Reviving livelihoods of cow owners: How UNDP helped farmers retain their cows

Khadija processes milk into cheese in the milk processing facility set up by UNDP in the Al-Ghab region

(AL-Ghab/Hama-Syria)-The ongoing crisis in Syria has exacerbated the situation for people raising cattle in the country.  This ancient livelihood which once provided income for more than 20% of the 8.8 million rural population of Syria is now endangered. Entering its fourth year, the conflict has been displacing people particularly from rural farming areas in order to flee violence or search for an alternate income. With almost half of the country now living in poverty, the lag in cattle farming has not only disrupted livelihoods, it is depriving much of the population of a sufficient protein intake.

Highlights

  • So far, 40% of cows in the Al- Ghab region have been slaughtered and sold as beef as this seemed more economically feasible than selling milk.
  • the milk processing units have been providing income for up to 20 families (120 people in total) who own one or two cows each and sell milk to the units as alternative customers to wholesalers.
  • This initiative has not only saved up to 35 cows so far, it has incentivized the farmers to expand their herd and partake in the milk processing business in order to generate additional income.

 “With affordable feed for my cows, I used to sell milk to wholesalers and get by, but since the crisis started, I no longer found it feasible with the prices I was being offered by wholesalers and the amount I now have to pay for feeding my cows” says Khadija (37), a recently made widow who depends on her two cows in the Al-Ghab region of Hama (northern- Syria) as primary income generators for her five children.

Many cattle feed producers who once offered affordable concentrated feeds to farmers in Al-Ghab have been either forced out of business or hiked their prices by 50% due to elevated fuel and transportation costs. Since concentrated feeds occupy a pivotal part of a cow’s diet, this has made it difficult for farmers like Khadija to maintain her cows. Due to the complexity of production, cow feeds cannot be locally produced by the famers themselves.

The area of Al-Ghab hosts up to 28088 cows, a number that is on the decline. While well-established cattle farmers were getting by, small time farmers like Khadija were not. “I can no longer feed my cows, so slaughtering them and selling their meat seems to be the only way to feed my seven children”, said Khadija who deliberates moving to a city where she can get a job in order to support her household.

So far, 40% of cows in the Al- Ghab region have been slaughtered and sold as beef as this seemed more economically feasible than selling milk.  Although the cow owners made money due to rising beef prices, many livelihoods vanished.

As part of its focus on enhancing the resilience of communities through quick impact projects such as the restoration of disrupted livelihoods, UNDP collaborated with the Al-Ghab Development Commission in order to set up ten milk processing units within eight villages located in the Al- Ghab region.

“We needed a quick solution to halt the slaughtering of cows and incentivize farmers to keep them” said Abduallah Saeed who coordinates with UNDP on behalf of the Commission.  “The cows of Al-Ghab come from a rich breed, and losing them like this is killing the local economy” continued Abdallah who is a professional cow breeder himself.

So far, the milk processing units have been providing income for up to 20 families (120 people in total) who own one or two cows each and sell milk to the units as alternative customers to wholesalers.   Managed by community members, these units have revitalized the local dairy economy in which cow owners are offered 40% more money than wholesalers use to give them.

“The refurbished milk processing units are equipped with refrigerators and processing equipment in addition to volunteers from the local community who assist in running the operation” said Ali Kayali, the UNDP project coordinator stationed in Al- Ghab.

“Because of this initiative, the cow owners selling milk to the processing units have abandoned the idea of slaughtering since they now can afford to buy feed for their cattle. This initiative has not only saved up to 35 cows so far, it has incentivized the farmers to expand their herd and  partake in the milk processing business in order to generate additional income” Kayali declared.

The milk processing units have also enabled an additional 10 families who run them in generating an income through the production of various kinds of cheeses, butter, and fresh yogurt. These products are sold in nearby villages at a 10% discount and also consumed by the producing families themselves.

“Selling milk to the processing units saved my two cows” said Khadija. “Not only do I no longer have to sell milk to wholesalers at meager prices, I now have a reasonable income” continued Khadija.

 Khadija has been able to generate up to 42,000 SYP (300USD) in net profit in one month from selling the milk her cows produce.  Like the other cow owners, she has access to the processing units and makes her own cheese and yogurt primarily for her family’s consumption.   

“My seven children are now all enrolled in school and my eldest who left the seventh grade last year is now back to school since he doesn’t need to help me out by finding an income” affirms Khadija with joy and relief. “I am also very happy to put butter, cheese and yogurt on our table as these were absent from my children for too long” continued Khadija who is pleased to bring back protein into her family’s diet.

Female-headed households have been more severely affected by the crisis than those headed by men, given a range of pre-existing conditions that reduce coping capacities and increase dependence on external support. For this reason, Women have been primary beneficiaries of this initiative.

“Empowering the farmers, especially the women who head their households has brought back a sense of certainty” declares Kayali. “I am amazed at how much enthusiasm the farmers have for up keeping this tradition that has been in their families for a long time”.