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Farmers keep century-old cheese factory story alive

By Lydiah Nyawira

Bernard Nderitu, the cheese-maker, prepares for his day at work at Gatarakwa Farmers Co-operative Society in Kieni West, Nyeri County. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

Dairy farmers affiliated to Gatarakwa Cooperative Society have been enjoying a long-held tradition of making cheese from skills and equipment acquired from European colonial settlers.

The cheese factory, located in Kieni Constituency, Nyeri County, has been making the product since 1920, and the farmers have maintained the tradition for over a 100 years.

Samuel Kariuki, the society’s secretary, explained that the facility was owned by a European family which constructed it in 1920 and after independence, the farmers acquired it and continued making cheddar and mozzarella cheese for sale.

“By the time the European family left, there were only a handful of Africans who knew the art of cheese making, and they passed this skill on to their children,” Kairuki explained.

One of the grandsons of the cheese makers was Bernard Nderitu, who is currently the in-house cheese maker.

Having apprenticed under his grandfather, he learned the process of making cheese using the pre-independence equipment before sharpening his skills and acquiring a diploma from Dairy Training Institute in Naivasha.

“I have been making cheese for 20 years and I have travelled around the country and interacted with modern commercial methods as well as the old ways of making cheese,” Nderitu explained.

The process of making cheese manually is relatively simple and can be done by farmers who have enough milk and would like to add value to their produce.

However, in order to make cheese, large quantities of milk are needed of which only 10 per cent is eventually turned into cheese.

“In order to make 1kg of cheese, you need 12 litres of fresh milk. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the factory was making cheese twice a month, but now we only make it once, due to the restrictions,” he noted.

Gatarakwa Dairy produces 66kg of cheese, which is often distributed and consumed by local farmers.

“To produce 66kgs we require 800 litres of milk, which is then distributed to the farmers based on their orders,” Nderitu explained.

The 280 dairy farmers produce 50,000 litres of milk per month of which they deliver to Kieni Dairy Products Limited, which is a locally-based processor.

“Cheese is more profitable than raw milk; 1 litre of milk is sold at Sh30 while 1kg of cheese is sold for Sh700, which means even if we sold the 12 litres of milk at Sh360, we would make double that amount from cheese,” Kariuki explained.

The process of making cheddar cheese at the factory has been maintained using the same equipment as it was in 1920.

“On the days when cheese is made, the fresh milk is collected from the farmers, poured into a metallic bath which has a VAT water jacket which is used to heat the milk,” Nderitu explained.

Hot water is circulated in the water jacket until the milk is pasteurised, at 78 to 84 degrees centigrade. The milk is then homogenised, and at this point, based on the type of cheese, cultures are introduced into the milk.

“There are over 50 types of cheese, but at Gatarakwa we only make cheddar cheese, so we add cultures and rennet which is an enzyme used to coagulate milk, in order to form a thick curd,” he explained.

The temperature of the milk must be maintained at 78 to 84 degrees centigrade because Rennet begins working at high temperatures. Once the curdling process has begun, the milk is left to settle after which it is drained into cheese clothes and pressed to remove the excess liquid (whey).

“One of the challenges of cheese making is that out of all the milk you process, only 10 per cent will be turned into cheese while the rest is whey, which is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained,” Nderitu warned.

After the cheese is pressed, it is left to sit for 12 hours before it is again pressed for one final time then cut and packaged, ready for consumption.

“It should be stored in a cold room, and cheese can be preserved for up to one year. If you do not use the preservation wax, this can give farmers some time to sell the product as opposed to fresh milk that has a shorter shelf life,” Nderitu noted.

The society’s hopes to commercialise their venture had been dashed after a major client failed to pay for cheese, they had delivered worth over Sh2 million.

“Back in the 1980s and 90s we used to be the main suppliers of cheese for major hotels and consumers across the country, and we used to make both mozzarella and cheddar cheese worth millions,” Kariuki explained.

However, in 2000 one of their main clients, a prestigious group of high-end hotels, failed to pay for their orders, and this put the society in serious financial constraint.

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