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The multiple and extraordinary dairy productions of Africa

Milk and its derivatives have always been important components of many pastoral civilizations in Africa.
In addition to their nutritional value and, in many cases, economic importance, milk and its derivatives often have significant social and cultural meanings.

Depending on the type and method of production, Africa produces fresh cheeses, aged cheeses, fermented cheeses, and other milk and butter derivatives. These varieties give rise to an extraordinary range of local products where tradition, culture, conditions, and environmental constraints play a fundamental role.

Although only widespread in a few countries, African fresh cheeses have ancient origins. In Algeria, the most well-known is “Klila,” produced and described as early as 1855; in some rural areas, women store it in goat leather bags called “Mezwed.” The most common fresh cheese in Benin, Nigeria, and northern Togo is “Warankasi” (or wagashi or waragashi or woagashi), produced by coagulating milk (cow or goat) with an enzyme found in the leaves of the so-called “Sodom apple” (Calotropis procera).

In Egypt, the production of fresh cheese has been documented since pharaonic times; today the most common is “Kariesh,” produced with cow’s or buffalo’s milk. Ayib is a soft and acidic cheese, typical of many regions of Ethiopia, and is obtained from the whey resulting from the churning of sour whole milk. Similar to Greek Feta is “Gibna” from Sudan, produced since the 18th century by some Greek families who emigrated to this country. In contrast to fresh cheeses, there are few examples of aged cheeses. Indeed, except in North Africa, these products are not widespread in other parts of the continent. Egypt is the most important producer of aged cheeses; the most common ones are Domiati (or domyati), cheese produced with cow’s or buffalo’s milk or a mixture of the two; Tallaga, unsalted, and Mish, also produced in Sudan.

In Algeria, Bouhezza is produced, a cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk and aged in a goat leather bag (chekoua), and Aoules. Further south, in Mali and Niger, Touaregh and Tchoukou are produced with sheep, cow, or goat milk. The consumption of fermented milk is widespread throughout Africa; fermentation has been known since the time of the Pharaohs and generally occurs spontaneously due to the enzymatic activity of lactic bacteria. Fermented milk has significant socio-economic value due to the low energy required by the production process and its high nutritional value. Production protocols differ between various African regions.

In Algeria and North Africa, milk is fermented to obtain lben (or leben, laban, labna, or labneh); in Egypt, “Zabady” is consumed, perhaps the oldest fermented milk known in the world. Sahelian countries use clay containers to produce fermented milk, such as Nyarmie from the Fulani of Ghana, or Nono, or Nunu. In Sudan, the most important fermented milk is Rob (also called roub or robe), which is produced in rural areas using surplus milk produced during the rainy season; “Biruni,” instead, is native to Nubia. From dromedary milk, “Gariss” is produced, fermented in bags carried by dromedaries which, with their movement, continuously stir it. In the arid zones of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Sudan, camel milk is traditionally used to undergo spontaneous fermentation and obtain Sussa or Suusac. In Ethiopia, with raw cow’s milk, Ergo is produced, similar to Urubu from Burundi, and Ititu, typical of the Borana populations in the south of the country and reserved for special occasions. The Masai of Kenya consume Kule Naoto and Amabere Amaruranu, types of fermented milk, similar to the Ugandan Kwerionik, which in its different variants can be stored from a few days to a year. Kivuguto from Rwanda is produced both at the family and industrial levels, with selected strains, while Masse from Mozambique is still produced only in villages. In Central and Southern African countries, fermented milk is widespread and produced using different techniques and using sheep, goat, or cow milk. In some countries, such as South Africa, fermented milk is also produced on an industrial scale. One of the main constraints limiting the commercialization and exportation of African dairy products is the poor hygiene of milk after collection, the lack of adequate cold chain, and, except for some cases, the absence of starter cultures. For these reasons, African cheeses and fermented milks almost never have standardized characteristics, their shelf life is short, and they are easily susceptible to deterioration.

In this regard, many activities carried out by cooperation aim to support and improve the dairy product supply chain, to make production processes safer, and to enhance local resources.