A DAIRY THAT rents pregnant buffaloes from local Luang Prabang farmers is testing the commercial viability of the sharing economy model in Luang Prabang, where local people do not consume a large amount of dairy products.
An Australian couple sold their house in Sydney and put their savings into a buffalo dairy, the first of its kind in Laos, where dairy farms did not previously exist and buffalo resources have been underutilised.
“I travelled to Sri Lanka, I liked the buffaloes and the taste of their milk and cheese there,” explained Susie Martin, CEO of Laos Buffalo Dairy, as she recounted her previous travelling experience before leaving the corporate world to make the dairy investment and settle in Luang Prabang.
Martin moved to the scenic tourist destination in 2014 and began a trial of milking buffaloes before officially launching the dairy business.
In 2016, Martin and her business partners – both Laos nationals and people from other countries – started the operation by renting a female buffalo from farmers living in nearby villages. Her farm and dairy production facility is located at Ban Muang Khay, Luang Prabang.
At first farmers were sceptical about renting buffaloes to her farm.
“They felt a bit nervous,” she said.
Martin and her business partners put a pregnant buffalo into quarantine in order to check for disease and prepare the female buffalo for delivering her baby calf.
About six weeks later, everything was checked, including vaccination to prevent foot and mouth disease, and the buffalo was removed from the quarantine zone.
When the right time came, the buffalo delivered a calf.
Mother and baby lived together for few days before being separated. The farm owner began milking once daily for six to seven months.
The initial test worked out, and now Martin pays a rent to local farmers as she milks their buffaloes during the post-delivery period.
She sells milk, cheese and other dairy products to hotels and restaurants located mainly in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
The traditional diet in Luang Prabang does not include milk, but Martin has been trying to persuade people to consume it to reduce malnutrition about children aged under two years. According to Laos government statistic, the malnutrition rate is as high as 40 per cent among children, she said.
The farm recently exported its dairy products to Japan with first shipment of about 250 kilograms.
Buffalo dairy products are of a very high quality due to their rich nutrition, she said. The local buffalo breed offers a small yield of about 2 to 3 litres of milk daily. In conjunction with the Lao Agricultural Institute, Martin is now cross-breeding the local buffalo with the Indian Murrah buffalo breed that yields 7 to 8 litres of milk daily. The cross-breeding will improve the milk yield in future generations.
The farm will returns the buffalo to farmers following the cross-breeding, and the pregnant cow is again handed back to her just before delivering a calf.
The farm currently rents about 150 female buffaloes from area farmers and plans to add another 50 early next year.
To earn more money, Martin has opened the farm to tourists who drop in on their way to the popular Kuang Si waterfall. The visitors buy her mozzarella, ricotta, cottage cheese, yoghurt cheesecake, ricotta cheesecake, ice cream, yoghurt and buttermilk.
Steven McWhirter, general manager of the dairy farm and Martin’s husband, says he has a relationship with a Thai buffalo dairy farm with more experience in the business. The farm also has collaborative projects with educational institutions in Laos.
According to their website, laosbuffalodairy.com, Martin and her business partners have now launch a crowd-funding campaign via IndieGoGo platform in order to raise US$30,000 (Bt982,000) to buy 20 pregnant buffaloes for unprivileged farmers, with the purpose of offering 20 pairs of calves to farmers in need.