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Enjoy the Lèt Agogo

It’s a familiar name with a familiar logo, on store shelves in supermarkets and on storefront windows across the country. Ask any Haitian if they know what Lèt Agogo is, and you are sure to get a smile and a nod as the milk products associated with the name are a source of Haitian pride. Haitian Creole for “Plenty of Milk”, Lèt Agogo is the invention of Veterimed, a national NGO and long-time Oxfam GB partner working with Haitian peasants to improve their living conditions and increase their income.

Usually when one thinks about a milk dairy, images of a large farm with a couple of hundred dairy cows, equipped with machines and technology for collecting and processing milk come to mind. A Haitian dairy – and the kind that produces Lèt Agogo’s famous yogurt and sterilized milk – is a different sort of dairy, started in 2000 when Veterimed introduced an innovative model using simple technology aimed adding value to the milk and helping small scale milk producers sell their produce for a better and consistent price by cutting out the middle-man.

Talk about appropriate technology in a country with little to no infrastructure in the cities, let alone outside of the urban centers: the community-owned dairies are not expensive to operate, run without electricity, making use of nature and the force of gravity with a little help from propane gas. Truly a remarkable conception, Lèt Agogo, in a 2005 contest for innovative enterprises, beat out 1,600 other projects from all across Latin America.

At dairies like the one in the town of Limonade, just outside of Cap-Haitian in the North, farmers daily bring their gallons of milk to sell, arriving on foot, bicycles or horseback to drop off their milk. Each gallon has a number on it that corresponds to the name of a milk farmer; this helps the dairy technicians to not only keep record of the sales, but also to identify the source if there is a problem with the milk. Veterinarians are on hand to respond when tainted milk is identified, making house calls to determine the problem and treat the cow or cows accordingly. Veterimed also helps build drinking wells for the animals, provides nutrient-enriched feed from local fields for animals, in addition to providing husbandry training for local farmers.

Forty-two year-old Georges Volma has been bringing milk to the Limonade dairy for the past 5 years. “Today I am bringing 12 gallons of fresh milk to the dairy – 3 of them are mine, the rest are from my neighbours. I have 4 cows and so I come to the dairy twice a day to sell my milk”, he says as he begins unloading his weighed-down bicycle. “Before the dairy, I used to sell my milk to whoever would buy it – usually in the market in Cap-Haiti or on the street. But the milk was bad, full of dust and other things, and so was the price! And you never knew, from day to day, how much you would sell it for”.

With the community-owned dairy, farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their milk, receiving 9 Haitian dollars [USD 1.25] per gallon. Moreover the quality of the milk and the products produced with that milk is also guaranteed. “Since the dairy was set-up here, I have been able to build a better house for my family, and my animals are healthier”.

There are an estimated 270,000 milk producing cows in the country, all owned by individual farmers like Volma, with an average of 1-3 cows per farmer. It is estimated that these cows have the potential to produce 145,000 tonnes of milk per year. However, not all this milk is being treated and marketed.

Charles Jean Baptiste, director of the Limonade dairy claims that “after analyzing milk production in Haiti, we find that we have enough milk – more than the population can consume”, especially given the level of milk imports. “There are even times in certain areas where we cannot accept all of the milk produced by the farmers because we reached the level of consumption for the milk we already have”, he concludes. Approximately only 1/3 of the total quantity of milk produced is actually treated and transformed into other products; the rest is sold untreated in the local street markets. The local market is flooded by the import of milk powder from Europe – with approximately 30 million USD worth each year – making milk the 3rd largest import in the country; however, ironically, 1 litre of fresh local milk costs 2-3 times less than a litre of milk made with powder.

Today there are 12 dairies located in 6 geographical departments. Veterimed owns the label, but it does not run all the dairies. A list of “ten commandments” – including a clause that guarantees a minimum of 40% ownership by the local milk farmers and the promised involvement in national advocacy activities – must be agreed to in order for other entrepreneurs to set up a Lèt Agogo dairy.

In the coming years, Veterimed plans to expand the project, hoping to have 30 functioning dairies by 2011. Accent will be put on marketing and optimizing sales, while exploring new partnerships within the private sector and lobbying for more protection of the market.

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