Potential for Dairy-led Development Cooperation Between China and Africa

 In analysis, op-ed, Q&A

Blue skies and cows grazing on pristine green pastures. Smiling celebrities. Cultural heritage sites and healthy lifestyle motifs.

Milk products with these images fly off the shelves in China. It’ s ultra-high temperature (UHT) long-life milk, stocking refrigerators and stacked room temperature in premium packaging, cartons, and pouches. Tasting events are held weekly at hypermarkets to galvanize consumption, and innovative advertisements add a touch of glamour as they zip around cities on double-decker buses selling the idea of dairy. In China, there’s a milk product for everybody – children, young adults, parents, the elderly – with sales in the billions.

Milk is not a traditional staple in China. Asian populations, in fact, are known for being low dairy consumers. But that is quickly changing. Milk in China has become a symbol of a moderately prosperous society; linked to modernization and development goals.

The Chinese dairy market is booming, and companies are looking to expand their operations to become global players. Chinese dairies have begun following the Belt and Road overseas – and Africa is squarely on the agenda. It makes sense; the African dairy market has huge growth potential, generated by demographic dividends, urbanization, natural resources, and the recently passed Africa Continental Free Trade Area.

At Development Reimagined, we see a great deal of aid pumped into the agriculture sector, including the dairy sector. But one of our key values is that aid is only one piece of the development puzzle, not the end game. Other flows of finance, goods and people are just, if not more, important. All these pieces must be fit together in coordination to align objectives. That’s why at Development Reimagined we also focus on broader investment trends, and advise Chinese companies seeking to “go out” along the Belt and Road in Africa, how do so responsibly and sustainably.

So, what is our advice when it comes to the dairy sector in Africa? How can Chinese companies work with African stakeholders for the biggest positive impact?

Step One: See the Opportunity

Growth in the dairy industry closely correlates with development and demographic trajectories. Developing countries are increasing dairy consumption year on year as populations have more spending power and diversified nutritional demands. This is very much the case in Africa, and it has been so for a long time.

Dairy consumption patterns vary across the continent. Raw milk currently reigns supreme in Kenya, where small holder farmers bring fresh unbranded product to market daily. Reflecting population growth and expanding middle class populations, Kenyan milk consumption rates are rising 7 percent year on year, more rapidly than production can keep up. Ghana, on the other hand, has a relative absence of domestic milk production, and instead relies on importing processed milk and milk powder. Meanwhile, South Africa boasts a thriving dairy sector, with commercial farms keeping an average herd of 500 cows each. However, UHT milk imports have been threatening domestic dairies in recent years, competing most critically on price.

Dairy, as a nexus of staple foods (milk, cheese, butter) and fast-moving consumer goods (yogurt, ice-cream), includes avenues for investment in sectors from agriculture, to manufacturing for processing and packaging, to logistics, and all the way up the supply chain to retail and advertising. With a forecastedyouthful population of 2.6 billion people by 2050, African consumption of dairy will no doubt dominate the future global market.

Step Two: Recognize the Similarities and Differences of Dairy Farming in China and African Countries

Both China and Africa have agricultural sectors mostly comprised of small holder farms. However, in China, government assistance has allowed Chinese private companies to aggregate large commercial plots to scale productivity and drive down prices. How? The government legally owns all the land in China, so it acts as a turnkey to attract investment. Small farms are bought-back from villagers and then sold together in a bundle to commercial or agricultural interests. Then large dairy firms leverage capital intensive technologies to standardize production and scale output. Therefore, it is important to note: it is not the case in China that there has been mass skill and technology transfer to small holder farmers that continue to operate small plots. Instead, farmers can seek work at commercial cattle farms, dairy processing plants, factories, and warehouses where they are trained and re-skilled to be operate equipment used in commercial dairy production, packaging, and distribution.

