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Re-thinking rural Kenya and the livestock economy

Monday May 12 2014

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Our rural homes are littered with kienyeji (ordinary and unproductive) cattle whose breed we do not know.  We have never paid attention to the value chain of livestock farming as a basis of wealth creation.

Starting with the breed, veterinary services, feed, beef/milk, abattoirs to markets, it is indeed an industry we have neglected. That is why the vast majority of us cannot name more than two breeds common in Africa or which breed gives the best meat, the most milk or is most resistant to diseases. 

Yet as in farming we remain subsistent while unemployment soars.  We have not backed the talk of entrepreneurship with sustainable ideas that can propel us forward.

In Animal Breeding and Productivity Studies in Africa, Brumby and Trail tell us that the major breeds of African cattle can be classified into three main groups—the humped Zebu of the north, the humpless or taurine breeds of the tsetse-infested zones and the small cervico-thoracic-humped Sanga of the southern and eastern savannahs. 


Exotic cattle introduced into Africa also fall into three broad groups—Zebus such as the Sahiwal and Brahman types from Asia, European beef and dairy breeds, and Zebu exotic hybrids such as the Bonsmara and Santa Gertrudis.

Their research notes that indigenous African cattle are multi-purpose animals. Milk production is universally important, manure usually plays an important role in crop production, draught power and beef production are of localized importance, and all livestock play a key role as a cash reserve and as a source of income.

Well-defined beef and dairy industries are not common, although they exist to some degree around urban centers. Most stock are kept under extremely simple management conditions and receive little supplementary feeding or health care. The ability to cope with environmental stress is the prime criterion for survival.

Not surprisingly, Africa's livestock are late maturing, slow growing and modest milk producers.  This perhaps sums up why we have resources yet continue to be poor.  The term productivity has never been part of our African language and culture but it is the cradle of our misery.


From the images of African livestock breeds, it is clear the spectacular variety of breeds are in themselves a source of wealth were we to be more organized and desirous of dealing with poverty effectively.  It is possible, for example, to organize the youth in semi-arid areas to start a programme of breeding, for example, the Zebu breed that is more adaptable to areas of high temperatures.

 What is required is the discipline and a well-defined strategy to maintain global standards and create viable products ranging from semen to meat and other beef products.  I am told that to get pure-bred Boran semen, you have to import it from South Africa.

The Boran, a descendant of the Zebu, also does well in parts of Kenya that are considered unproductive. Although the Boran breed is indigenous to East Africa mostly in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, the commercial breeding is not as developed as that of South Africa which has a more developed association dedicated to Boran breeding. 

The Kenya Boran breed is more significant as it is differentiated from other Boran sub breeds due to its size and well-developed hindquarters. Mature male Kenyan Boran cattle range in size from 550 to 850 kg, while females are from 400 to 550 kg.  This breed was developed from the Orma Boran, Borana, and Somali Boran.


And size matters. In a September 21, 2012, Meat Matters article, Heavier Carcasses Minimize Effect of Low Cattle Numbers, Steven Kay reports :

“Such gains, along with huge improvements in red meat yields, are why the U.S. has the highest productivity per animal among the world’s top beef-producing nations. The U.S. in 2010 produced 761 lbs. per head on a carcass-weight equivalent, followed by Canada at 747 lbs per head, the European Union at 606 lbs per head and Brazil at 498 lbs per head. Little wonder cattle producers from other countries want to use more U.S. genetics and cattle-raising and feeding knowledge.” 

Kenya at sub 300 lbs/head compares poorly in this productivity index and is lower than South Africa and Botswana.

At some point, Kenya was a leading exporter of organic beef to Europe until we ceded our lead to Botswana.  This was mainly due to the fact that Kenya had enviable capacity created through the many livestock midlevel colleges that we had. 

Most of Kenya’s experts moved to Botswana and Namibia where they are doing a great job in commercial livestock farming.  Most of the rangeland where commercial farming took place has been subdivided into small uneconomical chunks.  It makes sense to urbanize populations in drier areas of the country and develop a global beef industry that ploughs back the resources to the people.  A well-managed cooperative movement could very easily drive such an initiative.   New nations previously not known for beef industry are emerging.  India for example is a surprise case in this industry.

In terms of total beef production, Indians have come up with Buffalo meat. In The World’s January 15, 2014 article, How India—Yes, India—Became a Global Beef Powerhouse, Joshua Keating reports that, “the star of the day is India, thanks to its buffalo meat production, which nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013. India is forcing its way onto the world market, where 25 per cent of the beef is in fact now buffalo meat from the subcontinent.”


India is getting better at beef. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says India became the world’s largest exporter of beef in 2012—just ahead of Brazil. Buffaloes are inexpensive to keep. This makes their meat a dollar a kilo cheaper than beef from cattle.

In addition, the Indian government has invested heavily in abattoirs. Faced with the high price of feed, Brazilian cattle-raisers are switching to growing soybeans. This presents an opportunity–albeit a small one–for Indian buffalo-meat exporters.

An opportunity too for Kenya.  Brazilian beef exports to Russia dropped by 20 percent in 2012 largely due to a growing Middle East market, a growing domestic consumption of beef as well as falling beef production and several market access issues.  All these dynamics point to an opportunity that we must start to exploit.  But it will require that we develop the concept further in order to crystalize where the opportunity lies since in most cases we fail because we do not see where the opportunity presents itself.

The Middle Eastern market has been growing steadily.  They imported more than 1.2 million metric tons of beef or more than 2.5 billion pounds of beef valued at more than $5.5 billion in 2012.  They do not have grass to keep livestock.  We are only four hours at most to more than 90 per cent of the Middle East.  They have lots of money and we have lots of land.  God made it that way, that we give them food in exchange of their money.  That New Zealand which is more than 16 hours away from Middle East and with more expensive labour is able to sell its organic beef more cheaply than us is an indictment to all of us.

I largely blame this on us especially the academics that we cannot share information that will make agriculture more competitive and make sense in society.  Some of the local research in animal science is read more out of the country than within. Research is never simplified to mean anything for its own people.  Compelling cases of research that clearly identifies opportunities will make agriculture acceptable among the youth who form the bulk of our population.  They are the ones to exploit opportunity, the reason why we must come down from the ivory towers to the people and create a sustainable partnership where the universities’ research is utilized locally. 

Branding of our beef begins with the selection of the right breed.  We cannot just go out there saying ninauza nyama (I am selling beef).  The first question you get is what meat.  India is succeeding because everybody knows and expects buffalo meat. 

Further, we must move away from the Kenya Meat Commission and create several smaller and affordable abattoirs in several parts of the country with cold storage facilities.  Revitalize mid-level colleges such as Bukura that has a long tradition of animal science and complement it with Egerton University and University of Nairobi’s programmes on livestock.  Promote organic farming of livestock and market it that way and within no time anybody wanting organic Boran beef will be looking to Kenya.

It is our individual efforts that will one day collectively bring poverty down.  Therefore, I chose to start playing my part. 

If you have an idea that you want to develop into a business opportunity, please write to [email protected].  You will get the opportunity to work with graduate students in entrepreneurship under my supervision to fully research and develop the idea in whatever field.  We shall pick the first ten applicants.  This worked well in the last semester. 

Eventually we shall develop a start-up forum bringing together researchers and ordinary citizens.

William E. Simon said “Productivity and the growth of productivity must be the first economic consideration at all times, not the last. That is the source of technological innovation, jobs, and wealth.”