It all started in 2000 when Heifer Project International, a local NGO, donated over 300 Friesian cows to poor households in Gicumbi District in Northern Province. So overtime milk production increased, but there was no market.
This prompted 330 dairy farmers in the district to form an association to market their milk as a group, giving birth to IRKIB Co-operative Society.
Twine Dacien, the chairman of the co-operative, however, noted that the first buyers frustrated them when they started paying farmers late.
“Tired of this exploitation, we decided to start selling the milk ourselves. However, we were shortly after hit by another setback when our managers embezzled the co-op’s funds, and many farmers went without receiving payment for so long,” Twine explained.
He added that this forced most of the farmers to leave the group, and its membership dropped to 100 from 330 as most of them had lost confidence in it.
He pointed out that things at the society started to normalise in 2004, after the corrupt management was replaced with a new one. As a result, the farmers who had left the association returned,” Twine noted.
He said their real breakthrough was in 2006, when the government helped them establish a modern milk collection centre, equipped with a giant cooler, a power generator and milk cans all valued at Rwf35m.
“Shortly after, we got a Rwf16m donation from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to start an animal feeds processing plant in 2009.
IRKIB Co-operative now boasts of 654 members, with six affiliate milk collection centres, handling 24,000 litres of milk every day from about 200 litres in 2004.
Twine said the co-operative presently produces about eight tonnes of animal feeds daily from about one tonne in 2009. It also operates a veterinary drug shop.
“Our total assets are valued at Rwf300m from Rwf1.8m in 2003, and our group is fully registered with the Ministry of Trade and Industry,” he said.
“We serve members without expecting direct benefits; we give members loans in form of veterinary drugs or sell to them at a discount,” Twine pointed out.
He added that the co-operative also guarantees members seeking bank loans, especially when they want to buy land to expand their farms or improve their animal breeds.
“We have also secured a ready market for members’ produce. The co-operative buys from farmers about 11 tonnes of maize, twice a month to make animal feeds,” Twine pointed out.
However, running the co-operative has not been without challenges. Twine noted that since the co-operative deals with many farmers, making it costly to monitor or sensitise them.
He said ferrying milk to Kigali-based customers increases transport costs and risk of contamination. The co-operative’s operations are mostly done manually due to inadequate technology.
“There is little automation involved in our activities and we do most of the work manually. This consumes a lot of time, money and manpower,” noted Eudes Hitayezu, the milk collection centre quality controller.
Hitayezu also said some of their members sell milk to other dealers, “but whenever they do not get paid, they blame the co-operative management”.
He added that milk prices are too low.
“A lot of money is invested in buying feeds and treating animals, so selling a litre of milk at Rwf180 discourages farmers,” observed Hitayezu.
The challenges notwithstanding, the group is happy to have contributed to farmer empowerment, community transformation and ensuring a ready market for members. Twine pointed out that the group has also given hundreds of other people who were jobless a means of survival as they have stable jobs at the institution’s milk collection centre and feeds processing plant.
“It gives us joy and pride that we have contributed to the transformation our society,” he said.
Despite all the huge responsibilities Twine always avoids situations that can result into stress.
“I delegate my subordinates work according to their abilities and also deal with only scheduled appointments and never let unplanned events interrupt my programmes,” he said.
Twine revealed that the co-operative plans to set up a plant to process milk into cheese, butter, yoghurt and ghee in the next five years.
“We also want to start a SACCO that overtime will help fund expansion projects of the co-operative besides easing financial problems of members,” he said.
Setting up an agricultural and veterinary school in Gicumbi is also on the cards, “so as to equip farmers with relevant skills”.