Auroville's ‘La Ferme Cheese' is involved in advising and training Afghan cheese-makers .
It started in 2007 when Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an Afghan NGO connected to the Caritas group, contacted La Ferme Cheese in Auroville. CRS, which works in rural Afghanistan , wished to explore the possibilities of creating value-added products from dairy produce. They did some internet research and found that the nearest place with cheese expertise was Auroville. This led to an invitation to La Ferme Cheese's executive Olivier Hetzel to come to Afghanistan to study the market and the farmers' situation and advise on improving cheese processing possibilities.
Dairy products are a staple of the traditional Afghan diet and can be bought at every street corner in the country. They are used in combination with the Nan-e Afghani, the national bread of Afghanistan which is similar to the Indian naan. Large amounts of cheese are imported from the Europe, Iran and Pakistan . The sizeable local manufacture is limited to fresh cheeses (paneer) and fermented milk products such as chaka (blended quark or sour cream cheese) and quoroot (dried curd balls). Western-type cheeses are produced by a few small cheese factories. The largest is the Baghlan Cheese Factory, situated close to the city of Baghlan in the north-east part of the country, which is under Dutch management.
Given the heavy imports, Olivier found a huge market potential for similar cheeses locally produced. He advised increasing the production of cow, goat and sheep milk by implementing improved dairy programmes and introducing high-yield mixed breeds. The production of fresh cheeses for local production could be done in simple village workshops. He also suggested providing further training to dairy processors and improving existing workshops.
In the course of his market survey, Olivier stumbled on an almost lost tradition of cheese-making practised by some nomadic tribes, who use a sap collected from the wild indigenous flower Gulzardak as rennet for curdling milk. “This natural herbal enzyme is a cultural heritage that needs to be preserved for the world. This cheese, if matured in abandoned Karez tunnels (underground tunnels for water distribution where the temperature remains at 19° C at 85% humidity when outside the dry summer heat reaches 40° C) could lead to a unique Afghan cheese that has the potential to become world famous and attract high value for its special taste and production parameters,” wrote Olivier in his report Potential for cheese and dairy production in Afghanistan.
Olivier's report did not stop at cheese making. It also included advice on using biogas for pasteurisation and cooking, as animal husbandry accounts for over 18% of global warming in the world. Biogas plants are ideal for transforming greenhouse gases into clean energy. He also recommended using high nutrition alternative cattle feed such as spirulina (tiny blue-green algae that grow naturally in mineral-rich alkaline lakes and can be produced in small-scale algae farms) and recycled vegetable waste from other industries. Finally he suggested teaching trainers in Auroville.
Benny (right) with the six Afghan cheese trainees and the Dutch director of the Baghlan cheese factory (third from left).
The first training course was held in October 2007, when four Afghan cheese-makers came to Auroville. In March this year, six Afghans accompanied by two Dutchmen connected to the Bhaglan Cheese Factory, came to visit Auroville's La Ferme Cheese. “They were quite positive about what they saw,” says Benny who supervised the training course. “Their cheese factory has about the same productivity as ours – about 600 litres a day. We took them to some dairy farms in Auroville and in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We also showed them Auroville's Centre for Scientific Research where work is being done on biogas plants, solar water heaters and alternative energy, which created a big impression.” And he says, “After years of war, economic recovery in Afghanistan is beginning, indicated by an increasing production of all kind of goods, farm produce and services. We are happy that we from Auroville can give a helping hand.”