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Healthy Milk from Mali for Mali

A self sustainable, scalable and carbon negative business model to enhance food resilience and security in stressed regions

Photo of Stephan Wullschleger
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Association Pro Milk Mali

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

DJOM KOSSAM, Small-scale dairy in Mali (Bamako) Adapta Group, a global expert in sustainable agricutlre, awarded with the UN Global Climate Action Award

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Bamako and the comune of Siby in Mali with ca. 300km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Back in 2005 as a PhD student in Food Science I came the first time to Mali. My objective was to understand the spontaneous production process of the traditional fermented sour milk fene, develop a starter culture and make the product safer for human consumption.

I got in touch with rural farmers, young entrepreneurs and scientists in Bamako. I initially got frustrated when I realized that people in rural communities collect good milk and bring it to a dairy in Bamako that mixes it with milk reconstituted from imported milk powder. I realized that the entire local dairy value chain in Mali is not run efficiently and Mali therefor depends on milk powder imports for food security and looses huge opportunities to create value for its population.

Given that Mali is an agricultural country, more than 80% of its population work in agriculture and dairy products are part of the culture, I decided to start a small business with a local entrepreneur during my first visit in 2005. I sent him CHF 4000 to build a sales kiosk in which we started selling only local milk from Mali for Mali. Since 2005 we expanded from one point of sales to a small-scale dairy and founded cooperatives with local farmers. Although we faced many challenges, such as political unrest, thefts from employees, competition from NGOs with big budgets, accidents or near death diseases of our co-founder we always found a way to move forward. Beside the friendships I made, it is the strong believe that by creating a self-sustainable business in the agriculture sector in Mali a lot of value can be created for the local population. All this has kept me attached to Mali.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa with nomadic roots. It is said that the richest person ever on Earth was Mansa Musa the King of Mali in the 14th century and the first university on Earth was built Timbuktu in the North of Mali. Unfortunately, not much of this richness is left in Mali and it belongs to the 20ths poorest countries measured by GDP per capita. The nomadic roots have translated into a semi-nomadic agriculture tradition of small-scale farmers that perform often a combination of arable and livestock farming. 80% of the population earn their income in the agriculture sector, which contributes 35% to the GDP. A small-scale farmer keeps a herd of about 10 cows and few sheep and goats. Animals are mainly kept as a family asset that can be sold in bad times and limited focus is given to milk or meat productivity.

The climate is divided into three seasons, rainy (June to November, maximum average temperature (mat) 30°C-35°C, average monthly precipitation (amp) 185mm), cold and dry (November to February, mat 34°C-37°C, amp 5mm) and hot and dry (February to June 37°C-39°C, amp 25mm). Crop planting therefore takes place in Mai and harvest around November time. Livestock is kept in a semi nomadic way in which animals are walked twice a day to feeding and watering places during the rainy and cold seasons. Livestock is often abandoned during the hot season due to limited availability of feed.

Around 2 million of Mali’s 18 million population life in the capital Bamako. Urbanisation rate is at 4.9% and population grow at 3.0%. The official language is French. The most often spoken local languages are Bambara and Peuhl. More than 10 ethnics life in Mali with Bambara and Peuhl being the two most dominant with 33% and 13%, respectively. Mali was a good example of political stability in Africa until the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya triggered big instability in the North of the country and requested armed forces of the United Nation to intervene.

36% of the population life below the poverty line of USD 1.9 per day per capita. This poverty is a main reason for mal-nutrition. A typical meal consists of rice and a plant based sauce and is therefor poor in protein. Reduced protein intake has a direct link to low cognitive development. Most people in Mali are looking forward to making enough to feed their families and hoping for an environment that allows them to develop and improve their standards of living. Talking about food people want a safe, affordable, healthy and well tasting product that they can trust for its quality.

Our vision focuses on Bamako and Siby a village about 60km from Bamako towards the boarder of Senegal. Siby has about 25’000 habitants and is located in the district of Kati in the region of Koulikoro. Agriculture is the main occupation in Siby as everywhere in rural Mali.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Mali depends on milk powder imports to ensure food security although it has with over 10 million cattle almost as much livestock as its population and more than the United Kingdom (Cook, 2015). Milk consumption is with 12 litres per capita per year very low compared to the United-States national dietary guidelines that recommend that adults should drink three cups or 732 mL/d of milk or 267 litres per year per adult. Low protein intake leads to a limited cognitive development that is probably an ingredient for low literacy rates and poor overall economic performance. If malnutrition will not be addressed effectively all subsequent intentions to develop a stressed region will not flourish and overall little improvements can be expected by 2050.

