Although beef production in Uganda has been growing at the rate of around 5 percent each year over the past decade and a half, its full economic potential has hardly been tapped. The industry has been constrained by some cultural attitudes as well as poor animal husbandry, according to a new report by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). But if these can be overcome, writes Percis Ofori, the sector could be a major wealth generator for the country.
For centuries, cattle have always played a central role in many Ugandan societies and have become an integral part of the culture and traditions of the country. The importance of cattle goes beyond their economic uses – they symbolize wealth and status and are part of the folklore of communities across the country.
Cattle also, of course, provide beef, which forms more than 61% of the total meat consumed in Uganda. Beef is not only an important source of protein, especially in the rapidly expanding urban areas, it also provides vital income across the value chain, from herding to final retail sales in butcheries and supermarkets.
The production of beef has been rising at around 5% each year (it almost doubled from 100,000 metric tonnes (mt) in 2000 to 190,000mt in 2012, the last year for which figures are currently available). But this disguises the fact that the sector has many challenges and is currently functioning well below par. The potential for growth of this sector is therefore quite considerable if the constraints can be reduced, according to a new report by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET).
The report – Transforming Africa’s Rural Economy, Uganda, is one of a set of five country-focused reports produced by ACET under the general umbrella, ‘Promoting Sustainable Rural Development and Transformation in Africa’.
The reports examine the potential to upgrade the value chains of four critical agricultural activities in each of the five selected African countries: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
The report on Uganda focuses on the production of beef, cassava, millet, and sorghum. Each activity was selected in terms of its potential to increase smallholder productivity and income and also increase agriculture’s contribution to the overall economic transformation of the country.
In this article, the focus will be on the production of beef. In addition to being a major source of meat in Uganda, beef contributes about 17% to total agricultural output and 9% of total GDP, according to data from the Uganda Ministry of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development [MoFPED], 2012).
The key producing areas are the Western and Northern regions of Uganda, particularly the Karamoja sub-region in the north. There are two types of production systems: the traditional (pastoralist and agro-pastoralist system) and commercial ranching.
Pastoralists, who are often nomadic, maintain herds ranging in size from 10 to more than 200 head of cattle and constantly move their herds in search of fresh pasture and water. The agro-pastoralist system combines agriculture and cattle raising. According to the report, cultural symbolism, rather than commercial considerations, is the key driver of herd sizes in Uganda.
Most of the beef produced in Uganda comes from pastoral herders, although there is a relatively small but promising commercial ranching system also in place. Commercial ranchers graze their livestock over extensive fenced areas. There are about 165 ranches, accounting for about 2% of the total national cattle herd. These herds range from 2,000 to 8,000 head of cattle, including local, exotic, and cross-breeds, and are raised using modern animal husbandry methods.
The majority of animals sold from commercial ranches are steers (castrated bulls), while cows and heifers (young cows) are left for breeding. Calves are also sometimes sold. Young animals (two to four-year-olds) are preferred for selling because they fetch a better price. A commercially-oriented feedlot production system to buy and fatten cows for market is also emerging.
Ranchers are also moving away from rearing beef cattle and focusing on fattening cattle obtained from pastoralists who can raise huge herds at low cost. However, the cows are of very poor quality and require intensive feeding before being sold. Typically, ranchers buy 100–300 immature steers from nearby smallholders in March, at the beginning of the rains, raise them on good-quality pasture, and sell them after four months, at the end of the rains.
Importance of cattle in Uganda
Cattle are a central part of the economic life of many rural communities in Uganda. In addition to providing meat and milk, cattle have many other uses. Cow dung is the main source of fertilizer in communities where agro-pastoralism is practiced. In eastern and northern Uganda, bulls are also used for ploughing and other haulage tasks. Thus, cattle are regarded as a valuable asset, and indeed it has been shown that households whose livelihood is mainly dependent on livestock are less likely to be poor.
Given the importance of cattle in the economic life of rural Uganda, the ACET report examines the potential of raising the entire value chain associated with beef production with the ultimate aim of increasing earning potential, creating jobs and contributing to the overall transformation of the country’s economy.
The report identifies a set of challenges that are currently constraining the industry and provides recommendations on how these challenges can be overcome.
