Uganda’s first milk bar intoxicates its patrons

Solomon Osewe Oketcho’s milk bar in Tororo Town. Oketcho (inset) started the “bar”as one of the ways to market his dairy products from his farm. PHOTO/COURTESY/PHILIP MATOGO

What you need to know:

  • As part of his retirement plans, Solomon Osewe Oketcho built a farm in his home village in Katandi, Kirewa, West Budama (Kisolo), eastern Uganda. Little did he know that the farm would produce another enterprise.

Solomon Osewe Oketcho joined Bank of Uganda in October 1992 and served in different capacities before retiring last year at the level of executive director in charge of risk and strategy management. 

As part of his retirement plans, he built a farm in his home village in Katandi, Kirewa, West Budama (Kisolo), eastern Uganda. It was a place where cultivation of the rich topsoils ensured a golden harvest. The vegetation and crops rested lazily on their earthen bed, basking in sunshine. While the cool breeze added its fragrance to the day with romantic intent to make the whole scene lovely, the livestock on the farm were also in plenty.

Under the gold-blue sky, the cows, goats, chicken and other exhibits of Oketcho’s interest in animal husbandry were apparent to all beneath the scattered clouds whose white puffs made the farm appear surreal in its beauty.
Beyond this pride of nature, however, Oketcho knew he could literally make hay while the sun still shone by turning a profit from his farming.

A lot of milk 
The cows were producing a lot of milk and other dairy products, so he instructed his farm manager to find a market for them as he established his business, Talpa Dairies.  The manager accordingly started looking for a market and found it. But the returns were minimal.   

This was due to a number of reasons. One, the manager was selling the milk at a higher price than the price he had agreed with Oketcho on and subsequently pocketing the difference. Two, the middlemen, those milk sellers who would connect Oketcho’s milk to a market, were taking a finder’s fee that cut into his profits. As a result, he was losing a significant amount of money in the medium and long run.   

That is when he came up with an idea to reduce his costs and increase his profits. He decided he would cut out the middlemen and farm manager by going directly to the market himself. This had several benefits. 

“Market accessibility, getting direct market accessibility and touching base with the final consumer to eliminate the middlemen provided an avenue for value addition and to help contribute to the health of the community,” he told Saturday Monitor in an interview.   

So, Oketcho decided to set up shop at Plot 26 Market Street in Tororo Town, where he could sell his milk to the community. To do this, he needed to buy a milk cooling tank. 

In dairy farming, a milk cooling tank is a stainless-steel storage tank used for both cooling and holding milk at a cold temperature until it is passed to the next stage. A cooler is made up of a refrigerated bulk tank, a refrigeration compressor unit and an air-cooled condenser unit.

Consequently, Oketcho travelled to Kenya to buy one. However, as soon as he bought one, the Kenyan seller asked him if he had a machine to pasteurise his milk. 

Pasteurisation is a process by which milk is heated to a specific temperature for a set period of time to kill harmful bacteria that can lead to diseases like typhoid fever, tuberculosis and others. 

“We don’t know about the laws in Uganda, but in Kenya you must pasteurise the milk before it is deemed fit for human consumption,” the Kenyan seller informed Oketcho. 

Milk bar is born
Oketcho then bought a machine that would pasteurise the milk and came back to Uganda. Back in Tororo Town, he opened a shop where people could buy top quality milk. Selling pasteurised milk proved to be a game changer as customers came in droves to enjoy the fresh and healthy milk he was selling. Suddenly, the losses he was previously making before all but vanished. 

Curiously, though, he realised that customers would not only come to the shop to buy milk and go. Many would take advantage of its cozy creature comforts, complete with tables, chairs and an easy ambience to unwind with family and enjoy the dairy products on sale at the shop. They drank milk tea, African coffee, yoghurt, ice cream, among others, and even bought ghee as they chatted in a friendly atmosphere. 

“We looked at the fact that some people were buying milk to go and many other people would come and order for different products while seated with their families and friends just like one would go to an alcohol bar to drink from a menu. That is why we call it the milk bar,” he disclosed, adding, “Now those who do not take alcohol would also have a bar. This proves that people want alternative bars to alcoholic bars.” 

As each day passed, Oketcho saw those who visited the Milk Bar grow more comfortable in this space, intoxicated by the heady moments of togetherness brought about by the smooth flow of dairy products. 

Unique brand name  
The name Talpa Diaries Milk Bar is not only unique in the sub-region. It is unique in the whole of the country. This singular brand name heightened the brand’s identification. 

As business thrived, Oketcho learnt two valuable lessons from this commercial endeavour. One, quality means business. By selling top quality dairy products, cooled and pasteurised to international standards, Oketcho not only gave his customers value for money but he also created a unique experience. 

As it is in a bar, people could consume dairy products and chat freely while enjoying their precious moments with friends and family. In this way, the milk bar fostered a community. 

Secondly, if Oketcho had not thought of the name “milk bar”, his business would have been less identifiable or recognisable and this might have cost him would-be profits.

An easy-to-remember brand name plays a critical role in how a business thrives. It is, after all, often the first thing customers see, and it sets the tone for every commercial transaction in its name.

Thanks to his visionary concept, Oketcho was elected chairperson of the National Dairy Multi-sectoral Stakeholders Platform under the Dairy Development Authority, a semi-autonomous agency under the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.