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Spring 2012
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Student Journals

Technical assistance to Brown’s Cheese, Kenya

Andy Stirling cores a three-year-old wheel of
Antique Gouda.
Credit: Daina Ringus

Andy Stirling cores a three-year-old wheel of Antique Gouda.

Delia Stirling ’02 and her husband Andy Stirling ’01, MEN ’02, own Brown’s Cheese, a cheese shop and dairy farm outside Nairobi, Kenya. Since its inception, the shop has been a unique endeavor; it is one of the only producers of high-quality, local cheese in western Africa. Since inheriting the shop from her parents Dave and Sue Brown, though, Delia is hoping to further expand by introducing new products and reaching out to more expatriate and southern African clients. For all of these projects, the Browns looked to Cornell students. Trip participants Matt Ranieri, Daina Ringus and Pajau “PJ” Vangay offered suggestions on how to improve production from a food science perspective, while Cornell Institute for Public Affairs fellow Stephanie Bryant examined their business model.

Day 1 (1/9/12)

Stephanie: We met with Andy and Delia this morning after breakfast for several hours to lay out our ground work for the next 11 days. We have a list of people to call and have split up the product developments—cottage cheese, sour cream, ice cream, and anything else we have time for—and research.

They also discussed a little of how they came to be here, what they've done since taking over the place from Delia's parents, and where they want to go. They have a very good idea of where they want their business to go and a decent idea of how to get there, which is really neat to see. They raise a majority of their own vegetables, fruits and meats on their place, so we also saw their extensive garden, the cattle (black and white), guinea hens, and the pigs' homes (they were busy eating inside).

We had a cheese tasting for lunch where we tried about 12 cheeses that they make here, and I enjoyed the vast majority of them. After a long lunch, we toured the cheese processing factory, which was super interesting. They employ about 45 people in their factory and buy milk from a cooperative made of 3,000 smallholder dairy farmers. To prevent jet-lag from killing me, Delia and I (along with Churra, their Ridgeback dog) went walking around a tea plantation, where we discussed a little of my research and Delia explained more about herself and her family history.

Day 2 (1/10/12)

Having been a shadow during a business trip today where Delia planned an event with a local restaurant and wine purveyor, I am beginning to understand the reasoning behind some of their product choices. In short, Brown’s Cheese and their friends (who appear to be making really good profits) want these products, and they just aren't available (or the available product is so bad it's not worth it). We've also tasted a majority of their products, and they are quite good. Shadowing Delia was not really the original plan, but I have been able to learn more about the country, the culture, and the markets by joining her on her visits to clients and the market.

Day 3 (1/11/12)

Andy Stirling and Matt Ranieri cut a vat of cottage
cheese curd at Brown’s Cheese.
Credit: Daina Ringus

Andy Stirling and Matt Ranieri cut a vat of cottage cheese curd at Brown’s Cheese.

Today was a long day, with all of us (except Matt) waking up around 4 a.m. and several frustrations. Daina and PJ worked on the ice cream all day and made three different bases but were only able to freeze one because the ice cream machine went on the fritz during the second batch. Matt also met frustration with Andy as they attempted to make a fast-set whole milk cottage cheese, which shattered when they tried to cut it. My day was probably the least frustrating of all of us, though I did beat my head against the UAE air freight costs wall for a while. I looked up whey utilization as feed for animals and created a spreadsheet for Delia. Then, kind of as a side project, I began working on their product catalog, which they will need to export their products to other markets. I'm not finished yet, mostly because I'm still playing with the formatting. I don't know if Delia will like it or not, but it will be a starting point. On the up side, our sour cream/queso fresco worked. One product down, a bagillion to go.

Day 4 (1/12/12)

The disparity in this country between the rich and poor continues to pound away at my conscience as we observe the people working here, and I’m still reflecting on what I saw when Delia and I traveled into Nairobi for meetings. The reasonably nice clothes worn by the Kenyans don’t match their homes at all, which makes me sad. At first the difference confused me until Andy explained that second-hand clothes from the States and other developed countries clothe the majority of Kenyans. He also said that these second-hand clothes are donated to charity in the States, but by the time they get to Kenya they are anything but free. Andy and Delia also have to provide meals to their workers to ensure they are actually eating. Apparently, they will otherwise just drink really sweet chai/macha tea. 

Having heard their perspectives on the UAE and the other countries, I have been able to get a better grasp of what information they are lacking and have been putting the finishing touches on the report. Additionally, I have been working on turning their website into a product catalog to keep busy during the downtime when my colleagues are working on the product development side. This is mostly due to the fact that I am not much help with the cottage cheese making (I could be, but it's not my expertise, so why pretend) and the other two team members are working on the ice cream, which does not really need eight hands.

Day 8 (1/16/12)

Workers at Brown’s Cheese fill Baby Gouda molds.
Credit: Daina Ringus

Workers at Brown’s Cheese fill Baby Gouda molds.

We got up early this morning to meet with the people at The African Insect Science for Food and Health (ICIPE) and Land O’Lakes. We discussed using whey as a growth medium for a fungal pesticide since horticulture is one of Kenya’s main exports and we had heard ICIPE was working on it. It turns out that they have already developed and commercialized a product using oil as the medium, so there really isn’t much future there. Andy thinks that using the whey as a biogas may be their best option since they are using 3,000 liters of diesel a day. We also got to see what happens when a gas shortage occurs (long, long lines at the only gas station with gas). It was such a foreign concept to me, a gas shortage. 

Day 10 (1/18/12)

I’m helping PJ on ice cream today while Matt and Daina work on the cottage cheese. PJ and I made macha ice cream (the local favorite drink), coffee and caramel ice cream (my favorite drink), and a lemon basil base that we will put honeycomb in. It takes a lot of lemon basil to flavor a base, about three cups of fresh herbs to three cups of base. 

As soon as the cottage cheese is done, we are headed to Lewa to meet with Dave and Sue Brown to interview them for the Culture articles. We’re also supposed to get to see the goats and the “factory” (not sure about this is an accurate description) where the Chevre is being made.

Day 12 (1/20/12)

Our last day in Kenya. We traveled back from Lewa this morning, and Andy took us to the market so we could get souvenirs. I had forgotten the art of bartering, and it showed.  But I’m happy with the majority of my purchases.

We had our debriefing/wrap-up meeting with Andy and Delia, and I finally got to make my recommendations for the UAE. I think they can enter it if they capitalize on their strengths: current relationships, reputation, and an understanding of ex-pat preferences. 

I think having us there helped them re-focus on their goals. I hope they’ve learned as much as I’ve learned about myself.