By FRED OLUOCH Special Correspondent
Kenyan delegates at the recent pastoral meeting in southern Ethiopia were concerned that marketing policies favoured ranchers at the expense of pastoralits who keep traditional livestock.
Kenya, unlike other countries in the Horn of Africa with big populations of pastoralists, has been recognised as having done a great deal in promoting livestock marketing and other related services.
The revival of the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC) stands out as one of the government's efforts to address the difficulties of market access facing pastoralists.
However, the entire Horn of Africa region has for nearly 10 years been left out of the international livestock trade owing to the prevalence of Rift Valley Fever. But pastoralists say the decision was more political than medical.
The outbreak of the Rift Valley Fever in 1998 led Saudi Arabia – the biggest market for live animals from the Horn of Africa – to impose a ban on imports from the region.
Abdi Umar, a researcher on livestock trade and marketing with UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Pastoralists Communication Initiative, noted that the ban has more or less dissipated the once thriving international livestock trade in the region and has instead allowed previously minor players like Australia to thrive.
Mr Umar noted that five years ago, Australia used to export only 200,000 animals annually, but now exports about four to five million sheep and goats to Saudi Arabia. New Zealand, Argentina and Burkina Faso have also entered the Middle East market at the expense of the Horn of Africa.
He said research by World Health Organisation experts in the past five years has revealed that the Rift Valley Fever came with the 1997/98 El Nino rains and occurred mainly in certain sections of the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Ethiopia.
But most former markets are yet to be convinced that the disease has been eradicated, given that, apart from Kenya, very few Horn of Africa countries have invested in veterinary services.
Other Middle East markets such as Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Oman lifted the import ban, but the main market of live animals remains Saudi Arabia, which needs to import about six million live animals because of the annual Muslim pilgrimage.
According to Fuad Aden Ade, Somaliland Minister for Pastoral Development, Environment and Wildlife, his country used to sell seven million cattle, camels and sheep to Saudi Arabia annually but now has to look for other markets such as Yemen.
"The reason why we believe that there are ulterior motives to the ban on livestock exports from our region is because though we now export our livestock to Yemen, the Saudis continue to import from Yemen though they know the animals are from Somaliland," said Mr Ade.
Before the ban, the countries of Somalia, Somaliland, Puntland, Djibouti and the Ethiopian Somali region of Ogaden were exporting a total of six million sheep and goats to Saudi Arabia.
That is why the meeting at Yabello was keen to discuss the difficulties pastoralists face in marketing their products, especially access to international markets. They resolved to establish marketing institutions at the village, regional and national level.
Kenyan pastoralists are, however, encouraged by the revival of KMC, though they feel that since the institution collapsed while under government, it would be better to leave its management to the private sector.
The delegates gave the example of Djibouti, which boasts one of the most advanced infrastructure for animal export in the region. Built with the support of government and donors but run by the private sector, the meat commission there comprises holding grounds with water, pasture and advanced vertirinary services.
Egypt, Kenya's largest market for animals, recently extended the ban on exports of live cattle, sheep and goats from Kenya. However, camels were not included. Another big market for Kenyan animals is Mauritius, from where, players fear, they are re-exported to other markets. Cattle are transported from Nairobi to ranches in Taita Taveta for fattening before being shipped by sea to Mauritius.
Ali Wario, chairman of the Kenya Pastoralists Parliamentary Group and MP for Bura, noted that apart from suffering from lack of infrastructure and accurate market information, pastoralists in Tana River District have a problem with market terminals.
"The law is colonial and needs to be changed. Since we come from the diseased area, we are not allowed to bring our animals for competition but only for termination," said Wario, who added that even the reopening of KMC will not help them to enter the international market because the issue of diseases has to be addressed first.
Mr Umar was, however, more concerned that globalisation of the livestock trade favours those with more advanced veterinary services.
"If the region is to compete with the rest of the world, it is up to them to satisfy the international market that their products are not diseased," said Mr Umar. "The fact that the animals have grown up on the natural range is not good enough."
But he maintained that the international livestock market favours the West. First, the cattle sector in Europe is subsidised, meaning that the pastoralists in the Horn region cannot compete with European ranchers.
Secondly, veterinary requirements are set by the Paris-based Organisation International de Epizootic (OIE, the World Organisation for Animal Health) where powerful countries suppress representations from Africa. OIE defines which diseases are reportable, which require quarantine and which animals cannot be exported.
Mr Umar said, "As far as the West is concerned, cattle from Africa are diseased and cannot enter their market. But mind you, the mad cow disease did not come from Africa. The West knows that if the playing field were levelled, Africa would out-export everybody."
However, the good news is that although the Saudi ban has affected the trade in animals, it has not affected trade in meat, because the virus can only live in the meat for a few hours.
Once the animals are slaughtered, the bones, hides and skins can be used in other industries while the meat is exported.
In Addis Ababa and Somaliland, many small abatoirs are processing meat for export to Saudi Arabia.
Source: The East African