In December 2012, a farmer in Rwanda picked up the phone and called the president.
It was during Umushyikirano, the annual two-day government dialogue event in this lush East African nation, and President Paul Kagame was taking direct questions via Facebook, Twitter and telephone from ordinary Rwandans across the nation. And this farmer had a question. Why is it, he asked Kagame, that in his village he can sell a liter of milk from his cows for 200 Rwandan francs (about 33 cents US at the time), and when he comes to Kigali he sees that same liter of milk in the supermarket for a whopping 1200 francs (about $2)?
"Surely transport and packaging costs don't amount to 800 francs," the farmer continued. "Why can't I sell my milk directly to city residents, lowering costs for them and boosting profit for me?"
Kagame, per communications analyst Sam Mandela, was taken aback by the farmer's question. At the time, Rwanda had the lowest dairy consumption rate in East Africa, as well as staggering rates of malnutrition—almost 50 percent—among its youngest citizens. A push to get citizens to drink more milk, launched six months earlier with the nation's first ever observance of World Milk Day, had so far shown little results.
The farmer, Kagame admitted, might be on to something. So he created a commission to drive down the cost of milk and increase its urban distribution. Two months later, the Milk Zone was born. Run by Inyange Industries, a Rwandan food processing company specializing in dairy and fruit juices, Milk Zones are cheerful baby-blue huts featuring air conditioning, plastic chairs and tables, and a super streamlined menu of refreshments.
You could be forgiven, given the crowds of millennials sipping from plastic cups inside, for mistaking Milk Zone for a sleek chain of neighborhood bars. But the only thing on tap at Milk Zone is milk.
There are now close to 80 Milk Zones in Rwanda, with the majority of them in Kigali, serving an urban population whose only other option for milk is the powdered, overpriced variety at the supermarket. The centerpiece of each is a massive refrigerated vat of farm-fresh milk, collected each morning from one of 12 different milk collection centers around rural Rwanda, and transported in a special refrigerated car straight to each Zone.
An employee operates the vat's single nozzle, pouring the milk into jerry cans or buckets, which are priced by liter and available for take-home consumption. Milk Zone also offers its creamy white stuff by the glass, and that's where the real business is—Rwandans of all ages are now flocking to Milk Zones in droves, gathering for what has become something of a new urban ritual: the social practice of a shared glass of milk.
"You can say to someone, let's go and get a milk, it's fresh from the village," says my driver Charles, who is taking me around Kigali for the day. Most mornings Charles hangs out in his silver Honda in front of the Lemigo hotel where I'm staying, with the windows rolled down and the sleeves of his crisp collared shirt rolled up. He waits for a nod from the concierge, then fires up the engine, picks up a hotel guest and negotiates a cash price to ferry them around Kigali's hilly streets for the day.
I've hired him to take me to Kimironko Market, Kigali's main fruit, vegetable, and meat market, but it's a hot and dusty day and we're both feeling thirsty. That's when Charles nods to the bright blue Milk Zone outside of the market and suggests we stop for a cold drink.
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Charles likes to head to Milk Zone with a few guy friends, he says, where they kick back and enjoy their milk and talk about the stresses of their day. And he's not alone: For Rwandans, combating malnutrition is serious business, and milk is considered the ideal drink to not just help children build healthy bodies, but also help adults stay in shape and keep their minds sharp too. And in a nation where the average monthly salary hovers around $120, the price—a cup of cold milk runs 300 Rwandan francs, or about 35 cents—is right too. Milk Zone's business model keeps prices low by purchasing direct from farmers, with low transport costs and zero packaging (customers bring their own jerry cans, or are served milk in a simple plastic cup with no lid).
"I like their milk, especially when I have free time," Charles admits, wiping away a milk mustache with the back of his hand. "It's better than the milk in the supermarket, and it's healthy. What else do you need?"