10 Dec 2023

'I was given a cow and taught how to make a shed'

From Country Life, 9:35 am on 10 December 2023

"It's so cold here," says Selina Prem Kumar with a chuckle.

"In Sri Lanka the minimum temperature is like 24 or 23 degrees."

Selina is standing in a paddock near Ashburton. It's windy and showery.

She's wrapped up in a woolen shawl. A sensible replacement for her usual sari.

A small herd of Limousin cattle owned by Fred and Sandy Hoekstra graze around her.

Country Life is there to find out about a dairy farming programme Selina's set up in northern Sri Lanka with help from charity Tearfund.

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Selina Prem Kumar has been traveling around New Zealand to thank farmers for their support Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Her goal is to lift rural people out of poverty after a 26-year civil war left thousands widowed, homeless and without livelihoods.

The programme gives people a chance to diversify their income away from rice farming, by creating small dairy herds.

"Most of the families couldn't go back to rice farming [after the war] due to landmines, but dairying had always been the secondary income, so we thought, at that point in 2011, dairy can bring in quick money for them to start their lives again."   
The programme is called Yugashakthi, which means guarantee and has grown from helping eight farmers to five-thousand.

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

These farmers are part of a women's saving group Photo: Supplied

The Hoekstra's are supporting the programme via Tearfund who assist the Yugashakthi programme financially through Kiwi donations.

Selina is meeting up with other donor farmers around the country too.
"I'm focusing on sharing the success story with all our supporters and the dairy farmers here, and I'm also learning by visiting farms," she says.  

Every dollar people donate has been doubled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Selina says the help from New Zealand farmers is invaluable and not just financially.

"We have one New Zealand dairy farmer who videoed their day to day life and we use it widely in the training sessions, so everyone who has cows will see."

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Kevin Riddell, Fred Hoekstra, Selina Prem Kumar & Sandy Hoekstra Photo: Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Dairy cows relaxing at the Yugashakti training farm Photo: Supplied

One of the first things needed to make the programme work was to recover cows that had disappeared into forests in the war zone, Selina says.

"As people ran for their lives, cows also ran for their lives.

"So we had to round up the cattle and bring them back and then we divided them up according to the tags they kept.

"But through this programme we've also given them cow loans and we have given cows to farmer groups and female farmers."

She says the only catch is the first calf born from a given cow must be offered to another person.

Smallholder farmers with their cows

Smallholder farmers with their cows Photo: Supplied

Most of the milk the farmers produce goes to a milk processing plant the social enterprise is running.

"We collect the milk, we chill the milk and we produce yoghurt, drinking yoghurt, and paneer [a cheese made from curdled milk].

"We have several product lines."

All the milk products are branded as Koovin and sold in supermarkets.

"Koo means 'cow' and vin means 'from' so Koovin means from the cow and our tag line is 'Nothing like fresh milk'."

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

The milk is picked up from farmers in churns Photo: Supplied

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Selina checks out a fresh batch of milk at the Yugashakthi chilling plant Photo: Supplied

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

A Koovin delivery truck Photo: Supplied

The project started with farmers making an average of $20 a month. Now they are making about $150 a month.

They can now afford medical care and can send their children to school.

Selina has set up a permanant training farm where people learn how to farm cows productively and sustainably.

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Local kids enjoying a glass of Koovin milk Photo: Supplied

"They come in batches and stay overnight to learn and because this was previously a warzone, we bring the majority and minority children together here to develop unity."

Kevin Riddell is a programme officer at Tearfund.

He visits Sri Lanka regularly to help things along and has supported Selina in her work for 12 years.

"I think the success of this project is a mixture of being able to bring people together, whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim and also good thinking and strategies around the supply chain."

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Pathmanathan and her two children. Her husband was killed during the civil war Photo: Supplied

Pathmanathan is a smallholder dairy farmer who supplies milk to the Yugashakthi dairy programme.

After her husband was killed during the Sri Lankan civil war she struggled to make ends meet.

"Yugashakthi was in our area asking people to join their dairy programme. I was given a cow and taught how to make a shed, feed and handle a cow, and where to sell the milk".

"Because of them, I now have four cows and my income has doubled.  Now dairying is my primary income," she says.

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

Selina at an abandoned house in the former war zone Photo: Supplied

Dairy programme in Sri Lanka

A farming couple with one of their cows Photo: Supplied