Churning out a livelihood

Milk Processing Unit (MPU) of Khemdro Kuenphen Dairy Group (KKDG) in Phobjikha

Dairy farming brings hope to rural women

LHAKPA TSHERING | Thimphu

Dairy farming is no child’s play. Over the past decade, many dairy farms called it quits and switch to other less laborious and more lucrative farm businesses like potato cultivation.

However, a dairy cooperative in Phobjikha beat the odds and endured which eventually turned out to be a blessing in disguise albeit with challenges.

Khemdro Kuenphen Dairy Group (KKDG) which today collects milk from over 60 households in Khemdro, Tangchey, and Nimphey villages stands out as a bright spot, bringing hope to a shrinking market that promises to offer financial stability in the long run for dairy farmers.

With the priority being the community, the milk processing unit (MPU) attempts to create a vibrant community for dairy farmers and seeks to economically empower women.

The members say milk production is now an important secondary source of livelihood in the village, whose main source of living is otherwise producing potatoes, which are sometimes barely enough to make ends meet.

“From the time the dairy farm started about five years ago, we are immensely benefited,” said Phub Gyem, a member who lives at a stone-throwing distance from the MPU. “Initiatives like this will bring significant financial advantages in the long run.”

She said that in the past cheese and butter were sold through local shopkeepers while, at times, middlemen took the produce to urban centers for extra profit.

“There were no marketing opportunities and we could hardly sell our dairy products which discouraged us,” she said, adding that today they don’t need to worry about marketing the products as the factory provides them with reliable market access.

Gyalmo is another member who says that in a remote place where marketing is the biggest challenge, it offers income generation and empowerment pathways for rural women. “The income generated through selling the milk at the MPU ensures that I have a constant income to support my family,” she said.

Gyalmo is confident and optimistic about the support they receive. She supplies 17 to 20 liters of milk every day to the milk collection unit and gets a monthly income of Nu 20,000 to Nu 25,000.

She said that it serves as an important source of income that helps keep her heart burning. “We use income from milk to purchase other food items such as rice, meat, vegetables, cooking oil, sugar, and kitchen accessories,” she said, adding that selling milk is a sustainable source of income for smallholder dairy farmers.

Like Phub Gyem and Gyalmo, many other women also supplement their income by engaging in dairy farming and actively supplying milk to the MPU, which makes them encouraged to work hard even more.

As the native cattle breeds do not yield enough milk, more farmers purchase crossbred cows from other dzongkhags to improve the cattle breed and increase milk production.

The story behind dairy farming

The dairy cooperative is the brainchild of an ordinary youth, Sherub Dorji, with an extraordinary dream who headed home to embark on this ambitious project.

Sherub earned a Youth Development Fund (YDF) scholarship to study at the United World College in Maastricht, a world-class high school in the Netherlands.

In May 2017, after receiving the Social Innovation Fellowship from the college with support from the Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag livestock sector, he took a full year’s leave from the college to work with local farmers in his hometown Phobjikha.

A recipient of the 2012 Golden Youth Award, Sherub also secured the third position in the Bhutan Certificate of Secondary Examination (BCSE). He is currently pursuing Environmental Science and Economics at Brown University in the USA.

Sherub Dorji familiarizes his plans with the dairy farmers in Phobjikha

Speaking to Bhutan Times, Sherub Dorji said he pursued the idea when he encountered a small dairy farmers group in Rongthong while on his internship for a company in eastern Bhutan.

“I was inspired by the many promises the dairy farmers group was capable of – in terms of financially benefiting the farmers, supplying quality local milk, and rallying a community around a common economic goal,” he said.

Growing up in the rural village of Phobjikha, he has shown means to the village folks to supplement their income. “Dairy farming in Bhutan is a traditionally feminine enterprise and the stable market for milk helps elevate women’s household economic leverage,” he said.

“Promoting dairy farms can help supplement their income should potato harvest fail. Moreover, I have a strong urge to contribute to community development through sustainable grassroots actions,” says Sherub Dorji.

Apart from being a viable source of income for farmers, Sherub says the dairy social enterprise has grown and continues to deliver some positive impact to our community.

“We will do our best to improve over the years and hope that this initiative will be emulated by other farmers and youth who are planning to venture into the dairy world,” he added.

After having so much of his energy focused on just cheese and butter, the story of his dairy farming reveals some of the promises of the dairy products for the community.

“We are now diversifying our products into all sorts of dairy products such as desserts and drinks,” Sherub said. “We use a non-hierarchical approach to running and managing our business to facilitate trust and interest among farmers and staff.”

Going forward, he plans to have a whole network of groups in the vicinity of Phobjikha valley. “We have plans to reach to more farmers in Phobjikha so that the benefits will trickle unto them,” he said.

As farmers still need to bring their milk to the collection center, Sherub hopes to change this by investing in milk pickup facilities to collect it from the farmers’ doorsteps. 

The initiative was enabled with the support from the Wangdue Dzongkhag livestock sector, HELVETAS, Bhutan Foundation, and Mountain Grassroots Association, including the interest and loyalty of the member farmers.

Another way dairy farms contribute to communities is by creating job opportunities. The factory employed three school dropout youths from the locality.

The dzongkhag livestock sector also supports dairy farmers by facilitating the subsidized purchase of crossbred cows, supplying of dairy processing equipment to the unit, feed and fodder development, and training, among others.

Farmers sourcing high-yielding dairy cows from other places are also rapidly growing among the members and beneficiaries.

Wangdue Phodrang dzongkhag livestock officer Ugyen said that the dzongkhag livestock sector has been actively supporting dairy farmers including linking marketing products to Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation.

He said that Phobjikha has the potential to engage in dairy farming and the MPU in the community is one of the most progressive farms in the dzongkhag. “Most of the group members earn Nu 15,000 t0 Nu 30,000 a month while some even earn more,” he said.

“We support them through providing training, equipment, and technical aspects including giving new ideas for sustainability,” Ugyen said, adding that they have achieved almost 100 percent of dairy self-sufficiency for the dzongkhag.

And the journey has just begun.

(This article is reported with the fund support from the Bhutan Media Foundation’s civil society reporting grant)