African countries are also comprised of mostly small holder farms as well, but with very different organizational structures, legacies, and results. Land ownership in South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana, for example, is privatized. Local governments are not necessarily involved in purchasing land from farmers for sale to companies in the same way that they are in China. Therefore, commercial dairy companies looking to buy land in African countries must either acquire existing dairies or do consolidation on more of a piece-meal basis with individual farms. Kenya’s small holder farms account for 70 percent of all domestic dairy. Small holders without land deeds may struggle due to unsubstantiated equity or collateral. This creates challenges for companies looking to invest as scaling can be more difficult. Acquisitions of existing big dairies in South Africa and Kenya may be more attractive for newcomers. Then there is built-in access to the new African Continental Free Trade Area.

Step Three: Recognize That Dairy Development Also Has Its Downsides, Both for Public Health and for the Environment

Dairy has a questionable impact. For both public health and the environment, stakeholders must frankly evaluate their priorities and educate populations. The calcium in milk, for example, can make for strong bones, teeth, and nails. However, accumulated or excessive dairy consumption can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and other serious illnesses that onset in older age. In fact, spinach has more calcium than the recommended daily cup of milk.

Dairy production also has negative externalities for the environment. Forests are being cleared around the world at an alarming rate to make room for farming soybeans, the primary component in cow feed. Dairy cow rearing is highly contentious, with animal advocates becoming increasingly loud in their condemnation of the industry’s practices, as well as the carbon emissions it creates. Processing cow milk is also an energy intensive process that uses thousands of tons of water per day. In drought prone countries in sub-Saharan Africa, especially South Africa and Zimbabwe, this water intensive process is particularly strenuous.

What Does This All Mean in Practical Terms for the Potential of Dairy Development in Africa?

Our view is clear. With a sustainability first framework, dairy-led development can be a golden ticket for African countries to grow. But the sustainability piece is as tricky as it is important. The industry must accommodate the demands of the future as well as the present in order to make dairy a viable growth vector for the long term.

The dairy sector in Africa is prime for creating new jobs, ensuring skill and technology transfer that can help fill the youth unemployment gap across Africa, as well as creating a virtuous cycle for the industry as incomes increase and the future consumer base expands. But the issues raised regarding health and environmental sustainability also pose challenges. Both local and foreign companies need to be sustainability-centered in their investments in African countries and involve local stakeholders to have positive lasting impact. We have three recommendations.

1. Be Intentional in Localizing Operations Through Skill and Technology Transfer

The livelihoods of smallholder farmers must be considered in order to make any dairy consolidation sustainable. Important to ask is, how could these farmers be included in new operations? Local governments and communities must be vocal in advocating for inclusive growth. There also needs to be protection for local industries against cheap imported UHT milk products flooding the markets and drowning out small holder farmers’ ability to make profit.

In tandem, training local talent for work on consolidated commercial operations will be necessary. Skill transfer and tech transfer must be high on the agenda for any locality vetting foreign investment. Commercial Chinese companies coming in to African countries for acquisitions should be prepared to communicate best practices in cow feeding, rearing, and beyond in order to increase milk per cow and overall productivity. As companies embed themselves into the local market, they must also create reciprocal positions for local staff to integrate, mirror, and later take over in leadership positions

2. ‘Go Green’ With Operations From the Beginning: Use Renewable Energy and Bio-Waste as Part of the Production Processes

Milk processing requires massive amounts of water. It takes over 1000 liters of water to produce 1 liter of milk. Water recycling operations must be installed from the get-go in order to ensure sustainability in the dairy sector. Green energy investments are already well underway in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenyan successfully lobbied for a termination of the Lamu Coal Power Plant project, and are instead seeking to attract more investment into solar and wind energy. In Ethiopia, hydro power is a high priority and solar works are well underway as well to capture the infamously strong Ethiopian sunshine. Dairies must seize onto this momentum and go green in their investments.

Local governments must be agents for positive growth. Any proposed investments in dairy processing must be required to include plans for green, environmentally friendly facilities actively address energy capabilities and decrease risks Feasibility studies should also be carried out to further understand how any commercial dairy farm or processing center will impact local water resources, the energy grid, and soil vitality.