The underlying challenge for low milk consumption is not cultural, as milk has already been embedded in the nomadic culture of Mali. Moreover it is due to a low performing and poor quality local dairy industry (Bonfoh, 2003 & 2005) that leads to similar consumer prices for one litre of milk as in developed countries whereas the population of Mali has a much lower purchases power.

The key reasons for the low performance of the local dairy industry are:

1) Low milk yield per cow
2) Disconnected locations of production and consumption
3) Limited infrastructure and numerous not-connected intermediaries along the milk value chain

The primary challenge to address is the low milk yield per cow, which is linked to poor feeding (Bonfoh 2005), breeding practices and low hygiene/veterinary standards.

Poor feeding is linked to cultural habits given through the climatic situation and to the non-awareness of alternative options. The main reason is the limited availability of feed during the hot season (Bonfoh 2005). Global warming will increase the challenge of feed availability by 2050. The implication of environmental factors and the readiness to respond to it will probably be the biggest challenge to the local food system in Mali.

We believe that technology will support the development of the local agriculture sector in Mali with many tailored IT based solutions by 2050, as Mali has with over 60% already a high penetration of mobile phones. The challenge is that new technology solutions need to be well embedded in the food system, low cost and be suitable for a population with low literacy rates.

Policies normally follow economic and environmental developments. What we can see is that already today the Malian Ministry of Agriculture aims to develop the local agriculture sector. By 2050 maybe more policies will be in place that strengthen local feed and food production, address feed and food imports and exports as well as environmental regulations in the agriculture sector.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision is to implement an innovative, scalable, integrated and optimized dairy value chain system. The system could be scaled in full, in parts or transferred to other locations. Social, environmental and economic benefits have been proven. The system integrates all parts of the value chain from the cultivation of feed, farming, milk production, logistics to sales. The innovative system will increase the productivity of the local milk sector, lower the cost of milk and make proteins (milk) affordable to more socio-economic groups in Mali.

Feed is a key driver to improve milk yield. Currently feed is low in energy, unbalanced, water poor, remote, scare and expensive. We envision changing this with the introduction of Opuntia-ficus, a spineless cactus that grows in Mali. However, farmers in Mali are not yet aware of the benefits of this cactus. The cactus acts as a substitute to corn and provides the energy that is needed to improve milk yield. Farmers in Mali don’t add a carbohydrate source to their cows’ nutrition because corn is only planted for human consumption. Cactus is a low cost feed compared to corn, as it grows on marginal land and will not compete with human food production. It stores higher level of carbon dioxide during its life cycle than other livestock feed and captures water, which is especially important during the dry season (FAO, 2017; MAIS Program 2018). Opuntia-ficus is safe for animal consumption and is fed to cows, sheep or coats. Its fruit can be consumed by human and is considered to have health benefits. Research on medical, nutritional and health benefits of Opuntia-ficus has gained traction in recent years (El Mostafa, 2014) and may open completely new opportunities.

We envision to implement a feed production system that will not only lead to a well-balanced, high energy, affordable and water rich feed but also strengthens climate resilience with landscape regeneration, reduces desertification and captures high amounts of carbon dioxide.

In parallel semi-nomadic farming practices could be improved by free walking stationary farming. Long walks to feeding places at hot temperatures strongly reduce milk yield. Controlled breeding programs and high veterinary and hygiene standards will increase milk yields further.

In a second phase, artisanal milk transformation and manual packaging could be changed to semi-automated production with high quality packaging to improve milk quality and food safety.

Milk is currently transported at ambient temperatures, which could be changed to chilled transportation to better ensure food safety.

The sales network could be extended and consumer educated on the benefits of local milk, which will install trust in a local product.

We would plan to implement the above with our local partner and once proven successful, introduce an agency model at multiple points of the value chain to ensure fast scale up and impact generation.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Green revolution drives unexpected economic growth in Mali

30 years ago scientist and entrepreneurs implemented an innovative and fully integrated dairy value chain system from the production of feed to the consumption of milk. The system got scaled in parts, in full and was copied to other locations. The same approach was later introduced to other foodstuff.

