By Mary Kate Wise

In the Gorgol region of Mauritania – where drought and poverty mean every scrap of food counts – milk is a crucial source of protein and nutrition for growing children.

“When the children drink the animal’s milk, they have energy and want to play,” says Phuel Maimouna, a young mother from the Tintrami community, who feeds her three children with milk from her cattle herd.

During normal rainy seasons milk is plentiful. But without the technology to preserve and store it, families have no choice but to throw the surplus away.

For the six dry months out of every year, when the men from Tintrami take the cattle on a migration to find grazing ground, families must go without their main source of protein.

In 2010, Counterpart International established a pilot project in the Gorgol region that offered another solution. It showed women how to make dried cheese products out of their surplus milk during the rainy season.

The dry cheese provides a nutritious food source which, at 28 percent protein, can make the difference in keeping children healthy during times of scarcity.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Multi-Year Assistance Program, the Counterpart initiative aims to improve the health of mothers and children and ensure better nutrition. The five-year program also builds microenterprise and community development.

Women who participate in the project learn the technical aspects of dry cheese production, and receive a cheese-making kit with the necessary equipment.

The project also enables the communities to construct storage warehouses lit with solar panels for the cheese to dry in.

The women produce the dried cheese by first straining and whisking the cow’s milk. They add a mix that ferments the milk, then scoop out the curds into a mold where they sit for six hours overtop a clean screen that allows for drainage.

Finally, they move the cheese behind a screen to protect it from flies and dust and leave it to dry for up to five days.

Once the cheese is ready, it can be dried and shaped into a patty, crushed into porridge or sautéed with vegetables in a sauce, and can be flavored to taste salty or sweet.

When stored properly, the dried cheese lasts up to six months.

Children have to be shooed away during the production process because they like the dried cheese so much, says Maimouna.

Besides the nutritional benefits to families, making dried cheese also allows households to save money.

When the herds are gone in the lean season, women typically spend 1600 Ouguiyas (about five dollars) for each kilo of milk powder substitute. Instead, they can produce a kilo of dried cheese from every 10 liters of extra milk they had during the rainy season.

Over the pilot phase of this activity, 200 women produced more than 260 kilos of dried cheese. They are using what they have learned to teach other women in their communities to make the cheese as well.

Participants are now contacting local suppliers to discuss options for packaging and selling the cheese as a source of additional income.

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