3. Invest in Plant-Based Milk Production Alongside Traditional Dairies

Grain and oat based milks, such as Milo (by Nestle) and Oatly, are increasingly becoming popular alternatives. The malted milk beverage, Milo, already dominates the Southeast Asian dairy market, filling demands for cheap, convenient, and tasty nutrition. Oatly, on the higher end of the spectrum, also just closed a massive funding round, reflecting investor confidence in the plant-based trend’s ability to take root in both developed and developing markets around the world. Given the relative underdevelopment of the dairy industry in most African countries, there is potential to gravitate towards plant-based milk production. Just because dairy is a development option, doesn’t mean it has to go to the traditional route.


Dairy-led development can create positive change and inclusive growth – if done sustainably. It is clear that the dairy industry sits precariously on the edge of the development equation that balances short- and long-term objectives; growth and conservation; now and later. Therefore, we must reimagine what the dairy sector can look like.

African countries have a huge opportunity to learn best practices and avoid mistakes that have afflicted already established dairies, especially in the era of the COVID19 pandemic that is testing the globalized sourcing and supply chain model. The dairy demand is there; it’s up to African governments seize their agency to best attract and facilitate competition in the dairy industry for inclusive sustainable growth that will keep on giving as their populations continue to grow and thrive.

This article was originally published on The China and Africa Report website on August 7th 

Nicola Licata, Samu Ndema Ngwenya, and Rosie Wigmore contributed to this report.

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt


Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


    Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


Deputy Director

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


Research Analyst

Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


Policy Analyst

Ovigwe specialises in geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in a changing Global Order. He is adept at critically analysing the politics of contemporary development processes and providing insight into the geopolitical interests that influence them. His work includes research, publications, tailored briefings and advising on global and regional trends, and issues at the nexus of geopolitics and development. Ovigwe appears frequently in media around the world such as Al Jazeera, TRT World, SABC, CGTN, BBC Radio, and other platforms.


Policy Analyst

Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


Trade Policy Analyst

Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


Senior Policy Analyst 

Rosemary is our Senior Policy Analyst. She is a skilled policy analyst and has previously worked as a UK civil servant. She is studying Human Rights at Birkbeck, University of London with a research focus on international law in the context of health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Project Manager and Africa-China Communication Assistant

Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


Programme Manager

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



Etsehiwot holds a Masters’s degree in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. She has diverse experience in humanitarian and development issues by working in both multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations. Etsehiwot is currently a consultant focusing on the SDGs and development finance.


Economist Consultant

Dibekulu is an economist by training. He holds an MSc in International Development Studies from Palacky University Olomouc, an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Clermont Auvergne, and an MSc in Economics, Finance, and International Integration from the University of Pavia. At Development Reimagined, he works as an Economist consultant. He has strong data analysis skills, with research interests centring around development finance, impact assessment, food security, and agricultural insurance.


Project Manager

Osaru is a health professional with an MSc in Health Systems Policy and an interest in women’s health and population management. At Development Reimagined, she applies her health sector experience to global health research and collating locally applicable development insights from China.


Research Analyst

Ferdinando’s research at Development Reimagined is centred on South-South Cooperation dynamics, specifically on the analysis of Chinese investment and debt flows in Africa and their linkages to African industrialisation. He is currently a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, after having graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies.


Research Analyst

David is a Research and data analyst at Development Reimagined. His scholarly focus is mostly on interdisciplinary research in demographic economics and development with interests in migration, economic development and policy, education, health and subjective well-being. He is currently a PhD scholar at Nelson Mandela University from which he also holds B.com Economics and Statistics and M.com respectively.


Research Analyst Kenya

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team at DR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French.


Research And Data Analyst China 

Joy Ene is a Research and Data Analyst at DR. Joy is passionate about African/global development, poverty eradication and trade policies between underdeveloped and developing countries. She is also a fourth-year student of International Economics and Trade at the  Liaoning University, Shenyang, China. She serves as the President of the Student Union, Liaoning University, International Students chapter.


Research Analyst 

Chensi Li is a research analyst. She has previously worked for local NGOs in Nigeria and Cameroon and think-tanks in China.  Her research areas include Sino-African relations, African foreign affairs, public diplomacy, state-building and national governance.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst 

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion


Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.