NAIROBI, Kenya - Got milk? Pass the butter? Not in Kenya, where both of those staples are increasingly scarce because a drought-induced dairy shortage is wreaking havoc on the milk, butter, and yogurt shelves.
Grocery store owners, restaurant managers, and customers are annoyed and frustrated that an item as basic as butter is almost impossible to find in what is frequently billed as East Africa's largest economy.
Farmers are producing only 30 percent of the country's needs, causing milk prices to shoot up in recent weeks by nearly a third.
Seasonal rains have started falling in Kenya, meaning milk production will soon increase, but supplies are expected to remain low for several more weeks still.
"It's a big problem," said Muthoni Njathi, a Nairobi resident who runs a small takeout restaurant. Njathi said she recently went to three supermarkets in search of butter and couldn't find any. She decided to buy margarine instead, but couldn't find that either.
Adding to the frustration, store owners with empty shelves, and residents with no butter, recall TV images over the last two years showing dairy farmers pouring onto the ground excess milk that the country's dairy processors couldn't handle.
"Come August, you'll see Kenya spilling milk," said Njathi. "Come January, no milk."
Translated to match the rhythm of Kenya's rainy seasons: Wet weather equals lots of milk. Dry spells mean no dairy.
Though Kenya is the region's dominant economy, the agriculture industry at large and the dairy industry specifically are fragmented and not taking advantage of available technology, said Peter Ngaruiya, the executive director of the Nairobi-based Eastern and Southern Africa Dairy Association.
Over the last year, the country has experienced periods where sugar was almost impossible to find. A local staple, ugali, also goes into short supply periodically, evidence that the agricultural supply chain hasn't matured enough to provide a steady, year-round supply.
"The technology in the dairy industry in Kenya is still not what you would call on par with most developed agricultural sectors like in Europe and America," Ngaruiya said. "A processor collects 1,000 liters from the farm, and by the time he gets to the factory, 100 liters have been spilled."
Dairy processors receive a sufficient milk supply only three months of the year, he said, so are hesitant to develop their processing capacity for high-volume times, the reason farmers have had to dump milk in past years.
During the dry season, individual small-scale farmers don't have enough water to feed their cattle, so cattle die, and production drops. Ngaruiya said farmers must either conserve water for use throughout the year or invest in water-storage facilities.
In the meantime, both sides of the farmer-processor fence see no reason to invest more, meaning the cycle of oversupply and undersupply could continue.
"It's a case of the egg and the chicken," Ngaruiya said.
Peter Wasonga, a spokesman for Brookside Dairy, the largest dairy producer in the country, said customers were understandably frustrated. The good news, Wasonga said, is that recent rains mean milk production will again rise. The bad news is that dairy shelves won't be fully restocked for a few more weeks.
Christine Anindo, another Nairobi resident, said that because milk now costs so much more, she has cut it from her diet so her son can drink it instead. Many Nairobi residents now are buying milk directly from herdsmen who sell it cheaper. But she noted that it's a risky option, since that milk has not been pasteurized and can spread bacterial diseases.