By Chibwa Gwanama
When President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa took office in 2001, Zambia was facing a severe drought and had little food reserves. A famine was looming and Government had to be seen to be leading the way in averting starvation. In consequence, he announced that Government was getting into partnership with private companies to produce winter maize. We were told maize deficits would be history. The public media, fanned by all the honourable officials, hyped the political rhetoric. As far as I can recall only one analytical dissenting view of a recently honed postgraduate was voiced. The man said that the project was not likely to succeed because maize grows very slowly in winter and the irrigation costs would be too high. The second rebellious voice came from then former President Frederick Chiliuba who, out of frustration for being persecuted, held a press conference and alleged that the winter maize had even failed to germinate! All professionals either decided to jump on the bandwagon or cowered into silence. We have not heard about winter maize since that season. I am reliably informed that successive governments have had to bear the grunt of paying back the winter maize loan.
Fast forward to 2019. There are terrible forebodings of history being repeated. The current Government has opened a project in Kaoma to produce goats and export them to Saudi Arabia for use in Muslim animal sacrifices. The Kingdom has shown willingness to procure large numbers of goats for the purpose. This time again, government functionaries and public media have gone on a frenzy to sensitize about the developmental prospects of this initiative. Not to be outdone, private media have climbed the bandwagon and at least one media house took a trip to South Africa to do a documentary on the potential in goat production. Below, I give a few red flags on this road. Investment does not always translate into success. There are (by far) more failed agricultural projects than successful ones.
One principle of investment is to start small and grow. In that way, if the project is not well formulated, the financial loss in case of failure is minimal. Zambia is not strange to goat production—the whole country abounds with the species. The Eastern Province and Gwembe Valley, especially have very large numbers of goats. Rather than start a whole new big project, Government would have been better suited to develop the existing goat production industry, such as through better veterinary services and cross breeding.
Secondly, when the Saudis showed interest in our goats, we should have looked at the gaps within the industry and partnered with the Arabs to pump in foreign direct investment into the sector. We ought to have looked at what are the gaps or limiting factors for the expansion of this sector. The biggest problem with the goat sector in Zambia is not production, but marketing. It is the only livestock and meat sub-sector without a corporate player. The cattle business has mighty Zambeef, Starbeef, Cedrics, Parmalat, etc. Chicken, pork and fish sectors have many big corporate brands. Despite being plentiful, goats are only sold as Nyama-ya-Mbuzi by the roadsides and informally at COMESA market. At COMESA market, business is controlled by thugs called Kabeshas. This breed of heavies is more to be dreaded than the infamous Jerabos. Farmers must worship them, or perish. Farmers will transport goats from the reaches of the country, only to sell them for about the transport money. Kabeshas will resell the animals in the afternoon at thrice the price. Rather than invest in goat keeping ventures in new schemes, more immediate and lasting impact could be made by Government in improving the marketing arrangements in this subsector. The goats bought from such arrangements could then be exported to Saudi Arabia, it that itself were feasible.
But that may not be feasible. The above red flags are trivial in comparison to the really big problem in exporting live animals to Saudi Arabia. Let’s stress it: animal sacrifices must be living until point of use. In the context of the current article, forget about Zambia being a land-linked country—for the purposes of exporting living livestock and not meat products, we are a landlocked country. If we were to avoid this fact, we would have to fly the animals from Lusaka right into Riyadh or Mecca. That would be tremendously expensive and unprofitable. The only alternative left would be to truck them to nearest ports in neighboring countries and therefrom put them on ships. I will leave alone the biological difficulties of trucking and shipping living livestock. Nonetheless, this mode has huge logistical problems. In order to deter the transmission of pests and diseases each country has in place quarantine procedures. Every animal passing through the border must undergo this process. If they are to be exported through Tanzania, for example, each batch of goats would be held 2-3 weeks within the confines of the Zambia-Tanzania border until they are certified free for within country transport to the port. We assume that the Saudis have no quarantine, although that is unlikely. Remember, it is every animal passing through this procedure. Quarantine procedures present one of the great barriers of importing better breeds of livestock into countries. They make largescale cross-border movement of livestock impossible. When improvement of livestock is required, it is usually more practical to ship in a very small number of breeding animals, usually males, which will form the nucleus of the introduced breed. Sometimes to avoid quarantine altogether, it is much better to simply import frozen semen and use it in artificial insemination programmes to improve local livestock.
In view of the foregoing, it may legitimately be asked, will sale of goats to Saudi Arabia really rise as a viable export sector?
The author lectures crop science at Copperbelt University