KAMPONG THOM – It’s about 6am and as the day starts to break, villagers can be seen walking cows and buffalos along a road. They lead female cattle from a shelter and herd them into small bamboo cages, each only big enough for one to fit inside.
A middle-aged man wearing white and grey striped T-shirt sits next to a cage inside the yard of his home. Next to him is a small blue plastic and metal container, with two metal plates, a yellow towel, soap and a bottle of water to wash the buffalo’s breast before he starts to milk it.
After he cleans the buffalo’s breast with soap and rinses it with water, his wife, wearing a red long-sleeved shirt walks towards him and takes his place next to the buffalo.
This daily routine forms part of a buffalo milking project, aimed at providing nutritious food for children and boosting the livelihoods of local farmers. It is run by the Multisectoral Food and Nutrition Security (GIZ-MUSEFO) initiative, which is trying to tackle malnutrition rates in Cambodia.
The woman washes her hands and starts to squeeze the buffalo’s breast with one hand. The other hand holds onto a metal plate ready to catch the milk that drips from the buffalo’s breast.
During the milking process, farmers milk the buffalos quietly and calmly as they eat dry hay. This ensures that the female buffalo feels relaxed and comfortable so she can produce more milk.
After that she put the milk into the filter basket covered by thin pink cotton fabric above for filtering the tiny debris from the fresh buffalo milk to ensure it is hygienic to utilize.
Next, the fresh buffalo milk is filtered and poured into a clean, covered container before being passed onto the village’s representative milk collector to be weighed to see how many litres of buffalo milk they will receive that morning.
The milk collector makes a note of the milk owner's name, the number of litres produced that day, and how much milk the agent has taken, alongside a signature. The agent then takes all of the milk to sell to a company making local cheese in Siem Reap province.
Under the initiative, families that feed buffaloes from their homes can earn additional income by selling milk.
Susie Martin, project consultant for GIZ-MUSEFO, said the project's goal is to create a sustainable business model that provides extra income for local farmers, while also helping children and families access nutritious milk as part of their diet.
According to Martin, the project will help tackle the issue of malnutrition and support the livelihoods of farmers in the region by introducing buffalo milking, which is a new concept in Cambodia.
She said, “This helps farmers earn extra income and provides them with milk for their families and communities. This innovative initiative will be a benefit and will help address the rising concerns of low nutrition rates among Cambodian children.”
As part of the project, the CEO of Laos Buffalo Dairy was invited to Cambodia to help better nutrition for women, children, and farmers. The business has rolled out a successful model in Laos, where they rent buffalos from farmers to milk, and provide animal husbandry training.
Despite the government’s target to treat 25,000 cases of acute malnutrition per year, set in 2014, the number of severely malnourished children who receive medical care annually is significantly lower, at only 3,200.
Prak Sophoan Neary, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Health, has raised concern over the high rate of malnutrition among children in Cambodia, and the lack of access to nutritious food.
“Although Cambodia has significantly improved the health status of mothers, infants and children, only about 10 percent of children with severe malnutrition receive treatment, a concern of the government and development partners,” she said.
The GIZ project funds two villages with more than 200 buffalos to produce about 30 litres of milk a day. Each village has a milk collector who tallies and pays the milk monthly. The milk is distributed to the nutrition group and sent to Phnom Penh for processing.
The project is testing buffalo milking to provide nutritious food for children and boost the livelihoods of farmers. A total of 21 families have been trained in buffalo milk restoration and are now milking the cattle in their communities. Farmers collect milk every morning, while calves stay with their mothers during the day.
Traditional farmers in Cambodia used cows and buffalos for ploughing, but now tractors have replaced them. However, some farmers still use cows to plough, many buffaloes are only used for meat.
The idea is to invest in female buffaloes for milk to provide daily incomes and help farmers with expenses including vaccines and treatments, leading to better results when selling male animals and milk for cash, she added.
According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Cambodia spent $56.3 million in 2020 importing milk, which ranked it as the 96th most imported product in the country. The majority of milk imports come from Thailand, amounting to $50.8 million, with smaller amounts imported from Australia, Poland, France, and New Zealand.
As the figure continues to rise, farmers should be trained to care for buffalos to cash in on the milk industry and connect with domestic cheese producers. The project also hopes to create a consistent supply chain of local buffalo milk to produce dairy products and eventually replace imports.
The MUSEFO buffalo milking project consultant believes that training local farmers to become buffalo milk producers will lead to a steady supply of milk produce and reduce the need for imported dairy products.
“To achieve this, we need to introduce buffalo milk to the market, partnering with hotels and restaurants currently importing buffalo dairy products,” Martin added.
A cheese producer in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is now sourcing buffalo milk from villages to create locally-made products for the Cambodian market. It is the first locally-made buffalo milk product in the country.
According to trainer Khieu Kanit, six litres of buffalo milk can produce 1 kg of cheese, and 11 litres of cow milk can produce 1 kg of cheese. The project has been successful in Laos.
The consultant's goal is to eventually send thousands of litres of buffalo milk every three days, but more farmers and consistent supplies are needed to achieve this. Her key message is that underutilised resources, such as buffalo milk, can be easily utilised.
On January 27, the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with Helen Keller, organized a workshop to introduce the project, "Care for children with acute and severe malnutrition”.
According to Kanit, a production officer at the provincial agriculture, forestry, and fisheries department in Kampong Thom province, and trainer in GIZ buffalo milk, the price of buffalo milk is not high yet because it is currently used within the community.
“The current plan is to set the price of buffalo milk at 5,000 riel per litre,” he added. “Local wholesalers are trying to make cheese from buffalo milk but have not been successful. When they successfully produce cheese products, wholesalers are expected to purchase the milk at a higher price of around $2 per litre.”
The World Bank reports that Cambodia has updated its poverty line for 2020. The new national poverty line is set at 10,951 riels per person per day, equivalent to $2.70, and is now considered poor under the updated standard.
Em Mov, a buffalo farmer in Kampong Thom, is pleased with the milk production of her buffalo. She says while hand-expressing milk is challenging, it can yield up to one litre of milk per animal. She hopes other farmers will learn the technique to generate extra income.
Ngan Sokhon, a milk collector in Phumi Tmey, gathers an average of seven litres of buffalo milk per person daily. The milk benefits not only the nutrition group but also her own child, promoting strong physical growth and cognitive abilities.
Sokhon said her job as a milk collector has improved her financial situation and health. However, the success of the industry depends on the participation of its members.