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Brisk business for cheese makers in Kenya as consumption grows

Bryan Cuthbert, director, Doinyo Lessos Creameries, with staff at the Eldoret town plant. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA
Bryan Cuthbert, director, Doinyo Lessos Creameries, with staff at the Eldoret town plant. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA 

In just a few hours, Bryan Cuthbert, the owner of Doinyo Lessos Creameries in Eldoret, transforms milk from churns into fat wheels of cheese. For five years, this has been his job.

‘‘I am a cheese maker by choice, it is a passion I inherited from my parents,” he said.

Doinyo Lessos is among the few cheese-makers in Kenya doing brisk business, thanks to a growing middle class and expatriate community which have continued to support robust growth in retail volumes.

Mr Cuthbert, 27, said he took over one of the oldest cheese-making enterprises in the country together with his mother Rosemary after his father died.

He is now seeking to grow the business and compete with top cheese-makers such as Brown’s Cheese which was the leading company in the sector last year with a national value share of 22 per cent.

It was followed by Raka Milk Processors with a 19 per cent share, according to Euromonitor. Happy Cow Kenya comes third while Eldoville Dairies and New Kenya Co-operative Creameries (New KCC) round out the top five cheese-makers in the country.

Doinyo Lessos milk processor traces its roots to a 2,000 acre farm in Nandi in the late 1950s.

Mr Cuthbert, who holds a Masters in Business Management and BSC in Computer Science degrees said his father started the business out of interest before venturing into other products such as tinned milk.

The cheese-maker has grown over the years to employ 85 workers and increase varieties to 17. They make Cheddar cheese, Mozzarella balls, Red Highland, cream cheese, pizza cheese, Ricotta, Paneer and Blue Highland.

Doinyo sells the cheese to over 200 hotels, restaurants and cafes in Nairobi, which constitutes about 70 per cent of its market.

Consumption is low

With the growth in number of fast food joints selling pizza, burgers and pasta in Nairobi and Mombasa, Doinyo plans to increase production.

“We produce 30,000 kilogrammes of cheese monthly and our target is 35,000 kilogrammes by the end of the year,” he said.

Increased knowledge of different types of cheese among consumers saw sales grow last year.

But in regions such as the North Rift, Mr Cuthbert said, consumption is still low and it only accounts for four per cent of the total cheese sold.

“Our main buyers in the region include hotels, supermarkets and a few schools. We hope to grow a new generation of cheese consumers locally and in East Africa,” he said.

New KCC’s corporate affairs officer Stacy Too said the company has been making cheese for five decades.

New KCC sells 80,000 tonnes of cheese per year. ‘‘With a projected sustainable supply of quality raw milk throughout the year, we hope to increase the volume to about 100,000 tonnes,’’ said Ms Too.

New KCC produces several types which include rindless cheddar, gouda, tavern and herbal cheddar (sweet chili, mixed herbs, black pepper and garlic). The ban on selected imported cheese, butter and milk powder 14 years ago paved the way for local producers to grow sales.

Cheese varies according to consumer choices, texture and flavour, factors influenced by the level of acidity, maturing time and temperatures.

“There are two types of cheese, either soft or hard. Most consumers prefer younger milder cheese which doesn’t exceed more than six weeks as opposed to those that take more than 18 months to mature,” said Paul Nduati, the Doinyo Lessos production manager.

Cheese makers perform a daily alchemy, turning perishable milk into durable and dense protein.

The milk is first tested and then passed through a pasteuriser. The milk is heated under temperatures of 720 degrees Celsius for about 15 seconds. Then it is passed through a separator, which separates curd and whey.

Fair share of challenges

Despite the growing market, Mr Cuthbert said the business has its fair share of challenges.

“At the macro-level the challenge has been learning the dairy sector as milk production levels are highly seasonal. The cash cycle is also pegged on liquidity in the wider economy as currently many manufacturers are struggling to get payments for supplies. This in turn affects payments to farmers. These two factors create significant challenges on a daily basis,” he said.

“On average we pay them Sh37 (per litre) depending on fluctuations and the distance travelled,” said Mr Cuthbert.

The cheese business also relies heavily on a booming tourism sector. A drop in tourist arrivals and low seasons such as April and March affect sales.

To keep the business afloat and cushion it from low cash flow during low seasons, cheese makers target catering companies and the regional market.

Doinyo Lessos is setting sights on Kampala, Juba and Addis Ababa and plans to diversify into production of long-life milk.

Last year, the milk processor launched flavoured Mursik — traditional fermented milk — and tinned milk, becoming the only firm in East Africa to make the two products. 

“The products took us one year before we got it right. But I am happy that the community has received the products well, the challenge is now distribution and growing consumers,” said Mr Cuthbert.

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