Opuntia-ficus, a spineless cactus that grew in Mali and its benefits where not recognized, was the game changer. The cactus grows on marginal land, captures CO2 well and stores water. Sufficient and energy-rich feed was grown sustainably to captured more greenhouse gases as was produced until the consumption of milk.

Farming practices changed and milk yield increased through monitored feeding, standardized breeding and good hygiene care.

The changes in feed production and farming practices had a triple effect on diets, environment and economy. Beside huge amounts of CO2 that got captured, milk productivity increased 10 to 20 fold, which reduced production cost 50% and methane output per litre of milk. Milk became affordable to more socio-economic groups addressing that sufficient protein intake is critical for cognitive development. Further innovations to pelletize Palma and develop high quality compound feeds made Mali an emerging player on the global feed market. Research in Opuntia-ficus opened up even unexpected new opportunities in human nutrition and medicine.

Well-educated and highly motivated young people bring technology innovations to the agriculture sector, which boost its productivity further. This spilled over to other industries and more businesses emerged outside the agriculture sector.

Mali used duties and policies well to ensure food security. It became a food and agriculture net exporter and now takes a global role on food and agriculture policies. It bound all its domestic food and agro industries to the strictest environmental policies and now convinces other countries to join forces.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Green revolution drives unexpected economic growth in Mali

“A cactus transformed Mali. Mali became an exporter of dairy products, a significant player on the feed commodity market and an innovation hub in medicine and human nutrition.

The agriculture sector is now seen as well paying, which attracts many young Malian. The better pay left the worries how to feed the family aside and triggered the development of other industries. Recent research opened opportunities in human nutrition and medicine, two completely new industries for Mali.

Opuntia-ficus, also known as the prickly pear cactus was the foundation of this economic and social development. It further more reduced desertification and made Mali a net negative contributor of carbon emission. 

Mali is seen as a global role model in driving social well-being, economic development and a green revolution with a negative carbon footprint.”

The foundation of this inspiring development in landlocked Mali was laid about 30 years ago by a handful of local and international scientist and entrepreneurs that dreamt of the impossible, “to make Mali one of the most prosperous countries” and this at a time when Mali was protected by United Nation Peace Keeping forces.

The local person, who is responsible for this success, explained:” The basic need for any development is enough, safe and healthy food”. Therefore, they envisioned transforming the food system, in particular the end-to-end value chain of the local dairy industry. They changed every step of the dairy value chain system from food cultivation, farming, production, logistics to sales and subsequently scaled every part of the system by an agency model. Over the years this integrated system thinking was applied to other foodstuff, such as vegetable, fruits and fish.

The implementation of the innovative and integrated dairy value chain system increased productivity of the local dairy sector 10 to 20 fold, reduce production cost by over 50% as well as the cow’s methane production per litre milk. Cost improvements were passed on to consumers and access to affordable and safe dairy products increased exponentially. Over the years milk consumption increased from 12 to over 180 litres per person per year, which compares to consumption levels in Europe. Milk contains 3.3% protein and all nine essential amino acids. Milk is therefore a very good protein source. A healthy and protein sufficient diet is needed for a good cognitive development. Since 2035 malnutrition has not been considered as a problem in Mali. The improved diet in combination with improved public schooling programs was certainly an important reason why literacy rates increased from 30% in 2020 to over 85% in 2049. A more nutritious and safe diet was also a key driver that life expectancy increased by over 15 years during the last 30 years.

New employment and entrepreneurial opportunities were generated quickly because the newly implemented food value chain systems were all based on economic principles and scaled mostly by agency models. The salary of a herder or a woman working in the production or sales of food increased at least eight-fold from about 60 USD/month to over 480 USD/month at moderate inflation rates of around 2% to 4% during the last 30 years. In addition the government together with the main actors in the food and agriculture sector structured a social program that includes a basic pension scheme and health insurance. An astonishingly 90% of all actors are enrolled into this program. It is incredible to listen to a 70-year-old woman in a rural village saying: “My needs are covered by my pension to which I contributed in earlier years. Therefore I’m not a burden to my family as my parents were. And thanks to the access to medical care 5 years ago I now can still help my children to create an even more prosperous future.”

