By her own admission, Nancy Abeiderrahmane leads a life that is both strange and interesting. "Strange compared to what my mother, for instance, or my grandmother, would have expected," explains the 52-year-old, British-born Abeiderrahmane who opened the Laitière de Mauritanie, Africa’s first camel milk dairy, in 1989.
Soon to be renamed Tiviski, which is the local name for arid West Africa’s most pleasant season and the brand name of the dairy’s pasteurised camel’s milk, Abeiderrahmane’s Laitière de Mauritanie makes a significant contribution to the debt-distressed economy of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
In 1960, 70 per cent of Mauritanians were nomadic. By the early 1990s, 85 per cent were living in towns. Prolonged periods of drought meant that many of Mauritania’s northern pastures were consumed by the encroaching Sahara desert, and the people who had tended herds of livestock there gradually migrated southwards to the towns.
By moving to urban areas, these once nomadic people lost their staple food – fresh camel’s milk – which provided most of their vitamins and a large share of their protein, in an environment that offers virtually no fruit or vegetables. Although people could still buy raw camel’s milk sold by the roadside, increasing numbers were turning to cheaper UHT sterilized milk, imported from Europe or rehydrated from imported powder in one of only two dairies in Mauritania – neither of which processed local milk.
In the last decade, Nancy Abeiderrahmane has reversed the dependence on imported milk, created a new and thriving market for domestic milk and milk products, and transformed people’s attitudes about buying and selling milk. The Laitière de Mauritanie now employs about 100 workers. It buys raw milk from some 450 suppliers and sells a comprehensive range of dairy products through 1,800 retail outlets.
"We process camel’s, cow’s and goat’s milk," Abeiderrahmane says. "Some suppliers bring all three types, some only one or two, but they all function in basically the same way. They are semi-nomadic, live in the bush, milk by hand, and are now making a living from previously non-productive livestock."
The Trouble with Cheese
These are important and hard earned achievements. According to Abeiderrahmane, the dairy’s first few years were dismal. First she had to confront a long-standing prejudice against selling milk, a practice that was widely considered to be shameful and miserly. Of those producers willing to sell milk, many saw the dairy as a competitor, preferring to sell their milk directly to the consumer.
In addition, the enterprise was plagued by a never-ending flow of problems, "from technical difficulties to contending with the swarms of desert locusts that periodically devour the pastures", Abeiderrahmane recalls.
But one of the most important challenges facing the dairy from its start was finding a use for the surplus milk produced by seasonal fluctuations in output and demand. Abeiderrahmane heard about the possibility of making cheese from camel’s milk in 1992. With its long shelf life, the cheese would absorb the excess production during winter months, when demand for milk is at its lowest. Abeiderrahmane received international recognition for her achievements and funding to expand the capacity of her dairy to be able to produce camel’s milk cheese on an industrial scale when she became a Laureate in the 1993 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.
Although native Mauritanians do not generally like cheese, says Abeiderrahmane, she was convinced that camel’s milk cheese would find a market in Europe. From a technical point of view, however, making cheese from camel’s milk was fraught with its own set of problems, and it required, in Abeiderrahmane’s words, "brinkmanship solutions".
It is very difficult to get camel’s milk to curdle. Pasteurising the milk at just the right temperature is essential: slightly too low and bacteria remains, too high and the milk will not curdle. The same holds true for the acidifying process. "Too little ferment and bacteria grows, but too much and the cheese becomes hard as a brick. Too little or too much salt has precisely the same effect," Abeiderrahmane explains.
Fragile Camel Curds
To further complicate things, camel’s milk curds are fragile, difficult to handle, and must be ladled cautiously into the bottom of the mould. "Then, as the whey does not drain well, the cheeses must be turned seven to eight times, rather than the normal three," Abeiderrahmane says.
To overcome these technical problems, Abeiderrahmane called on Professor Jean-Paul Ramet of the French National College of Food and Agriculture. Ramet is a world renowned camel expert, and is responsible for identifying the enzyme that clots camel’s milk. With the help of a grant from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, Ramet provided the dairy with the scientific and technical know-how they needed to embark on camel’s milk cheese production.
Her technical difficulties thus resolved, Abeiderrahmane realised that she still faced some major hurdles — not least the European Union and its protectionist policies. "For several years I battled quite hard," says Abeiderrahmane. "I went to Brussels two or three times, and even engaged a Spanish lobbyist. It seems that we were the first firm from the South to have ever asked for authorisation for a new product."
Getting Mauritania accepted as a country authorised to export animal products to Europe — not to mention getting camel products accepted by European vets — remains a goal, albeit challenging. "The fact remains that we actually make the cheese, and it is jolly good," says Abeiderrahmane. "And we have European, mainly German, customers who want to buy it."
Yet Abeiderrahmane remains buoyant and characteristically resourceful. Until further progress can be made in Brussels, the cheese plant has been transformed into a miscellaneous products department.
