Long before British colonisation in 1895, many Kenyan communities were either pastoralists or cultivators.
This specialisation was influenced by presence of adequate grazing land and water for the pastoralists and fertile land and adequate rainfall for the cultivators.
In between were agro-pastoralists, who kept livestock and cultivated crops almost in equal proportion. Pre-colonial communities in Kenya secured what they did not produce through trade and other distributive arrangements like cattle lending.
The saying, when milking a borrowed cow, one’s eyes must be set towards the gate, must have come from this practice. Milk was drunk either alone or with ugali and sweet potatoes. It was used to prepare liquid porridge and other relishes like vegetables and fish.
Its products like ghee, a type of purified butter and the butter itself, were also used to prepare food. In addition, these products were also applied to the human body and hair as lotion.
The colonial and post-colonial states would transform the relations of production and exchange pertaining to milk and its products largely to further their own interests.
Colonial authorities and the immigrant races considered African-produced milk and ghee to be of disgusting taste and smoky smell and not suitable for domestic consumption and export.
Africans, for instance the Kalenjin communities, routinely cleaned the guards in which they stored and churned milk with cinder and ashes or added certain medicinal herbs for better taste as they still do today with Mursik.
On the other hand, the Luo used specific herbs and added cattle urine (chiedho) to kill certain pathogens in the milk, get the right taste as well as facilitate the formation of quality butter.
Quite oblivious of the reasons for African ways of preparing milk and its products, the colonial state’s veterinary section of the Department of Agriculture trained African agricultural instructors to ensure that producers adhered to the newly introduced sanitary rules on handling milk.
The instructors were also trained in the use of imported milk separators skills they taught fellow Africans. However, the separators turned out to be too expensive for Africans.
Consequently, Asian traders who had the means to purchase and install them in African reserves dominated ghee production.
This led to political agitation by the Kavirondo (later African Chambers of Commerce) against Asian traders, particularly in Nyanza Province until Local Native Councils (LNC) and African ghee traders replaced them.
In 1925, the European settler-dominated Kenya Co-operative Creameries (KCC) was formed to process milk.
The onset of the depression between 1929 and 1939 set the stage for the consolidation of the policies and rules that regulated the structure and operations of the dairy industry.
The depression made it absolutely necessary to develop the dairy industry among Africans as well as European farmers for purposes of import substitution.
Three major reports in 1936, 1937 and 1938 established the structure of the dairy industry, the marketing of the dairy products and the rules by which it would be run.
The reports broadly dealt with supply of milk, prices and prompt payment, sanitation during handling and preparation of milk products like ghee and butter, marketing and statutory control.
As a consequence of state policy, the dairy industry expanded rapidly in Nyanza, the Rift Valley among the Kipsigis, the Nandi and the Maasai and the Coast among the Digo and Giriama.
By 1937, there were about 850 dairies in African reserves, most of them in the districts of Nyanza province, particularly in the lakeside locations of South Nyanza.
During the Second World War, ghee production sharply declined. The 41,869 tins of ghee that were produced in 1950 came from Nyanza. Out of this, 40,000 from South Nyanza. Most dairies were closed.
The decline in ghee production was due to requisition of cattle for beef, butter and hides during the war. Ghee manufacturers bought whole milk, separated fat from it to manufacture ghee.
The milk sellers took home skimmed milk with very low nutritional value. Ironically, Africans were denied access to ghee and butter during the restriction and rationing of these and other essential foodstuffs from 1939 to 1945 wartime shortages.
The policy of mixed farming, the improvement of the quality and number of African livestock following the introduction of the smallholder scheme after 1954, substantially increased the supply of milk.
It should be noted that by 1968, there were 150,000 grade dairy cows on smallholdings in the country.
Out of these, 64,000 were in Central province which also produced the largest quantity of milk for the manufacture of butter. Parts of the Rift Valley also produced large quantities of milk.
The KCC continued to exercise a monopoly in purchasing milk, storing it, manufacturing butter and cheese and selling them locally and overseas.
However, during the Moi regime between 1978 and 2002, the fortunes of the dairy industry took a negative turn due to structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, low prices, poor management of KCC management, imports of dairy products, the inauguration of the populist and unsustainable “free” milk scheme for primary school students, stiff competition by other players, including Limuru Dairies and Brookside.
KCC was put under receivership in 1999 and bought quite cheaply. It was then bought back by the government during the Kibaki regime in 2004 as New KCC.
Today, the dairy industry is still struggling to get back to its feet. The government should revive and sustain the dairy industry whose fortunes are tied up with the lives of millions of smallholders.