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Akhayé Khalil teaches students how to make cheese.
Photos by Rob Holmes
Akhayé Khalil teaches students how to make cheese.

Chadian cheese whiz

Labor Day | Akhayé Khalil turned a cottage industry into a nationally renowned business

This week through Labor Day we are publishing six brief pieces on people working hard and enjoying their labor. Some are Christians and some not, because through God’s common grace people of many faiths can enjoy meeting challenges. Three of the stories come from Rob Holmes, who lives with his family in Chad. Three others come from World Journalism Institute students who wrote and rewrote them during this year’s Asheville course. —Marvin Olasky

N'DJAMENA, Chad—Make hay while the sun shines. Or like Akhayé Khalil, make cheese while the milk flows. A Chadian Arab mother of eight, married at 15, Akhayé is no stranger to hard work. Friends and clients say humility and helping women are what define her—and her cheese-making business.

In Akhayé’s culture, women tend the home and operate market stalls or sell milk. La Fromagerie Al-Khalila—Good Friend Cheese Dairy—began in 1996 with surplus milk she couldn’t sell and a Dutch friend’s coaching: Protein-rich cheese and yogurt would keep longer than milk and she could produce and sell them from her N’djamena home. It fit with her domestic responsibilities as a Muslim wife and mother. Her husband Sarsar, owner of a modest brick-making enterprise, spurred her on.

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In 2002, she journeyed to a milk products course in Ngaoundéré, Cameroon, sent by the French-sponsored Dairy Project of N’djamena. Following her training, she turned family and neighbors into cheese lovers and a part of her business: Her co-wife and neighbor women help sell cheese when she is not at home. Her older children pay fresh milk vendors or make deliveries of yogurt for her. Friends at the city market loan their fridge space to store cheese, since she has no electricity at home. Akhayé is quick to show gratitude to them and humbly mentioned a long chain of female friends who shared resources and shaped her as a small-business owner. Many are NGO or Christian workers she once tutored in Arabic, like Anna Beakhouse, an Englishwoman now working in California. Anna had the idea to invite her friends to cheese parties. Akhayé made them instant clients.

Growing her business requires a steady flow of fresh milk from villages near the city. But in Chad’s yearly dry season—December to May—getting enough good quality cow and goat milk is a major challenge. Even when the milk is flowing, during rainy season, inadequate drainage in much of the city hinders deliveries, and revenue drops. Mucky, unpaved roads hamper local clients from coming to buy from her as well.

Keeping her products fresh is a constant battle, dependent on a generator and fridges. Often electricity is cut or fuel is scarce and in a pinch she relies on oblong blocks of ice delivered by motorcycle. A 2002 French study found that power cuts or a total lack of electricity were the main bugbear for 45 such dairy businesses then operating in the capital. Nearly 12 years on, Akhayé still vigilantly plans around the electricity issues.

Besides local retail sales, Akhayé was a supplier of scrumptious cream cheese, mozzarella, and more aged varieties to the upscale Novotel and a downtown restaurant popular with French expatriates, Le Carnivore. But she had to give up those clients when they insisted she register with the government—neither a straightforward process nor a tax her business could bear. This tax is the common lament of small businesses like hers.

Already known for a good product, last year her notoriety as a teacher spread: The Government Minister of Livestock Rearing and Animal Resources arranged for 40 third-year students in hospitality management to apprentice with her. For three months, Akhayé taught cheese and yogurt production, hygiene and marketing practices. Clearly she brought more than her own seventh-grade education to bless the university students.

This year marks a milestone: The Chadian Government recognized Akhayé for her teaching ability and gave her an award on International Women’s Day (March 8) for helping women advance. Good Neighbors, a South Korean NGO, also began a partnership with her to teach cheese-making to women in rural villages. 

She dreams of her own farm and dairy herd for a continual milk supply—and for teaching. Her business success is no surprise: “All work—if you keep going—will result in something!” Far from projecting herself as “big cheese,” Akhayé simply wants to pass on her cottage industry.

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Rob Holmes
Rob Holmes

Rob is a translator and linguist in northern Africa. His five children love it when he reads to them and does “the voices,” especially in Hank the Cowdog. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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