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How milk from African women could end the continent’s poverty

Wednesday June 29 2011

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

As popular technology magazines come and go, there are few to beat WIRED for being unconventional.

Most issues have so many surprises and twists, they will spin your head until you get a little delightful tingly dizziness.

The latest issue is no different, but even by WIRED’s standards, the article titled “Liquid Gold” was in a league of its own.

The story starts with Desiree Espinoza, a 19-year-old college student who had a two-month baby girl but was pumping out so much milk, it was enough to feed triplets.

Ms Espinoza put her milk in food bags, and kept them in the freezer. She also had a lot of other things like unpaid bills.

Contemplating what to do with her excess frozen milk, she decided to go on the Internet to see if there was a way she might get rid of it.

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At that point, Espinoza didn’t even know if it was legal to sell breast milk in the US. Turns out it was. The rest is a fairy tale.

There is a very lucrative market for breast milk, and it is kind of the new gold.

Also, it is not only mothers who can’t produce milk and don’t want to feed their little ones on formula who are willing to pay top shillings for the natural milk.

There are also adults competing for the stuff, and in Espinoza’s case, she is reported to have sold the product to a man who claimed that he drank breast milk because it helped his immune disorder! (I checked out the website, www.onlythebreast.com where Espinoza sold her milk, and it’s real).

Espinoza moved from zero to making $1,200 (Sh108,000) a month. She bought herself a new laptop, and the nice dress she wore to her wedding to her baby’s 22-year-old father.

She plans to sell her breast milk for a year, and expects to make about $20,000 (Sh1.8m) before she runs out of stock, and moves on to other pursuits.

We are not told whether the baby’s father has a job, but if he doesn’t and is living off the money his wife is making selling her breast milk online, then he must be a very strong or extremely enlightened man for it not to do serious damage to his ego.

My wider thoughts on reading this were with Africa’s women. There are surely very many of our women with surplus milk.

Imagine how their lives would change if the unemployed women in towns like Thika or Eldoret knew they could auction their milk online and get Sh1.8m a year. They would all be wealthy.

In fact, if just a quarter of the women with surplus milk in Kenya were able to sell it, then the MPs would not have to pay the taxes that they are resisting so strenuously, because the Kenya Revenue Authority would have milk tax money falling out of its ears.

This is serious stuff, because some breast milk banks are struggling. Supplies are dwindling, and some carry only 10 per cent of the volume of milk they did a few years ago.

The result? Prices are rising, and buying from some milk banks costs about $50,000 (Sh4.5m) a year for a child.

You read this stuff and you realise that if the likely prejudices about the safety of milk from African mothers did not become an issue, then the main stumbling block to these breast milk riches remains one — information.

Some years ago, I watched a TV interview of the old crooner Joe Cocker. He was asked about a ranch he was starting somewhere, in California, I think.

He said a health-conscious America was searching, and willing to pay a premium for, lean beef, and that is what he was going into.

He said he had discovered that the cows with the leanest beef in the world are the long-horned Ankole cattle from western Uganda.

Now the people of Ankole love their cattle, and give them names like “the one with the round beautiful eyes”.

But they love them for their milk, not lean beef, which some of the old-school village ranchers are still too proud to eat.

They scorn the beef most likely because they don’t know what Joe Cocker knows: That their cattle have the leanest beef on the planet. They don’t have information.