July 13, 2017
Eritrea – that little-known desertified country sitting in the Horn of Africa – remains mysterious to Westerners. However, its dairy sector is on a promising path to expansion.
Mother and son team, Abraham Michael Tseggai and Azieb Tseggay Weldetensaie, run the best dairy farm in the country – which has a population comparable to Ireland’s at around five million.
The pair were in Dublin recently to meet with representatives from the farming community through a charitable venture run by Vita – an Irish development partner – and Teagasc. AgriLand visited Abraham and Azieb at Vita’s offices in Dublin city centre to hear their story.
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that the country’s capital, Asmara, has just been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. It boasts a rich cultural history and Italian-style architecture.
Eritrea was colonised by the Italians in the late 1800s and it wasn’t until 1941 that Britain took colonial rule of the country. Just six years later, the country became part of a federation with Ethiopia, leading to a clash of cultures that is ongoing today. It became officially independent in 1993.
According to the World Bank, 65% of the population lives in rural areas and 80% depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. Rain-fed agriculture is the main economic activity, with more than two-thirds of the population employed in this sector.
Abraham and Azieb provide an optimistic view of Eritrea however, challenging preconceptions about the African nation.
“The climate is really good in our area; there is no frost and not too much heat either. The neighbouring Gulf countries will have temperatures around 38°,” Abraham explains.
His dairy farm is located just 27km from Asmara and sits in the Eritrean highlands. Temperatures there range from 10° to 25° all year round, with 11 months of sunshine.
The land is characterised by dry soil. Irrigation is employed to grow grass – there is groundwater. But we don’t rely on grass to feed our cows. Irish cows’ diets are 90% grass and 10% concentrate – our cows’ diets are the reverse – 90% concentrate and 10% grass.
Abraham and Azieb started out farming chickens. However, they were forced to change tack when bird flu hit the country, founding the dairy farm in 2009. They now have a herd of 133 cows – 61 are for milking and the rest are replacements.
The farm produces up to 700L of milk per day and collects around 3,000L to 4,000L from surrounding farms to produce cheese and set yoghurt in the family factory.
Their main market is the public and, given the country’s Italian background, cheese is an important ingredient in cooking. Abraham himself dines on Italian dishes about three days a week and traditional cuisine on another two.
Hotels and fast food restaurants in the city centre provide another major market for the dairy farmers, given the demand for pizza and lasagne. Typically, they deliver two weeks’ worth of supplies to these types of businesses. But another major source of business is the mining sector.
Gold mining is big in Eritrea and its workers have to get fed. Local mining companies have about 6,000 employees – all of whom rely on milk products. The companies come direct to the farm to collect supplies. But despite all these markets, farm profits are constrained by national policy.
Abraham explains: “The Eritrean government places a 20% limit on margins. That’s not such an issue for us; our farm typically makes a margin between 7% and 9% and turnover is high.”
The farm faces competition from three to four other companies working in dairy. “Competitiveness revolves around quality and price,” Abraham says. “This is a small, family-owned business. Without losing money, we cannot compete at the lowest price – our production costs would be too high.”
Abraham supports his family of five children from the farm. He has four daughters – the eldest of whom is 11-years-old – and a one-and-a-half-year-old son. Although in Ireland it is typical for a son to take over the running of the family farm, Abraham is hopeful his daughters will take up the duty when the time comes.
The family farm employs about 30 labourers. As subsistence farmers, they have a good knowledge and skillset. When it comes to meat however, they would have to be trained. There are only about three companies that deal in meat. Moreover, workers’ theory can be really good but their practical application can be limited.
“The dairy industry, under a modern design, is new in Eritrea,” Abraham explains. “People are lacking the know-how. Irish farmers have Teagasc but there is no equivalent in Eritrea.” Like many Eritreans, the farmer gained his expertise by studying – via distance learning – in the Netherlands.
Eritrean Women In Farming
As Chairwoman of the Eritrean Women’s Agriculture Network, Azieb is a model for female farmers – particularly in light of the farm’s switch from chickens to dairy.
The group has 103 members nationwide, with 33 participants active in Azieb’s local region. The local group meets monthly, while the national cohort gets together quarterly.
They discuss all dimensions of farming, from poultry and dairy to flowers and mushrooms, Azieb explains. “Members of the organisation are fellow female farmers; some are interested in bee-keeping.
“We talk about what we did last month and what will do in the next. We take expert training too. The network is ultimately about knowledge-sharing,” she said.
The family is ambitious about expanding the business. It would like to extend its market into the city of Massawa, where temperatures can reach up to 38° in the hottest season. There are ample lands for farming in the surrounding areas however, and Abraham stresses that the cows are resilient.
In order to expand, the farm will need to invest in equipment. Abraham says: “We have been doing well with the machinery we have so far. But we will need additional machines to scale up and expand. We buy brand new because it is difficult to find expert technicians to fix any problems.”
The roads of Eritrea are decent and the dairy farm has so far proved a success. For Abraham, Azieb and the rest of the family, then, the future is full of opportunity and growth.