Cheese Brings Fresh Hope in Georgia

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Mercy Corps support for businesses like Tsezari’s cheese factory is helping much more than people’s livelihoods in Georgia. It is bringing a real sense of hope and pride to entire communities.

It is seven in the morning and the traffic hour is in full swing in the village of Tsakdrioni in the Kvemo Karti region of Georgia. Horse drawn carts career down rutted tracks with roped down plastic containers brimming with milk. A couple of white vans race out of the village to pick up deliveries of fresh milk from dairy farmers in neighbouring villages. It is the harvest season and everyone is dashing to get their milk to the cheese factory before heading out to their fields to gather crops.

Many women walk with a pail of milk and any attendant children to Tsakdrioni’s gleaming new factory with white washed walls and state of the art solar paneling. They are met by staff in white gowns who meticulously test every batch to check it is clean before adding it to huge stainless steel vats. It is a slick operation with over two tonnes of milk collected from 170 farmers every morning and turned out the following day as fresh rounds of a feta type cheese that has long been the mainstay of the diet in Georgia.

The factory owner and young entrepreneur Tsezari Kakhadze would put most of the contestants in the TV series The Dragon’s Den to shame. He was only 17 years old when he started making cheese in an old pig shed with his mother seven years ago. He went on to build up a viable business from scratch despite cramped and unhygienic conditions in his original makeshift factory: “It was dirty, very hard to boil the milk, there was no space and it was hard to clean the dishes and equipment,” Tsezari admitted.

Staff at Edinburgh based international development charity Mercy Corps were so impressed with Tsezari’s determination that they provided 40% funding to help him build the new factory. Supporting an individual business like this is part of a fresh approach in the development world to ‘make markets work for the poor’ by supporting small businesses. The new factory has created a secure milk market for dairy farmers and Tsezari offers credit to help see them through lean times. “The farmers supported me when I was just starting out and now I want to return the favour,” he told me.  

I met dairy farmer Keto Mgeladze milking one of her four cows on a small blue wooden stool in her shed at daybreak. This daily ritual has become the economic mainstay for her family. “Before the factory we had to make cheese ourselves and try to get it to the market in Tbilisi which was very hard as we didn’t have any transport.” Keto told me. “This milk now provides for six in our household: my husband, son, sister in law and two grandchildren.”

Tsezari’s factory has also become the village’s main employer, supporting eleven full time staff and their families. Ciala Khmapadze helps knit together a new line of stringy smoked cheese that is a popular snack with beer. “I now have a secure salary and this is the main source of income for my family of four children,” she commented. “With this job I can help clothe and educate my children and buy furniture for my home.”

Supporting businesses like Tsezari’s cheese factory is helping much more than people’s livelihoods in Georgia. It is bringing a real sense of hope and pride to entire communities. “We’re getting good experience and really enjoy working at the factory” concluded Ciala. “It is a very important opportunity for us to work here in a rural area like this.”

Commissioned by development charity Mercy Corps

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