Vet students’ goat dairy aims to fill a nutrition gap in Gambia

The commercial milking facility is breaking ground this summer, using lessons in social entrepreneurship and animal husbandry coupled with local expertise to address malnourishment and improve livelihoods.

Wilson, Briana with goats
Briana Wilson, a third-year student at Penn Vet, is helping her peers establish a commercial goat dairy operation in Gambia.

Briana Wilson, a third-year student in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, plans to pursue a career as a small-animal vet, mainly caring for cats and dogs. But this summer, she’s getting a trial-by-fire education in goat husbandry, project management, and negotiating the challenges of helping launch a business in a relatively remote region of a developing nation. 

Wilson has been working at the Gambia Goat Dairy, an ambitious project launched by two other Penn Vet students two years ago to create a commercial-scale, sustainable herd of milking goats. The aim of the dairy is to model best practices while supplying local residents with affordable and safe dairy products. 

In Gambia, the smallest country in Africa, owning livestock is commonplace. But these animals are on average 30 times less productive than their counterparts in more-developed nations. As a result, the country relies heavily on expensive, imported animal products like milk and yogurt. A quarter of children under five are stunted from a lack of adequate nutrition.

In response to these problems, Corey Spies, now a fourth-year veterinary student, and Brianna Parsons, a May graduate of Penn Vet who is now pursuing an internship at New Bolton Center, began work on the dairy in 2016. Their efforts garnered them the school’s 2017 and 2018 Student Inspiration Awards, along with a $50,000 prize to help them implement their project. The project is also supported through a Rotary grant. 

Parsons and Spies at dairy
Brianna Parsons and Corey Spies of Penn Vet, the project managers, visit the construction site where the dairy will be based.

Now in year three of their venture, they’re breaking ground for construction and expanding their team. They’ve enlisted the assistance of others at Penn, including Wilson, and Madeline McGovern, a rising senior from Scotts Plains, N.J., in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as several advisers in the United States and Gambia. Wilson’s and McGovern’s work on the project is being supported by Penn’s Global Internship Program.

Wilson learned of the project earlier this year when Spies and Parsons, seeking an extra set of helping hands, reached out to current Penn Vet students. Despite the seeming mismatch to her veterinary interests, Wilson saw an opportunity to learn, and to contribute to a project that can make a real difference in the lives of both animals and humans.

“I have a real interest in protecting biodiversity and the special places and species that are at risk of going extinct,” says Wilson. “But I’ve learned that you can’t help animals until you help people first. This project struck me as one where Brianna and Corey had really done their research to find out what the community needed so that they could make an impact.”

Spies and Parsons had spent 2016 and 2017 working on developing their business plan, building relationships with stakeholders, and identifying a suitable site for the dairy. They chose 10 acres located in the Kombo region along Gambia’s small Atlantic coastline.

Parsons.dairy plans
Parsons goes over plans for a perimeter fence with a construction manager. The team hopes to acquire goats for the dairy this summer. 

To help with the next steps, Wilson and McGovern are spending two months in Gambia this summer to identify and gather pricing from construction contractors, as well as to chip in on facilitating myriad other tasks, from drilling a bore hole for water to researching the types of native plants that goats could browse on the property.

“Every day is very different,” Wilson says. “I went into this being like, ‘Try not to have any expectations because it’s never going to go as planned.’ And it certainly has not all gone as planned, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

McGovern, with her growing background in engineering, has been a key assistant in carrying out plans for site construction and for erecting solar panels, which will provide a cost-effective and environmentally friendly source of power for the dairy.

With luck, the team hopes to acquire the first goats before the summer is over. The dairy will have West African Dwarf goats, a breed native to Gambia and well-suited to living in sometimes-harsh conditions. They’ve hired a Gambian herd manager, Saja Kora, who lives in Kombo and has vast experience in raising livestock in the region. 

In addition, David Galligan, professor of animal health economics at Penn Vet, has been a key adviser to the Gambia Goat Dairy, reviewing their business plans and offering guidance about husbandry techniques to improve milk production. He called the Inspiration Award application by Spies and Parsons “one of the most comprehensive we have seen.”

Additional advisers have provided crucial assistance on different facets of the project, including Carla Chieffo, an alumna of Penn Vet, and Lynn McConville, director of PowerUp Gambia, a West Philadelphia-based organization. Shannon Márquez, vice provost of global development at Drexel University, played a role in securing land for the dairy.

Goat in Gambia
West African Dwarf goats, such as this one at the West African Livestock Innovation Center, a key collaborator on the dairy project, are native to Gambia.

Another source of big-picture inspiration for the group has been The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook, written by Ian MacMillan and James Thompson of Penn’s Wharton School. Spies and Parsons mapped out their longer-term business plans following the specific, rigorous, step-by-step advice in that book, which counsels would-be social entrepreneurs to structure their ventures in three phases. 

For the Gambia Goat Dairy, the first phase is to get the facility up and running with 50 or more milking does (female goats). The second phase will involve educational outreach to other goat farmers in the area. The third phase for the non-profit business will be shifting roles from producer to processer, creating a dairy market from the ground up for domestic farmers. 

The dairy will have a pasteurizer on-site to ensure the milk is safe to drink. Milk will be sold to local families at a low cost, subsidized by the sale of higher-value goat cheese and yogurt to tourists who frequent the region.

“The whole goal is to be financially self-sustaining,” Wilson says.

Another major goal is to make a difference in the nutritional status of the people who live near the dairy. Working with government agencies in Gambia, the dairy team is hoping to obtain information about the nutritional status of local residents, so they can measure their impact and assess if the dairy and their outreach efforts have made a difference in reducing malnourishment.

Wilson, Parsons and McGovern with village leaders
Wilson (far left), Parsons (third from left), and engineering undergraduate Madeline McGovern meet with members of the Village Development Committee of Sanyang, where the dairy will be located.

Spies, Parsons, and now Wilson and McGovern, are keenly aware that many foreign-backed development efforts often fail to account for local conditions and needs. To avoid these pitfalls, they’ve worked to build solid relationships with local partners and have carefully considered the ways in which their business could meet the community’s needs. Parsons is working to learn some Mandinka, a language spoken by many in the area.

But much of this process has occurred in the day-to-day, traveling around the region talking about their project, or socializing with the owners of the guest house where they’re staying. “We’re starting a business here so we want community buy-in,” says Wilson. “It’s important that we make ourselves known, and we show up.”

More information about the Gambia Goat Dairy is available on their website.