New Products and Projects
The Laitière de Mauritanie now sells cultured, slightly sweetened goat’s milk in pouches, a similar product to one it makes from camel’s milk. Cow’s milk is the easiest to process, however, and from it the dairy now turns out fresh cream, flavoured yoghurts, cottage cheese, ghee and butter, as well as the milk itself (full-fat and semi-skimmed).
The product line continues to expand and evolve and planned products include a mixture of pasteurised camel’s and cow’s milks, cultured cow’s milk and chocolate-flavoured cow’s milk. There is also talk of a cosmetics line based on camel’s milk, "but this is only an idea so far," says Abeiderrahmane.
Goat’s milk is a relatively new product for the dairy "The idea behind it is that many people in the less affluent areas of Nouakchott have free-roaming goats," says Abeiderrahmane. "I thought that they could get an income from the milk. The product is excellent, and has had a roaring demand since we put it on the market."
In fact, the dairy cannot get enough goat’s milk. Initially, there was not enough to process, prompting Abeiderrahmane to set up a meeting with a number of women in Rosso, the town where the dairy collects most of its milk. In Mauritania, it is the women who usually tend to and milk goats and sheep. Abeiderrahmane decided to help these women and others, by offering a higher price for the goat’s milk they supplied.
"And it worked," she says. "The dairy’s quality team is now working with these new suppliers to get better raw milk."
"We hope to convince Mauritania’s recently created Direction de la Lutte contre la Pauvreté (Department for the Fight against Poverty) to spread the news that we buy goat’s milk," Abeiderrahmane continues, "and maybe to lend money to poor people so that they can buy goats. It seems to me that goats could eventually even be included in town planning as part of the organic waste disposal system, which is a costly part of town management and a major problem for fast-growing cities in developing countries."
Seasonal fluctuations in supply and demand for milk continue to present a problem for the dairy. This problem is true for all milk, including cow’s milk which is in greater supply. Obviously, Abeiderrahmane explains, they cannot sell cow’s cheese to Europe and, unfortunately, very few people will eat it in Mauritania. "So, we have drawn up a study for a UHT (ultra high temperature) milk plant. We believe it can be done," she insists, "but it is a US$2.5 million project, and that level of funding is difficult to find."
Staying on Top
Apart from a long-held interest in the camel — "an extraordinary, underrated animal", according to Abeiderrahmane — it was the mini-dairy concept, which she discovered in 1987, that motivated her to embark on the Laitière de Mauritanie. A mini-dairy enables the processing of small quantities of milk for restricted markets.
She recognized at once that it would allow her to implement an idea she held since her days as an engineering student in Spain: to use productively the abundant output of Mauritania’s vast livestock population.
The mini-dairy would also fulfil what Abeiderrahmane perceived as a need for urban Mauritanians to drink pasteurised, locally sourced milk.
Nowadays, tens of thousands of Mauritanians enjoy the local milk-based products that come out of the Laitière de Mauritanie. What started 10 years ago as Abeiderrahmane’s labour of love and proof of dedication to her adoptive country is now a thriving business.
"Increasingly people from all sectors of society are turning to milk production as a source of income," says Abeiderrahmane. "Thanks to the dairy, traditional methods of treating livestock are being overturned. All the suppliers still milk free-roaming camels,” she adds, “but these herdsmen are now willing to improve their practices and hygiene standards. People are beginning to look at animal husbandry as an economic activity, not merely a way of life passed on from father to son."
Turnover at the dairy in 1998 was approximately US$2 million, and it currently produces about 10,000 litres of milk a day. "We went up to about 12,000 litres, but lost some to competition and some to the dry season," Abeiderrahmane explains.
Competition, she accepts, is an inevitable by-product of her success, and there are now two other brands of fresh milk in cartons on sale in Mauritania and at least two others in the pipeline, not to mention the two firms producing yoghurt from imported milk powder.
Abeiderrahmane feels that competition is generally a good thing, and that it keeps her staff on their toes. "But, it can have some drawbacks when it takes place in a small market," she points out. "In a situation where the dairy cannot sell all the milk available in winter, and always lacks milk in summer, sharing suppliers and consumers with other investors could result in losses for all."
She insists that the only way to retain a leading position is to be the best, and she sets product quality as the highest priority — from milk collection and reception right through to the dairy’s marketing efforts.
"Now that the dairy is a successful venture and less of an adventure," Abeiderrahmane says, "it may seem less exciting. Even so," she continues, "there is never a dull moment. We are always developing something new, building something, converting old things, mending, painting or finding solutions to our growth problems."
By "we", Abeiderrahmane refers to herself, her staff and her children. "My eldest son and daughter work with me, and we are very much a team. The two younger boys also work with us during the holidays."
What gives sense to her "strange" life, Abeiderrahmane insists, is the fact that the Laitière de Mauritanie is extremely useful to so many Mauritanians. "When I studied engineering in the 1960s and then came here," she says, "I hoped to use my training to help a non-developed country." That she achieved this, she says, is still a surprise.
To anyone who has met the resourceful and tenacious Nancy Abeiderrahmane, the fact that she has fulfilled this long-standing ambition comes as no surprise at all.
Published in 2000