These Artisanal Cheese Producers Are Making a Difference in Kenya

Brown's Cheese started as an exercise in independence 35 years ago, and now it's one of the only artisanal cheesemaking operations in East Africa, churning out mascarpone, feta, cheddar, Camembert, Brie, halloumi, Parmesan, and more.

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Apr 2 2016, 6:00pm

"We're both keen on being self-sufficient, I suppose," says Susan Brown. Though she and her husband David were born and raised in Kenya, both harbor a lingering UK accent. I've driven down the pothole-riddled road from downtown Nairobi to Tigoni, a lush suburb bordered by crumbling mansions and tea plantations, for a visit to their family home. Next door, several dozen workers are hand-stretching mozzarella and molding curds into ricotta. "We had cows and started making cheese for ourselves with the surplus milk, mostly because we liked doing our own thing."

What started as an exercise in independence 35 years ago has morphed into one of the most ambitious (and only) artisanal cheesemaking operations in East Africa. Today, Brown's Cheese churns out a metric ton of mascarpone, feta, cheddar, Camembert, Brie, halloumi, Parmesan, or any of its other 30-plus varieties six days a week. The brand's distinctive bicolored packaging can be seen in every major Kenyan supermarket and graces tables at safari lodges and high-end hotels, such as Angama Mara and Sankara Nairobi. Weekend tours and tastings, a popular pastime with expats and NGO workers, are often booked out two months in advance. As the business has grown, so has its impact on the local community. While their turnover is paltry compared to European dairy goliaths, the 10,000 liters of milk a day required to keep things running is far more than the family's meager cattle herd could ever have provided. The estimated current number of daily contributing farmers hovers between 3,000 and 4,000, the vast majority of which are families scraping together a few extra liters of goat, sheep, or cow's milk for income.

Delia Stirling of Brown's Cheese. Photo courtesy of Brown's Cheese.
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Yet David and Susan, who started out selling solar-powered water heaters, knew almost nothing about cheese when they began making it. Their kitchen-sink project only turned into a side business during a milk shortage in the 1970s, when the government decreed that all dairy needed to be sold as a liquid and import restrictions made bringing in foreign food products difficult, if not impossible. All of a sudden, neighbors, friends, and friends-of-friends started asking the Browns if they could buy some of their private stash.

"People were desperate for cheese," Susan recalls. "No French soft cheeses were made in the country, and David loves Camembert. My answer was, 'You don't Camembert, you buy it.' But he was determined. So we were literally making Camembert in the kitchen and finishing it in the dining room. We didn't even have a name for the business for years and years—people just used to call it Brown's Cheese, and eventually it stuck."

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Andy Stirling. Photo by the author.

To this day, Susan's entire training consists of a week-long soft cheese-making course taken at an agricultural college in Scotland. "[I learned] from books, determination, and lots of mistakes," she says. Living in a place where consistent power was rare, water was often scarce, milk quality was inconsistent, and cheese itself was still viewed as something of an oddity, didn't exactly simplify matters. But somehow, through word-of-mouth, the business grew.

The company's current incarnation didn't come until 2010, when a burnt-out couple living in Phoenix, Arizona, decided they needed a change. In the wake of the financial crisis, Delia Stirling, one of the Browns' three daughters, and her husband Andy started to question what they were doing with their lives. "I think both of us felt that we were not working enough, not parenting enough, and not spending enough time on ourselves," remembers Andy, who had been working in electronics before they decided to move to Nairobi and join the family business.

Since day one, the new generation has been changing things up. Aside from adding to the roster of cheeses and creating a side ice cream brand, the two have been working with NGOs to conduct research on how locals can improve the nutritional quality of their milk. The majority of these farmers live off of what they cannot sell, meaning a more concentrated source of fat and protein is a boon for their families as well as cheese quality.

"We're doing a big milk study now. The cows here get such low yields and the protein levels are very, very low," says Delia. Going from farm to farm to collect is milk is a painfully slow process, but one that yields practical information the whole country can use. "What's crazy is that no one has ever done a proper study before." It's especially surprising given the amount of donor money frittered away on generic campaigns to promote the dairy industry—hardly a primary concern in a country where most citizens drink milk on a daily basis.

Delia Stirling with a local goat. Photo courtesy of Brown's Cheese.
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"Part of the problem is that all of those programs will be funded by different organizations and there's not much incentive for them to work together," adds Andy, of the nonprofit sector. "That's where a for-profit can help tie everything together."

The pair's biggest project at the moment is a coal-black smoked sheep's milk cheese loosely inspired by , a traditional Kenyan yogurt that is smoked, fermented, and preserved with charcoal. Despite its unusual color, the cheese has a mild flavor reminiscent of a pecorino. Though it remains unnamed and is not on the market just yet, chefs at upscale lodges are already using its striking color as a visual accent on dishes.

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Local chefs are using this black smoked sheep's milk cheese as an accent on dishes. Photo courtesy of Brown's Cheese.

"I'm using milk from indigenous Red Maasai sheep. They move with the rains on the bottom of the Rift Valley. They graze naturally on that pasture," says Delia. Prior to their involvement, the breed was on the verge of dying out. "We're working with an NGO that's based in Maai Mahiu called Ubuntu that's been helping disabled children there for about seven years. A big problem for these kids is as they grow older, no one knows what to do with them and they have no source of income. And I said, 'Disabled children could look after goats and sheep.' Now he also employs all the mums, because he realized there were no employment options for them either. So, we've been working together as for-profit and nonprofit. We guarantee we'll buy the milk and we work on the quality."

"It's nice to have an infrastructure on [the] ground when you're starting something up," says Andy. "They want to get to a point of helping people, but where it's not just donor money. It's almost like the Holy Grail—when you develop an industry so people don't have to give money constantly to keep something going. How do you build a system [like] that, so that when somebody moves on for whatever reason, you can keep the momentum going? It seems like they're on a fairly good track."

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Workers stretching curds for mozzarella. Photo by the author.
Photo courtesy of Brown's Cheese.

Making sure that the changes they implement have staying power is clearly a priority for the Stirlings. The pair hasn't exactly realized their dream of an easier life, but instead chose to dive headfirst into this one, with all of the pitfalls and challenges it presents.

"My mom was really clever on simplifying things. She managed to make pretty good cheese out of pretty bad milk," Delia says. In the future, she dreams of a more sustainable supply chain, in which she can work directly with the farmers. It's a bold goal, one that's never been accomplished before here on this scale—though the same could be said of making French cheeses in East Africa in the 1970s. "We've made it way more complicated."

"We definitely have a long-term view of Kenya," says Andy. "We know our life is here."