The dry and hot season with over 40°C maked agriculture in Mali a challenge and it was even a bigger challenge the further people lived from the river Niger. Agriculture was very manual and with a low productivity 30 years ago. The plantation of Opuntia-ficus, a spineless cactus that grew naturally in Mali and its benefits were not recognized for too long, was a driver in the transformation of the food systems in Mali. The cactus grows on marginal land with minimal water availability. Land got regenerated, especially in the drier North of Mali newly developed co-cultivation with different crops, vegetables and trees increased soil productivity. This well researched regenerative plantation concept is best described as the green revolution of Mali. The concept is a key reason why Mali has a negative CO2 balance since five years. Today’s scale of the regenerative plantation concept was reached through a systematic education program at various education levels. More important the implementation was based on economic principles that allowed many people to participate in the movement.

Mali became a noticeable player on the global feed commodity market with high quality compound feeds, as it invested into research to palletize cactus and develop various compound feeds. Many IT based solutions have helped to improve the efficiency in the food supply chain systems; better yields in arable and livestock farming, reduction in food wastage or efficiencies in logistics were achieved. Although the hot weather was an initial challenge for farming, the available sun now helps that 85% of energy is covered by solar and the remaining 15% by water and wind turbines. Mali started to invest into local research and developed new applications in human nutrition and medicine out of Opuntia-ficus. These innovations created many new start-ups that positively contribute to the local economy and are the first indications that Mali moves from an agriculture country to a manufacturing and service-based country. 

Since the innovative and well-integrated value chain systems were implemented in the food and agriculture industries productivity increased substantially. It meant that less people were needed in these industries. Interestingly over the last 30 years urbanisation was much lower than in other countries and emigration inverted. One reason is that work in the agriculture industry became more lucrative. Therefore, not all family members have to directly contribute to feed the family. That meant that less people were forced to move to cities in order to find work to support the family income. In short, some family members were freed up and could pursue other opportunities. Improved Internet connectivity supported the innovation power in rural areas. People had more time as they were well fed by their families and the Internet connected them globally. With these two ingredients the need to leave the family and move to a city was strongly reduced. This became a big benefit and strengthened the culturally important family bonding particularly in rural areas.

Fatima, a 30-year-old lady holds a Business and Marketing degree from the University of Bamako told me that she returned to her village after graduating. The opportunity that her husband had in arable farming covered all they need to start a family 5 years ago. She works from home and is responsible for the global marketing and logistics of traditional clothing manufactured by a cooperative of women in her village. She explained me that the family income her husband and herself make, could not be imagined by her parents 20 years ago and can be compared to a high ranking official at that time.  

Compared to other countries more young people enter the agriculture and food industries in Mali. They all have seen or experienced how their previous generation or older friends have improved living standards by applying innovation and commitment. The new generation is much better educated and technology sway, which will drive further productivity across all industries.

Back in 2017 whole milk powder was among the top 3 commodities in value that Mali imported. Mali applied an import duty, which was exempted during the lean season in 2008. In 2020 Mali had several policies in place with the objective to improve the productivity of the local agriculture sector. They were implemented with varying success. Over the years policy adjustments have followed the economic development and lately became more proactive. Nowadays the cost structure of the local dairy sector in Mali is more favourable compared to milk produced in developed countries. These efficiency gains of the local dairy sector made Mali a net milk exporter. Since about five years Mali takes a more active role on global policy discussions. It linked agricultural policies directly to the strictest environmental standards. Although this policy change is seen as a formality, as over 95% of agriculture businesses are already in line with these globally leading standards on emissions, soil usage and principles of the circular economy. All direct subsidies in the agriculture and food industries were removed and directed to education and research programs. At a global level Mali took a leading role to influence other countries to follow them in implementing such strict environmental standards.

Comparing life in Mali 30 years ago with today, I can summarize that a lot has changed. A wealth and living standard among rural and urban population has been achieved, probably no one ever dreamt of. Looking ahead to the next 30 years I feel an optimism that has never been felt in Mali. And we hope that this positive movement can reach many other countries in the near future.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (7)

El Mostafa 2014 nutritional health and medical benefits of cactus.pdf

A review of the nutritional, health and medical benefits of Opuntia-ficus and its applications.

Cactus pear deserves a place on the menu | FAO Stories | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.pdf

A publication by FAO describing the potential of Opuntia-fiucs as useful food-of-last-resort and the benefits of co-cultivation and potential reduced methanogenesis in ruminants.


