takes place over wood or charcoal stoves, pressing is accomplished with the use of different sizes of stone  tiles and concrete weights and using locally, hand-made  wooden molds.  Some of the artisan producers have constructed cheese caves but others only produce cheese seasonally, during the cool weather.


Cheese Pressing Ngozi
Cheese pressing at Ngozi using light weights

Cheese Room Ngozi
The cheese cave at Ngozi is about 20 feet underground

Cheese Pressing Ngozi Stones
Cheese pressing at Ngozi using cement weights that have been specially made

Input & Distribution Systems

Rennet, thermometers, and other supplies and equipment are not locally available.  Artisan producers rely primarily on personal contacts to buy such items outside of the country and hand-carry them in.  By consequence, shortages sometimes persist for long periods and cheese production suffers accordingly.

Animals are milked once or twice daily into plastic buckets and the milk is first skimmed of cream and then delivered to intermediary merchants, cheese producers, or other distributors by foot or bike.  There are no milk cooling or regular delivery systems in the region.

Marketing of milk and cheese relies primarily on farmer-organized deliveries into urban centers, where it is hawked in markets or sold on to a few butchery and small grocery outlets.

VJ & Improved Dairy Cow-Milk
An improved dairy cow that has just been milked into the blue, plastic bucket

Artisan cheese made in Burundi and in the Eastern Congo  for sale at the 'Boucherie Nouvelle' in Bujumbura, Burundi.  This is the best butchery in the country, making its own olives, feta, and a variety of sausages and other delicatessen items. – in addition to selling central African artisan cheeses

Problems & Opportunities

Although cheese is not a part of traditional cuisine, populations in urban areas are increasingly turning to dairy products as a good source of protein.  As well, with the return of several 100,000 refugees to Burundi and the demobilization of ex-rebels and military following the signing of a peace accord, the dairy sector can provide urgently needed income to small farmers and artisan producers. 

Major difficulties in meeting these demands for cheese producers include:

  • Lack of technical training & information
  • Lack of equipment and supplies
  • Lack of  price information
  • Lack of transport and communication
  • Lack of market information & competitive  marketing channels

Difficulties facing dairy farmers are similar to those  above, but pertain to:

  • Dairy animal husbandry
  • Handling of milk
  • Sales of milk

Strategy of the Burundi Goat Rehabilitation Project

The 'Heart of Africa Goat Rehabilitation Project' in Burundi is working to strengthen small farmer goat producer associations and is helping to develop sustainable, market-based goat enterprises based on meat, dairy and byproducts.  Key Activities include crossbreeding and herd improvement and restocking with Boer meat goats and Alpine dairy goats, which are crossbred to local Central African Goats through the third generation.

The project also includes training of small farmers and animal technicians, as well as assessments of different aspects of the goat sector.  Activities are jointly sponsored by two humanitarian organizations: Alliance Burundaise pour la Coopération et le Développement & Austrian Help Program, with support provided by international donors and private donations.

Serge with alpine
Project foundation herd used in the crossbreeding program

For more information  Contact Project Director

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