Soy-based dairy technology may not be cost effective in

URBANA, Ill. – Soy is a promising crop for developing countries, due to its high protein and oil content. Over the past few decades, aid organizations and policy makers have promoted soy processing technologies such as the soy cow, which extracts milk from soybeans. But a new study from the University of Illinois shows that soy cows in many cases are not economically viable and do not provide the expected benefits.

“The soy cow has been promoted as a way to increase the use of soybeans and to fight poverty and malnutrition. However, no research has been published to determine whether this is a sustainable business concept for the developing world,” says Pierre Orfevreprofessor and director of Soy Innovation Lab (SIL) at the U of I.

In 2016, SIL partnered with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to undertake a large-scale study that would help determine if cow soy is an appropriate technology for small rural businesses.

Consulting firm Palladium had established six soybean dairy farms in Malawi with funding through USAID’s Agricultural Diversification Activity. SIL researchers worked with the Palladium team to introduce financial and production record keeping at the six companies.

The USAID project donated the soy cow’s equipment, including a grinder that can be operated by electricity or foot pedal, a steam boiler, a pressure cooker and a stainless steel press. Operators also received the first batch of soybeans and supplies, as well as bicycles to distribute their products. Going forward, they would pay their own operating costs, including rent, electricity, labor, transportation, and supplies such as soybeans and sugar.

The soy cow converts the beans and water into milk, which can then be made into yogurt, cheese and ice cream to sell at local markets and roadside stalls. The process also yields okara, a protein-rich by-product used for animal feed or as an ingredient in baking.

Goldsmith believes that soy cow technology appears sustainable when looking simply at operating margins. But proper accounting methods reveal a fuller financial picture and a different outcome.

“You can convert soy into milk, sell it and pay your fees, but it’s not a sustainable business. You also have a $10,000 equipment depreciation cost with some kind of loan, even if it is a non-monetary donation. And then there are the depreciation costs – the equipment gets old and you have to replace it eventually,” he explains.

“The soy cow has the capacity to produce nearly 1,700 liters of soy milk per month. But these operators produced about 147 liters on average, and some of them only produced 75 liters. You have a large piece of equipment that is idle about 81% of the time, based on a single shift baseline. »

Soy cow companies are located in rural areas, where wages are low and soy milk is not part of the usual diet, so there is not a large market for the products.

The soy cows also operate in makeshift spaces that are not food safety compliant, so the produce cannot be sold in retail stores. Becoming food safe requires significant additional capital investment to upgrade physical infrastructure. Similarly, quality packaging and labeling, which would help sales, is expensive, so entrepreneurs resort to low-quality but cheap single-use plastic bags. They transport the highly perishable soymilk products in a cooler attached to a bicycle, so the sales radius is reduced.

“Soymilk is a great product, but it competes with other much cheaper drinks. The demand does not match the amount that soy cows can produce. The app to fight poverty and malnutrition is lost because businesses can’t support it,” says Goldsmith.

The study’s first author, Julia Krause, worked on the project as an undergraduate student intern at SIL. She traveled to Malawi to meet collaborators, and organized and analyzed accounting data. Krause is a graduate of the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the U of I in 2021 and now works in research and development at PepsiCo in Plano, Texas.

To learn more about research opportunities for undergraduate students, visit the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences website.

“Through the skills I learned with SIL in data analysis, scientific writing, and real-world engineering application, I was able to unleash my passion for food engineering research and development as a career . SIL was really a foot in the door to the inspiring world of data-driven problem solving with global collaborators,” says Krause.

The authors conclude that soy cow technology would be better suited to urban settings, where capital investment would be greater, but capacity would match demand.

An alternative technology, consisting of a household soy kit, seems more appropriate for rural businesses. This kit is designed for use in home kitchens and produces smaller quantities more suited to local market demand. SIL researchers tested the feasibility of the soy kit by Previous search and found it had the potential to improve the economic conditions of rural women in Malawi.

the article“Soy Dairy Performance Metrics” is published in African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development [https://doi.org/10.18697/ajfand.105.21245]. The authors are Julia Krause, Peter Goldsmith, Margaret Cornelius, Maggie Mzungu, Charity Kambani-Banda and Courtney Tamimie.

the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL) and the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics are housed in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois.


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