Creaming the Competition? Frank O'Brien Discusses His Work on Dairy Value Chains
Frank O’Brien is Land O’Lakes International Development’s Chief of Party for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Program II (RDCP II). A development professional with almost 30 years of experience in both the public and private sectors, he has worked in various technical and program management roles across East and Southern Africa. Many of his long-term assignments have involved supporting USAID-funded crop and livestock agricultural competiveness projects, in countries including Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, as well as his current post in Rwanda. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture and a Master’s degree in Development Management.
You’re currently Chief of Party for RDCP II. Can you briefly describe the project and its goals?
Sure! USAID’s RDCP II is a five-year, U.S. $15 million competitiveness project working exclusively in dairy. The key project goal is to increase the competitiveness of Rwandan dairy products in regional markets. It is very rewarding to have been able to positively impact rural household incomes associated with dairy-related enterprises as dairy is one of the primary focuses of Land O’Lakes International Development’s work.
USAID’s RDCP II achieves its project goals by leveraging public and private investments to increase quality and efficiency along the dairy value chain. In doing so, the project also addresses strategic drivers of dairy competitiveness, increases production volumes, improves milk quality to meet both domestic and export standards, and builds consumer demand for milk and value-added dairy products.
What new knowledge, innovations, and/or best practices is your project carrying out across the dairy value chain?
I’m pleased to say the project is simultaneously working on several initiatives focused on catalyzing innovations and best practices. I’ll give you a few examples. We’ve worked with ‘quality-enabled’ village-based milk collectors. This has been an innovative way to directly provide producers key messages about the importance of raw milk quality. It’s empowering for producers because they’re the first line of defense when it comes to quality; the gatekeepers of sorts. It did not make sense to allow their products to travel along the value chain to the milk aggregation point if it was going to be rejected.
At the market end, the project team and I supported Rwanda’s largest milk processor, Inyange, to develop, roll out, and scale-up a pasteurized milk retail franchise concept that now allows urban consumers to purchase hygienic and safe milk from milk kiosks all across Rwanda’s capital Kigali. The success of this innovation has disproven the theory that Rwandan consumers will not choose pasteurized milk in favor of a raw milk product. This is important, because Rwandans traditionally purchase most milk from kiosks that do not maintain appropriate milk quality and handling standards.
How are you specifically helping to provide technical assistance and training to dairy farmers to increase their competitiveness? How has the local context influenced the steps you’re taking to increase competitiveness and build capacity?
These are great questions. I should mention we do not work directly with farmers, but rather through a range of service providers (SPs) including input suppliers, veterinarians, artificial insemination technicians, milk collection centers and others. We start there to build and strengthen business relationships between SPs and farmer-clients.
It’s been our experience that a key advantage of this approach is that it develops the viability of the private sector and enables the support to become sustainable. This leads to farmers associating positive change with SPs that provide services leading to productivity enhancement. That’s a result we can all get behind: increased milk output.
Increased dairy production is a key factor in incentivizing a dairy farmer to make further investments in his/her business. So, these milk collection centers are a key SP for rural dairy farmers as they provide a direct link to the market.
Improving milk collection performance is a multi-layered process that includes increasing the efficiency of receiving milk daily and, also, the efficiency of selling that milk daily. In this context, the guaranteed daily sale incentivizes dairy farmers to seek out the reliable SPs mentioned above who can improve their cows’ productivity.
What evidence do you have about the benefits of your approach? Are there any challenges to the model?
I fully believe the best evidence that an approach works is the extent to which it is adopted. We’ve seen widespread adoption of best practices for quality control when it comes to milk handling. Successful behavior change when it comes to milk quality has been strongly incentivized because both the public and private sectors have been advocating for it. The public sector has supported the development of the requisite policy instruments, while the private sector at the collection center and processor levels have supported these efforts through comprehensive testing and using the right hygienic equipment.
I’ll admit obtaining consensus among many players can be challenging. That said, once obtained, it greatly expedites how efficiently we can achieve our ultimate goals.
In your mind, what's been the project’s greatest contribution?
Seeing the widespread acceptance among all stakeholders about the importance of adopting best practices to improve milk quality has been incredibly rewarding. Improved food safety and the protection of public health are critical for the growth and development of any food industry.
In your experience, what are most relevant, practical, and accessible resources or tools that a practitioner can use to build capacity and improve product quality?
In any competitiveness project, positive, improved market access and increased efficiencies are the drivers of change, because they lead to increased profitability for the project’s clients and partners. This is really critical. If a development practitioner is going to make a difference, sustainable market linkages, relevant business development services, good governance at the cooperative level and understanding the needs of the client are all essential efforts. In addition, the ability to interlink development of an enabling policy environment to support—and not alienate—the private sector can greatly contribute to the growth of a sector. In this case, it’s dairy in Rwanda.
What questions do you want to pose to other practitioners in your field? Do you have any other calls to action?
It is important to understand opportunities and, at the same time, not to be overly prescriptive in trying to achieve them. I’d be curious to hear some of the ways others have accomplished this delicate balance.
Here’s another one: In a private sector project, I believe well-targeted key interventions can often make the most significant contribution in reaching project goals. For example, in many cases, I’ve seen that helping to buy down the risk—with committed private sector partners—can be a tremendous catalyst for growth and investment in a value chain. Likewise, upgrading skills and professionalizing an approach can greatly enhance outputs that drive a sector forward. I’d be delighted to hear what others are doing in this realm—including their challenges, lessons learned and other ideas.