A publication by our partner organization Adapta Group that explains the application of Opuntia-ficus in climate smart agriculture. The program was awarded with the UN Global Climate Action Award.


A peer reviewed publication informing about the limited cattle feed quality in Mali and it's implication on milk quality.


A peer reviewed publication that informs about the concerning microbial quality of local milk in Mali.

cook 2015 gloabl cattle ranking.pdf

FAO publication on the ranking of cattle number per country. Mali ranks at position 32 with 10 million cattle ahead of the UK.

Wullschleger et al 2013.pdf

A per-reviewed research paper that was published during my PhD that brought me to Mali initially.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Cortney Ahern

Hi Stephan Wullschleger !

Thank you for submitting your vision for healthy milk for Mali. I particularly appreciated the way you wrote about your vision for the future - it was so descriptive and imaginative, looking back 30 years from now to think about how things will have changed and improved for the better.

Some questions and suggestions that might help to strengthen your vision:
- It's clear you have a specific solution in mind for this place and this issue in planting Palma for dairy cattle feed. Has this particular plant been fed to cows before? Is it safe/healthy for their diets? Does it reduce the methane production of cows themselves? Can people eat Palma? Maybe there are other marketable uses for it.
- You've focused in on the milk supply chain as the key issue and potential solution, however in reading your application it's clear that there are so many interconnected issues and opportunities that relate to economics, culture, diet, and environment. There might be room to strengthen those ties to show how this is truly a systemic solution and vision.

I also wanted to make sure that you have seen our Food Vision Prize Toolkit with a lot of information, activities, and guidelines. The Toolkit can help you refine your Vision and make it more systemic, human-centred and well informed for the future. Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:
Thank you again!

Photo of Stephan Wullschleger

Hi Cortney

Thank you very much for your encouraging feedback and the question you raised to strengthen the vision.

Please see below answers or questions/comments to your helpful inputs.
If you don’t mind I would very much appreciate your further feedback to strengthen the vision:

Yes, Palma has been fed successfully to cows, sheep and goats. There is also scientific research behind the application of Palma.

Yes, Palma is safe and healthy for the diets of cows. Palma has a very similar composition than corn, except that it contains more water, which is a big benefit in dry locations.

I don’t know exactly about the Methan production in particular and will double check this point. However, the big benefit in growing Palma is that it grows on marginal land. That means that on land, which was not cultivated a plant that binds carbon very well can be planted. Once the first plant grows it is easier to grow additional plants that support further regenerative cultivation of land.

I’m not aware that people directly eat Palma, however if Palma is grown long enough its fruits, the cactus figs, can be consumed by people.

Indeed I strongly believe that an integrated value chain system on any foodstuff has many interconnected opportunities. The reason why I focused on milk is that milk is embedded in the culture of Mali and is rich in proteins. Protein is important for the cognitive development. I also grew naturally in this topic, as I did research work on it. So I feel very comfortable to talk about what is possible and what not, whereas for other foodstuff I don’t have this deep understanding.

I read the toolkit and will check it again to strengthen the vision.
Do you have a recommendation where and how to build in the above or any other points to make the vision stronger?

Thank you very much for your inputs and I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

all the best

Photo of Cortney Ahern

Hi Stephan,

This is great - thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I would encourage you to add this information into your application before the deadline on 1/31. It might be helpful to cite specific information/data from the studies you referenced about the use of Palma.

Thank you!

Photo of Stephan Wullschleger

Thank you Cortney,

I will add these details to the vision. Where do you think would they fit the best? a) Adresse the challenges, b) high level vision, c) full vision?

Are there any guidelines for citations?

Many thanks and best regards

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Stephan Wullschleger  Great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have your submission included in the Prize. Even if you've not started populating your Vision just yet, by publishing your submission you can make it public for other teams in your region to see, get in touch and possibly even collaborate with you.
You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. If you need inspiration or guidance, take a look at the Food Vision Prize Toolkit.
Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve over the next few weeks.

Photo of Stephan Wullschleger

Hi Itika
Many thanks for your message and happy New Year. I hope you had a good atart into 2020. I'm still playing around with the toolkit and step by step work through the submission details. Once I got everything to a publishable draft version I will publish it.

Best regards