Dairy farming is one of the most important agricultural activities in Kenya, contributing significantly to the national economy. Kenya is the largest producer of dairy products in East Africa, with smallholder dairy farms accounting for 80% of the milk produced in the country. The dairy industry plays a crucial role in food security, poverty alleviation, and employment creation in rural communities across Kenya. This article provides an overview of dairy farming in Kenya, looking at its evolution, structure, challenges, and opportunities.
Brief History of Dairy Farming in Kenya
Dairy farming in Kenya has a long history, introduced in the early 20th century during British colonial rule. The colonial government established large-scale dairy farms in the central highlands to supply milk to urban centres and British settlers.
After independence in 1963, smallholder dairy production emerged as farmers adopted dairy practices from large farms and crossbred local Zebu cattle with high-yielding exotic breeds like Friesian and Jersey.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Kenyan government implemented policies and programs to encourage smallholders’ participation in the dairy industry through farmer training, artificial insemination services, and supporting infrastructure like milk collection centres.
These efforts transformed dairy farming from a primarily large-scale operation to one dominated by smallholders, accounting for over 80% of milk production today.
The dairy industry grew rapidly from the 1990s, driven by rising domestic demand and supported by policy and institutional reforms that allowed private sector participation.
Today, Kenya is celebrated as an African success story in developing its dairy industry and ranks among the top milk producers globally.
Structure of the Dairy Industry
The dairy industry in Kenya is broadly divided into large-scale commercial farms and small-scale dairy farms.
1. Large-scale Dairy Farms
These are farms with over 50 dairy cattle mainly kept under zero-grazing units. They account for about 20% of marketed milk in Kenya, located mostly in the Rift Valley and central highlands. Large farms have better economies of scale and can invest in improved technologies like mechanization. Most produce milk for commercial processors and urban centres. However, their productivity per animal is lower compared to smallholder farms.
2. Smallholder Dairy Farms
About 80% of marketed milk in Kenya comes from smallholder producers with 1-3 dairy cows/farm on average. Smallholder dairy farming is a crucial income source for over 1 million rural households. Cows are grazed on pastures and supplements fed in cut-and-carry zero-grazing units. Small farms achieve higher yields per cow by practising intensive farming and maintaining indigenous cows that are well-adapted. Milk may be sold through cooperatives or local markets or consumed at home.
Dairy Cattle Breeds
Indigenous Zebu cattle like the East African Short Horn Zebu were initially reared in Kenya for meat and cultural functions rather than milk. From the 1920s, exotic dairy breeds from Europe were introduced to enhance milk productivity, including Friesian, Ayrshire, Jersey, and Guernsey cattle. Crossbreeding indigenous and exotic cattle led to higher-yielding breeds like the Kenya Friesian. Today over 70% of Kenya’s dairy herd comprises improved dairy breeds and crosses. Popular breeds include:
- Holstein Friesian – Originating from Northern Holland, Friesians are the main exotic breed used to crossbreed with Zebu cattle. They produce higher milk yields but have a lower tolerance for tropical conditions.
- Ayrshire – Originally from Scotland, Ayrshires are adapted to the Kenyan highlands. They produce quality milk with high butterfat content.
- Jersey – From the Channel Island of Jersey, they produce rich and creamy milk. Purebred Jerseys account for 13% of Kenya’s dairy herd.
- Guernsey – From the Isle of Guernsey, excellent producers but less heat tolerant.
- Sahiwal – A Zebu breed, they have higher milk yield than the local Zebu and are disease resistant.
Feeds and Feeding
Feed resources are a major constraint to increased dairy productivity in Kenya due to competition with other livestock and unreliable weather. Smallholder dairy cows are fed through grazing tropical grasses like Napier, Guatemala, and Rhodes. Supplementary feeds like dairy meal, crop residues, minerals, and agro-industrial by-products are used, especially during dry seasons when pasture is scarce.
Large dairy farms mainly practice zero-grazing, growing fodder crops like Napier grass and Desmodium to feed cows in stalls. Purchased dairy feeds, hay, silage, and agro-industrial byproducts are also fed. Improved feeding using formulated rations has been promoted to enhance milk output. But feed costs account for over 60% of production costs on smallholder dairy farms, making feeding a major limitation.
Milk Production and Marketing
Milk production in Kenya has increased steadily over the years through growth in dairy cow numbers and improved breeds. In 2020, annual milk output was estimated at 5.2 billion litres, valued at over KES 100 billion. The highlands are the main production areas, including Central, Rift Valley, Eastern and Western regions. The dairy sector employs over 1 million Kenyans directly and indirectly.
Milk is marketed through both formal and informal channels. Informally, milk is sold directly to neighbours, local shops, hotels, institutions, and hawkers. About 60% of marketed milk is sold through the informal market, though this varies regionally. formally, milk is aggregated and marketed by farmer cooperatives, private processors, traders, and government institutions. Over 30% of formal milk sales are handled by New Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC). Milk production is seasonal, with peak production in the wet season when pastures abound.
Challenges Facing the Dairy Industry
Despite growth over the decades, the dairy industry in Kenya faces several constraints that limit its development. Key challenges include:
- Low productivity – Milk yields average 7-8 litres/cow/day nationally compared to over 30 litres in developed countries. This is attributed to low-quality feeds, inadequate extension, and the prevalence of diseases reducing productivity.
- High cost of production – Factors like animal feeds, healthcare, and poor genetics make production expensive, reducing competitiveness. Farm inputs are also taxed, increasing costs.
- Milk spoilage and wastage – Due to poor cooling facilities and underdeveloped transport infrastructure, milk spoilage is high. Farm-level chilling is limited, estimated at just 3% of milk produced. This leads to safety concerns and lost income.
- Seasonality of production – Rainfall patterns mean milk production fluctuates seasonally, causing gluts and shortages. This affects farm incomes and processors. Feed conservation is not widely practised.
- Weak farmer organizations – Smallholder farmers lack bargaining power and economies of scale. Cooperatives face governance challenges and limited business skills. This constrains market access and productivity.
The Future of Dairy Farming in Kenya
Dairy farming remains a key agricultural subsector in Kenya with further growth opportunities. With improved technologies, farmer organizations, and policy support, the industry can enhance productivity, value addition, and competitiveness. Some initiatives for future growth include:
- Promoting fodder production and feed conservation to improve nutrition and stabilize supply.
- Supporting cooperatives and producer groups for better services like AI, extension, and marketing.
- Investing in milk chilling and cold chain infrastructure to reduce losses.
- Use of dairy management technologies like computerized record keeping and farm software.
- Value addition through product innovation and development.
- Improving dairy animal genetics and breeding programs.
- Training programs and partnerships with dairy experts to improve husbandry skills.
- Access to credit and insurance products tailored to smallholder dairy farmers.
With appropriate policies and reforms, Kenya’s dairy industry has immense potential to improve incomes and nutrition for millions of rural households who rely on dairy farming. The future is bright for this important agricultural and business subsector.