One of the challenges working against an increased output of beef is more cultural than economic. Pastoralists in particular hold cattle in high esteem and aim to increase the size of their herds because this reflects on their status within their communities and also because, over the centuries, cattle have acted as food insurance.
They are therefore reluctant to sell their animals, doing so generally only in emergencies and when they need to raise cash to make purchases. They also tend to sell off sickly and old cattle first, usually during the dry season, when grass and water for the animals are scarce. These cows thus tend to be older and lower in weight and can fetch only low returns.
Another challenge is the generally poor health condition of many animals. Veterinary services and the supply of essential drugs and other inputs in Uganda are weak, due in part to the government’s inability to provide sufficient extension services, including artificial insemination and cattle dips. There is thus a significant shortage of breeding services to improve local breeds. The cost of higher-quality mating bulls is prohibitive to most herders, while the supply of government-subsidized artificial insemination services is not widely available.
Water is one of the biggest challenges of rearing beef cattle. Herds are moved over vast distances in search of water, reducing the productivity of the animals and greatly damaging the environment, especially in locations near water holes.
Most slaughterhouses in Uganda are in poor condition and often lack all the necessary facilities. The small fees charged for slaughtering animals are inadequate to maintain the slaughterhouses appropriately. In addition, quality control is poor, which means that dead and sick animals can be slaughtered and sold before meat inspectors arrive
The lack of cold storage facilities combined with high cost of electricity account for losses in the industry.
Researchers also discovered what they describe as a ‘perverse case of lack of trust’. Some 30% of the cows slaughtered at abattoirs were pregnant. The reason is that since the weight of a cow is estimated by measuring its girth with a tape, traders offer pregnant cows (unknown to the buyer) as these fetch a higher price. The buyer only realizes this after the slaughter and since the foetus has to be thrown away, the trader loses. However, though the farmer gains in the short run, in the longer run it means that the stock of cows dwindles.
Having identified the major constraints in the beef industry, the ACET report makes a number of recommendations that it believes will improve beef production in Uganda, These include improving farm-level productivity and the quality of animals through breeding.
Better veterinary services can improve productivity, and the use of improved breeding bulls can substantially increase beef production. It is known that the initial gain would improve the weaning rate from approximately 47% to almost 80% per year.
“Breeding can also help move the herd structure towards a higher proportion of bulls. Only a few high-quality cows are needed, and a bull-centric herd will reduce the wasteful practice of selling pregnant cows to get a higher price. Currently 30% of cows slaughtered are pregnant, which has significant implications for growth of the herd,” says the report.
Another factor that can help transform the industry is around the transport of both live animals as well as meat. Cattle transporters generally earn very high margins but often do so through cruel practices that also lower the value of the animals.
“Forward integration by traders, giving them ownership of the transport system, may lead to better handling of cattle, as traders will try to maximize the profits from cows, as opposed to transporters, whose objective is to pack as many cows as they can onto a truck and who bear no cost of loss of quality” the report recommends.
The ACET report also suggests that upgrading to trucks with refrigeration facilities, which can transport meat from long distances rather than transporting cows, can also increase value.
Another important recommendation is to set up watering points. Small reservoirs can be built using communal manual labor and this can significantly increase productivity. These reservoirs can hold 2,000–5,000 cubic meters of water and be constructed at an estimated cost of US$10,000 per sub-county.
ACET suggests creating incentives for existing food processors, to diversify some of their activities to producing animal feeds. This can also be an attractive venture for other entrepreneurs to enter the feed manufacturing segment. Better feeding will lead to healthier, heavier cattle and better returns for the herders.
In addition, herders can pool their resources as cooperatives to develop feedlots (adding concentrate to a grazing feed regime) to increase productivity.
The report concludes that the production of beef in Uganda has considerable potential to increase incomes in the rural areas, as well as to raise the entire value chain until the meat reaches the final consumer, who is usually to be found in the urban centers.
This story was produced by the Features department of the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) based in Accra, Ghana. The information comes from a new report: “Transforming Africa’s Rural Economy - Uganda,” produced by ACET. The report is one of a set of five country-specific reports on rural agriculture transformation in Africa. Other country reports focus on: Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso.
You can download the full report at www.acetforafrica.org
Percis Ofori works in the ACET Communications and External Relations Department.