Revisiting Zim’s cheese heritage


IN line with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration’s vision to transform the economy into an upper middle-income status by 2030, the revival of Zimbabwe’s dairy industry is crucial.  

Now that the Government has launched the National Command Dairy Programme under the auspices of the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement, headed by Retired Air-Chief Marshal Minister Perence Shiri, the dairy industry is set for revival.  

Already, according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ)’s Quarterly Review, in the last quarter of 2018, the national milk output increased by seven percent to 21 million litres.  

However, to cater for the domestic consumption of a population close to 15 million, Zimbabwe requires a national demand and quota for milk production of between 120 to 130 million litres a year. 

In the initial days of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, dairy farming was one of the most lucrative and successful farming enterprises, fully supported financially by banking institutions and a huge local, regional and international market.  

Currently (2019), Zimbabwe spends over US$7 million per month on imported powdered milk and butter; both products were exported from Zimbabwe from 1981 to 2000.

In the mid-1980s, Zimbabwe earned annual export revenues of up to US$1 800 000 from the production of milk powder alone, exported to the SADCC region.  

Some of the products exported included mini-packs of milk and butter for local and regional hotels and airlines.  

Butter was also a major foreign currency earner for the country in the early days following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.  

It was also reputed to be superior; meeting world dairy standards.  

Beginning in 1984, the Dairy Marketing Board (DMB), Zimbabwe began exporting butter to the region, namely to Botswana, Mauritius, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. 

Cheeses that were produced in Zimbabwe, at that time, received international and regional recognition and garnered several prizes for their rich taste, flavours and uniqueness.

At the Nantwitch Agricultural Show in summer of 1981, Zimbabwe’s mature and mild cheddar cheeses came fourth and fifth respectively.  

Zimbabwe’s cheddars, produced by the DMB, were pitted against similar cheeses from cheese factories in Dalbeatle and Galloway in Scotland, Durnhan Bridge in Northern Ireland and Barbers in England, where Zimbabwe attained a top third and fourth position.

Other European countries participating were Denmark, Eire, Germany and Holland.  

Here, Zimbabwe attained fourth position as a country, among top world cheese producers, while, as a factory, the DMB was judged third.

In June 1983, the Kadoma and Mutare Dairies challenged Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands at the Royal Bath and West Show where they won several awards.

In 1987, many of the major supermarkets defied State price control on dairy products that included fresh cream, full cream milk, yoghurt and cheese, until legally recommended prices were enforced by the then Minister for Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement Cde Moven Mahachi in May 1987.   

Through his intervention, the prices of dairy products for the local market were stabilised for the local consumer.  

A report in a daily paper of April 12 1987 read: “In these days of ever-increasing prices, the retail price of butter has been slashed by nearly 40 percent by DMB.”

Notwithstanding, the DMB made a substantial profit that year, despite State price control.

Dairy products are a vital source of protein, calcium and vitamins, especially for the growth of young children and the wellbeing of the elderly.  

The consumption of cheese contributes to strong bones and teeth; good eyesight as well as aiding appetite and digestion.

In 1997, the DMB sought privatisation from its parastatal status.  

As a private enterprise, it established regional niche markets for Zimbabwe’s dairy products. 

Markets were sought in Malawi, Tanzania and other Southern African states.

During my college days in England in the mid 1990s, I attended the Nantwich Agricultural shows during summer vacations, to gain first-hand knowledge of the processes and values of dairy production.  

I was also pleasantly surprised to learn from British records that Zimbabwean-made cheeses, produced by Dairibord Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s, had been competing at the Royal Bath and West Agricultural Shows with the best of European cheese producers. 

However, what was even more satisfying was to learn that one Cde Ambrose Chirume, an indigenous cheese-maker, won the third prize for Zimbabwean cheddar at the Royal Bath and West shows and the second prize for cheddar and gouda cheese at Nantwich in September 1984. 

Given that the Royal Bath and West shows in Britain in those days were, and are still, considered the most prestigious premiere exhibitions of cheeses from around the world with extremely high standards, Cde Chirume’s feat and accomplishments for indigenous Zimbabwean dairy cheese makers needs to be acclaimed. 

Zimbabwean cheeses were exhibited at agricultural shows in Bath; a city in south-west England in Avon County, famous for its hot springs, resorts, farms and cheese shows. 

Similarly, local cheeses were ranked superior at agro-shows in Somerset, an English county in the south-west of Britain on the Bristol Channel; known for its agriculture, especially dairying and fruit farming.  

In fact, in 1963, long before independence, cheeses produced in this country had already made an impression on the world cheese markets.

In those days, Zimbabwe made several varieties of cheese. These include camembert, cheddar, cheshire, caerphilly, gouda, edam, stilton and roquefort. 

Below is a brief provenance of the cheeses made in Zimbabwe:

  • Camembert is a rich soft creamy cheese of French origin from Camembert Village in Normandy where it originated. 
  • Cheddar, named after a village in southern-west England, is one of several types of smooth, hard, yellow cheeses with a distinct flavour.
  • Caerphilly cheese is a creamy white, mild-flavoured cheese, originating from south-east Wales.
  • Cheshire cheese, a mild, crumbly textured cheese, is originally from north-western England.
  • Gouda is a cheese originating from a town in western Netherlands.
  • Edam, similar in taste to Gouda, is a hard, round mild-tasting Dutch cheese with a rich yellow colour, soft texture and red outer covering.
  • Roquefort or Danish Blue, is a blue-veined cheese with a strong piquant flavour, named after Roquefort village in France.
  • Similarly, Stilton made from whole milk, come in two varieties; blue-veined blue stilton or white stilton, both very strong in flavour.
  • A distinctly and unique Zimbabwean cheese was the Matopos Cheese brand, which was developed in the country and named after the archaeological rock site Matobo.  

It won several awards in the region and abroad.

Reviving the cheese industry in Zimbabwe will create opportunities for beneficiation and developing indigenous dairy farming prospects for the future.

As Zimbabwe’s new political dispensation forges ahead in a wave of optimism, engaging positively and constructively with the regional and international community, the revitalisation of the cheese industry, made affordable to the population, is vital for the economy and national food security. 

Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. 

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