What is the purpose of livestock in Namibia?

13 July 2018 | Economics

It is established fact, indeed dogma, that Namibian livestock are used to produce meat, as well as some milk, skins, eggs, draught power and manure. The animals are farmed for production. They or their products are harvested regularly and sold to earn revenue. This is generally thought to be the true function of all livestock. Government, its agencies and foreign development organisations often repeat this assumption.

But this is not true for most Namibian cattle and goats, and probably not for most pigs and chickens. As a rule, these animals are neither sold nor slaughtered regularly, and do not provide their owners with steady revenue or income.

They are not used for production. Instead, they are kept as investments (akin to savings, security or capital) by most livestock owners across northern Namibia, and in other communal areas. This also holds for many resettlement and freehold farms operated by weekend farmers, both from former and current times. And it seems to be the case throughout most of Africa.

Ownership

Livestock ownership is thus divided into “farming” and “keeping”. “Farming” generates income and “keeping” produces capital.

Divisions between the two may blur, for example when market opportunities encourage “keepers” to sell, or when “farmers” gain other incomes and then become “keepers”. Most, but by no means all commercial farms are used for farming, while keeping predominates in communal areas. There are some notable exceptions, for instance in the substantial marketing of goats in former Namaland and cattle in former Hereroland.

Saving vs investment

There are subtle, but important differences between livestock savings and investments. For poorer residents in communal areas, livestock are mostly savings which are drawn when needs arise for additional income. The needs are often unexpected and pressing. Small amounts are “withdrawn” by selling one or two chickens, while bigger amounts are obtained by selling two goats or one cow, for example.

By contrast, wealthy livestock owners from Windhoek, Walvis Bay, Rundu, Oranjemund, Oshakati and other towns keep livestock largely as investments. Their main purpose is to provide longer-term capital security for themselves and their children. However, animals are also “withdrawn” when needs arise for extra money, which includes giving animals or cash for weddings or other special occasions. The needs of wealthier livestock owners can generally be predicted more easily and they are less critical than those of poorer livestock owners.

Balance

The balance between “farming” and “keeping” livestock may be changing, but it is not always clear in which direction.

On the one hand, younger livestock owners in communal areas increasingly produce and sell animals, as is expected from farmers generally. On the flipside, increasing numbers of cattle (and often goats) are kept as capital on communal land by wealthy urban residents.

The latter makes for great investments because the land, grazing and water are all free, and labour costs are low. Today, more livestock on communal land are without any doubt owned by non-residents than by those who actually live in communal areas.

This has extreme implications, both environmental and social. Many areas are now over-stocked, and the small herds that belong to resident families barely manage to compete for the forage and water that remains for their use. These are communal families who lack substantial incomes and for whom livestock savings are vital “piggy banks” to be accessed in times of real need.

‘Red Line’

Claims that livestock in northern Namibia would be farmed if the veterinary cordon fence was removed ignore the very purpose of most livestock. This was made clear in comments on the cordon fence by Urias Ndilula, a senior councillor of the Oukwanyama traditional authority. He was quoted in Namibian Sun of 3 July 2018 as saying that what northern communal areas farmers need most is grazing, not meat exports.

Getting rid of the “Red Line” would have several benefits, buts more might be achieved if investment options for wealthy urban livestock keepers were increased in other fields.

Finally, there is a real need to ask: What should Namibian land be used for? As safety nets for the poor, as productive land for agriculture and tourism, or as investments for rich people?

Sensible answers supported are needed to these questions. And then their implementation needs to be bolstered by serious political will.

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