Dairy Industry Emerges in Cameroon with Help from Minnesota
This article by Jackie Crosby appeared in the
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
on Sunday, December 13, 1998.
JAKIRI, CAMEROON -- High in the rolling hills and volcanic mountains of
Cameroon's Northwest province, the Fulani dairy farmers live a life rich
in the traditions of their ancestors. For centuries their livelihood has
depended on their cattle and the freedom to move about to find grazing
Today, however, their ancient traditions are clashing with modern
demands. Overcrowded cities are expanding into the grassy highlands, and
years of overgrazing have destroyed much of the pastureland. Uneducated
and politically powerless, the Fulani can no longer survive by operating
outside the mainstream.
Their best hope for the future may come from a Minnesota-educated
Cameroonian who, with a boost from Arden Hills-based Land O'Lakes Inc.,
intends to put the Fulani at the forefront of a much-needed dairy industry
“We need to feed the country, pure and simple,” said Lawrence Bayenah
Shang, 40, who earned an economics degree from the University of Minnesota
“We don't have the resources to buy the imports, so we have to build on
what we have. The Fulani have the cattle, and they have the customs and
traditions that have stood the test of time. We're trying to modernize
those traditions and make them relevant in an economic context.”
For nearly a decade, Shang has been consumed with his plan to harness
the Fulani's expertise in cattle into a viable dairy business.
Cameroon's population of 14.6 million is increasing by more than 3
percent a year, according to the World Bank, but locally produced dairy
products currently meet less than 30 percent of demand.
Shang's challenge is to transform the Fulani's milk-making from a
home-based task handled by families into an organized, commercial
But moving from cottage to factory hasn't been easy. Cameroon lacks
infrastructure to support businesses of any kind. Unpaved mountain roads
often are impassable, especially during the long rainy season. The
nation's banks are notoriously mismanaged, and political instability has
hampered many foreign aid programs designed to spur business
Building the foundation
Shang's destiny as a Minnesota student was sealed when his father,
who worked for Cameroon's Ministry of Agriculture, met Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey
while on government business in Minnesota in the late 1960s.
Solomon Shang was so impressed with Humphrey that he would consider
no other school for his oldest son's education.
While studying in the Twin Cities, Lawrence Shang made an important
connection with executives at Land O'Lakes, who saw potential for
developing a dairy industry in Cameroon.
In 1990, Shang began building the foundation. He organized about 200
Fulani herders in the Northwest province into a cooperative and persuaded
Land O'Lakes to help teach them modern dairy techniques.
In the traditional Fulani society of this region, men and women have
distinct roles. Women handle the milking duties, and men manage the herds
and buy and sell cows.
With a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID), Land O'Lakes brought 10 cooperative members to Minnesota and
Wisconsin in 1991 and 1992. The men studied artificial insemination to
crossbreed better meat and dairy cows. The women learned techniques to
make milk cleaner and safer for their families. The payoff was
“Our milk stays fresh for one to two days now in room temperature,”
said Ma´ro Daaso, a cooperative member. “Children are now drinking milk
and have less stomach problems. We have better marketability and more
money for our families.”
In the early '90s, the cooperative made progress. In-country visits
from Land O'Lakes member farmers helped teach more than 100 women how to
improve milk quality, and the first Holstein crossbreeds were being raised
in Fulani settlements.
“Land O'Lakes did more for democracy than anything a government could
ever do,” Shang said. “They came in here and gave power to the people.
They gave us skills to help ourselves.”
In 1995, the co-op hit a roadblock. USAID shut down its office to
protest voter fraud in President Paul Biya's reelection campaign. With the
pullout went money and support from Land O'Lakes and the U.S.
Today, the cooperative is in a holding pattern. Piles of gravel and
concrete blocks sit alongside the foundation of a building that was to be
the centerpiece of the cooperative -- a dairy factory.
Located atop a mountain in Tadu village, the building was to be a place
not only to make milk, cheese and yogurt, but also a spot to gather for
meetings, attend training seminars and maintain a sense of community.
“When USAID left, the Fulanis needed to be reassured,” Shang said.
“They needed to know the cooperative wouldn't collapse, that we had the
resources in country to continue. With USAID, they saw money. They saw
concrete things happening. People were hopeful. All of a sudden it
“It seemed bad at the time; now I see it as a blessing. We had already
crossed a bridge, and we were forced to move forward on our own.”
Building on new skills
Like most Fulani, Mallam Ibraham Tandaye didn't finish high school, but
he is one of Shang's brightest students. He and his wife, Abiba Ma´muna,
were among the co-op members who traveled to the Midwest for training.
They returned to their home in Tadu to teach other Fulani.
Along with a dozen other men, Tandaye has excelled at artificial
insemination. His success has allowed the cooperative to tread water in
the years since USAID pulled out.
Shang has engineered contracts with local businesses to hire the Fulani
to breed Holstein crossbreeds. With semen from Wisconsin-based 21st
Century Genetics, the Holstein crossbreeds mature twice as fast as local
animals and are worth more on the market because they're bigger, meatier
and better suited to milking.
“No one in this region can touch the Fulani when it comes to artificial
insemination,” Shang said. “The Fulani live with their cattle. They see
and understand subtleties that no one else can see.”
The Fulani women, who as the milk handlers in the family stand to gain
the most economically if the dairy factory gets built, also have benefited
from membership in the cooperative.
With a grant Shang helped them get from the Global Women's Fund, the
women have formed a mini-cooperative to buy supplies such as kerosene,
soap and cooking oil. By pooling resources, the women have access to these
staples during times when they can't make much money selling milk and
“The fact that the cooperative is still going at all is a testimonial
to Lawrence,” said Martha Cashman, vice president for international
development at Land O'Lakes.
“This is the end of the line for the Fulani,” Shang said. “If something
isn't done, it'll be once upon a time. The cattle may still be here, but
they'll belong to someone else. And what will be lost is the traditional
knowledge, brought with them across the Sahara. We just hope there's a
once upon a time and a happily ever after.”