Addressing Africa’s challenges with whey

The African continent faces many challenges in terms of its food supply. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the UN estimates that more than one third of children are stunted – a serious condition most often resulting from nutritional deficiencies.

Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen
Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen General Secretary of DanChurchAid (DCA)
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Published: Jun. 28. 2017


The African continent faces many challenges in terms of its food supply. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the UN estimates that more than one third of children are stunted – a serious condition most often resulting from nutritional deficiencies. Stunting is evident in low birth weight, growth retardation, impaired cognitive development and limited social activity. It’s a generational problem, too, affecting hopes for a better future in regions that are already being held back by the effects of successive armed conflicts. But can whey play a role in addressing such challenges? And if so, how?

For young families living on just a few dollars a day in such parts of the world, the task of providing affordable yet nourishing food is a daily struggle. And this is a problem that we hope whey, along with other ingredients and with the assistance of the GAIN Nordic Partnership, may be able to help alleviate. Why whey? Because its nutritional content, particularly the quality of its protein, is high. And because a real opportunity exists for turning the whey currently being wasted in Africa into nutritious food for local populations.

A long journey
This is far from a quickly implemented idea. In fact, it’s a journey started years ago as a GAIN Nordic Partnership initiative. The Partnership is an alliance formed by Nordic private sectors and non-profit organizations to deliver affordable, healthy and tasty food in developing countries through commercially viable models – and DanChurchAid (DCA) is a founding member of this alliance.

Today, the alliance is deeply involved in looking at ways to use whey – a waste product of yoghurt and cheese production – to develop a new, nutritious source of food for the sub-Saharan region. It’s not, as one might think, all about importing whey or whey-based products from the rest of the world. Instead, we hope to provide expertise and technologies to local processors and small-hold farmers so that they can turn locally produced whey into nutritional products for local consumption.

So what’s stopping such processors and farmers doing this themselves? One problem is the relatively low level of local milk production, given that farmers typically have just a few cows and don’t extract maximum yield from them. Another is that there are few processed milk products available beyond the liquid milk itself, and that the whey produced in local cheese or yogurt production doesn’t have the quality required for use either as food or feed. In fact, there is a major risk of contamination with diseases such as tuberculosis from animal to animal, and even from animals to humans.

The challenges don’t stop there, however. At an infrastructure level, there is no cohesive value chain that enables individual farmers to form business partnerships with entities further along the chain. Neither the know-how nor the technology needed for efficiently and safely processing whey is readily available. This is where the expertise and relationships that the GAIN Nordic partners can bring to the table can add real value to local businesses and farmers.

Small factories
The evolving plan calls, therefore, for small quantities of whey permeate to be imported, enabling the setting up of factories to develop innovative product solutions with the assistance of whey processing specialists such as Arla Foods Ingredients. The whey permeate would be used in the manufacture of enriched biscuits and other nutritious foods, such as fortified yogurt, based on local milk with a minor amount of permeate added. The whey component would then play a key role in making the product more affordable, giving it a good taste without adding too much sugar, and ensuring more stable quality.

To encourage the emerging whey industry, local farmers would need support to increase their milk yield. And an educational programme would advise them on how to deliver their product in the right way to these factories. Likewise, factory staff would learn how to develop sustainable business models for the low-income populations in developing countries. The appropriate links would be established along the supply chain and the end-product, and eventually, the region could be weaned off whey permeate imports to become self-sufficient.

NGOs like DCA would play an important role as facilitators between farmers, processors and international businesses to ensure sustainable development and responsible business conduct in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Something else we hope to achieve with this initiative is the creation of decent, lasting jobs in the food sector and in the distribution of whey-based products, such as in bakeries that can serve the growing need for nutritious food in refugee settings. Along with better, more affordable nutrition, new employment possibilities and entrepreneurial skills can do even more to pull some of these families out of severe poverty, and support them in shaping their own future.

Ambitious foundation
All in all, the project thus far has been a real eye-opener for how to work together on innovative solutions, and how to squeeze more out of the few resources available to local populations. There’s no shortage of ambition around the partnership ideas but, of course, it’s a highly complex endeavour. In the long run, however, this type of multistakeholder initiative is likely to create a much more stable, sustainable foundation for reducing stunting, for creating jobs and for indirectly supporting one of the fundamental human rights, education, by encouraging a new generation of engaged, cognitively able children. If we’re successful, Africa will no longer be wasting a valuable resource, but turning whey into another sorely needed stepping stone on the path to prosperity and dignity.

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