Kathonzweni Creamery: Long wait for milk plant dream to become reality

Kathonzweni Milk Factory

A worker with some of the milk processing machines installed at the Kathonzweni milk factory in Makueni County on January 11, 2023. The Sh100 million factory has not started operations five years since its completion.

Photo credit: Pius Maundu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Machines installed at the Sh100 million factory are rusting away five years after its completion due to lack of water and milk.
  • Kathonzweni Creamery, which comes with elaborate lines for producing long life milk and yoghurt, was among four milk factories installed by Ilri across the country as part of a USAID funded programme dubbed Accelerated Value Chain Development Programme.
  • The Makueni County government projects the factory will begin operations in June.

When the International Livestock Research Institute (Ilri) picked Kathonzweni region in Makueni County to set up a milk factory, dairy farmers in the sleepy countryside were elated.

It was supposed to turn around the economic fortunes of the arid region and provide the country with a model milk chilling plant worth emulating.

But the machines installed at the Sh100 million factory are rusting away as they have remained idle for five years after its completion due to lack of water and milk, raising questions on its sustainability.

“We are privileged to have the Kathonzweni milk factory. You do not see factories of such size in many other places. The main challenge facing the factory is lack of water,” Makueni Agriculture Executive Joyce Mutua told the Nation in an interview.

“We are, however, working on piping water from a borehole at the Kathonzweni Dispensary to the factory. The ongoing work entails softening the water since the factory operates on soft water,” she added.

She revealed that Makueni Governor Mutula Kilonzo Jr’s administration has tapped on the new World Bank funded National Agricultural Value Chain Development programme and its own funding, to tie the loose ends and operationalise the milk factory by June.

Key among the issues the county government has set out to address before the Kathonzweni factory starts operating are safety concerns, after it emerged that a boiler which serves the plant is installed, inside the factory.

Ms Mutua is among those who have maintained that pressurised vessels such as boilers should be kept in open spaces to minimise harm in case they explode.

However, Ilri has dismissed the concerns: “Everything that has been put at the factory is of the highest standards and highly functional. Many people may come around and say that this thing was not supplied properly, may be because they were not the suppliers. It is only a matter of the facility not having enough milk to run. And as it would be expected, when something is not running for some time, it shows a little bit of rust here and but we have no fears that the facility is very strategic for the county,” Mr Romano Kiome, a member of the board of trustees at Ilri and a former Agriculture Principal Secretary who oversaw the construction of the Kathonzweni milk factory, told the Nation in a recent interview.

According to Ms Jacinta Nzive, the manager at Kathonzweni Dairy Farmers Cooperative Society, the region produces around 1,400 litres of milk daily.

This is insufficient to sustain the plant considering that it is designed to process 1,000 litres of milk in an hour.

An attempt by the county government to source milk from Kilome and Mbooni regions was met with resistance as it was fraught with suspicion.

“Over the years, we have stood our ground in demanding for a thorough audit to establish the investment Kathonzweni dairy farmers have put into the milk factory before any other organisation claims a stake in the factory,” a senior official of the Kathonzweni Dairy Farmers Cooperative Society told the Nation in confidence since she is not allowed to speak on behalf of the entity.

The investment includes a piece of land which the 794-member cooperative society has acquired around the factory.

Kathonzweni Creamery, which comes with elaborate lines for producing long life milk and yoghurt, was among four milk factories installed by Ilri across the country as part of a USAID funded programme dubbed Accelerated Value Chain Development Programme, which targeted drought resistant crops, dairy, potatoes and livestock value chains.

“We did four milk chilling plants as models. The one in Makueni is the biggest. While the ones in Kipkelion, Homabay and Kisumu are of a storage capacity of 5,000 litres. The Makueni one has a 25,000-litres storage capacity and the infrastructure of processing milk to the level of pasteurised milk. So it is a factory not a chilling plant. The idea was because Makueni County was growing in dairy production, it would be somewhat futuristic in the sense that as the milk production increases, it would be useful because there will be enough supply,” said Mr Kiome.

Five years later after its grand opening graced by then Governor Kivutha Kibwana, the dairy farmers decry heavy losses, as a small scale milk chiller operated by the cooperative is often overwhelmed.

“We are forced to turn down milk from our members when the chillers are overwhelmed. This happens thrice a week,” said Ms Nzive who is also a dairy farmer in the region.

The raft of blunders which have bedeviled the milk factory has brought to sharp focus, the relationship between county governments and donors- when it comes to undertaking mega projects.

Although the Makueni County Government acquired the land for setting up the factory, Prof Kibwana said his administration had a limited role in the design and construction of the factory.

“The contractor and the sponsor kept the project details to themselves. We chose not to protest because we desperately needed the project,” said Mr Titus Mutie, the chairman of the cooperative society which owns the Kathonzweni milk factory.

At a meeting addressed by Cooperatives Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui in the area on Tuesday, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee at the Makueni County Assembly who is also Nzaui/Kilili/Kalamba Ward Rep Francis Mutuku appealed to President William Ruto to intervene and ensure that the Kathonzweni factory is operational.

To go round the milk production bottleneck, Mr Kilonzo Jnr’s administration has laid out elaborate plans to operate the Kathonzweni milk factory like a posho mill.

“We are planning to offer milk processing services to individual farmers and organised groups at a fee. Once we are done tying the loose ends at the factory by June this year, the factory will start by processing fermented milk and yoghurt for individuals and Community Based Organisations ,who will bring their milk in small volumes,” Ms Mutua told the Nation.

She added: “The factory will process milk of any quantity. It will be upon the individuals and organised groups to take the finished products to the market.”

Meanwhile, the county government has intensified campaigns aimed at increasing the production of milk through aggressive promotion of the uptake of hybrid breeds of dairy cows and use of sexed semen and preservation of assorted fodder grasses for the production of hay and silage.