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The missing link for Matabeleland beef farmers

By Judith Moyo

At the turn of the century Zimbabwe was exporting about 40 000 tonnes of beef per annum to the European Union, with most of that coming from Matabeleland region.

The Cold Storage Company (CSC)
The Cold Storage Company (CSC)

That figure has since been reduced drastically to almost zero by year 2007 and since then there hasn’t been any significant beef exports. This has been attributed to droughts, disease outbreaks and economic challenges that led to high input costs.

Matabeleland region has for a long time been known to be a place where the better if not best quality beef was produced. This is because the region falls under agro-ecological regions IV and V whose terrain and climate is suitable for cattle breeding and wildlife production.

It sits on the edge of the Kalahari Basin with an arid climate not hospitable to cropping. Its agricultural economy is centred on subsistence and livestock farming. Its economic years are largely characterised by drought and lack of economic opportunities, which have resulted in high levels of migration and widespread poverty.

Matabeleland’s economy is mainly dominated by cattle ranching and tourism. It hosts a world heritage site, which is a major tourist attraction and is on the list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

It has very low rainfall and land less fertile making it impossible for farmers to produce enough crops to sustain their needs. During the colonial era large numbers of cattle ranches were formed and cattle ranching proved to be more successful than growing crops.

In early 80s Matabeleland was the largest prime cattle breeding region in Zimbabwe and largely known for high off take rates as compared to other provinces. Today it is second largest producer in cattle herd after Masvingo province though it still has the best quality of cattle. The cattle herd figures have been shrinking over the years.

The country’s meat processor the Cold Storage Company’s head office is strategically situated in Bulawayo because the land is supposedly so rich in high quality cattle production.

It used to be the best in Africa during the colonial times and was known for exporting premium beef products to Europe and was the best in Africa and one of the best in the world. Today it is one of those white elephants in the region whom everyone wonders what really went wrong.

The culture and the people

Zimbabweans are known to be business minded people but it baffles why people in Matabeleland do not bother themselves on getting knowledge on how to keep cattle on a commercial scale and make money out of the abundant natural resources they are endowed with.

The majority of the population still practise the traditional subsistence methods of cattle rearing where they keep cattle for pride and status reasons and do not attach value to it. On a general scale every household in Matabeleland owns between 15 to 30 beasts on average. To them beef cattle farming is seen as an activity aimed at meeting various household and other needs rather than a commercial activity aimed at maximising income and profit.

Cattle are held as a store of value and are only sold to meet cash needs when a need arises. There are a lot of cultural beliefs attached to cattle keeping as a man’s status is determined by the number of cattle they own. Many derive satisfaction in seeing their cattle herd grow yearly not realising the value attached to a live beast. Cattle lose commercial value as they live longer in the kraal.

The agrarian land reform
The restructured agrarian conditions in Zimbabwe created by the post-2000 land reform (ELRP) have resulted in the country undergoing major changes in the beef industry and the livestock sector in general. It is casually assumed that Zimbabwe’s agriculture was destroyed, and the cause of the collapse was the fast track land reform.

All of Zimbabwe’s economic and farming woes are ascribed to the displacement of former large scale commercial farmers. The transformation has been in terms of producer base, livestock ownership, numbers and marketing structure. This has resulted in significant shifts in ownership, use and management of livestock, with concomitant effects on animal disease management, marketing and production. This resulted in a marked decline in commercial beef and dairy cattle production when compared to the pre-2000 period.

My question still remains on where did Matabeleland lose it? Matabeleland still has the grass lands, cattle and its people, but why is there minimal beef production on a commercial scale. One stands to wonder where they are losing the chemistry of it all.

Changes in cattle ownership, numbers, production and marketing structures brought about by the land reform programme has therefore influenced, changed and or affected cattle production chains as it changes the type of actors involved in these chains. The most common, but untested argument against land redistribution was that the new owners of land will not improve the land and are incapable of running their own farms and neither are they able to conserve their land.

Some debate on effects of land redistribution by some sociologists and economic analysts have led people to wrongly believe that the some of the resettled farmers take farming as a hobby and do not take it seriously as a commercial business. Sentimental value is attached to land instead of the commercial value it deserves. Sadly, this fall has led some people to suggest that black Zimbabweans are generally incapable of farming.

The perceptions of sociologists and agricultural economists are based on the arguments that the black indigenous farmers are characterised by the cattle complex, store of value paradigm, precautionary motive argument and the market structure conduct and performance prototype.

The precautionary motive dictates that herds must be large in order to overcome uncertainties and natural disasters. The market structure, conduct and performance states that the high cattle numbers and low off-take rates are caused by market imperfections and infrastructural constraints. Beef cattle farming are seen as an activity aimed at meeting various household and other needs rather than a commercial activity aimed at maximising income and profit. There is need for a paradigm shift in beef farming practices in Matabeleland region.

It was so painful to watch such big giants as the Cold Storage Commission of Zimbabwe (now CSC) fall. The fall of it all was when a Government institution like CSC closed its doors to Matabeleland cattle beef production. It was once rated the best in Africa and the world but failed to maintain its standards and operations.

It’s amazing how such an institution serving Africa and beyond, more so dealing with a delicacy for every household could crumble just like that. The province is dominated by beef value added products whose origins are external to the province. Moreover, beef prices in Matabeleland and Bulawayo in particular are relatively higher than in other provinces.

One would expect beef value addition to be core business in Matabeleland with lower prices than other provinces. Cattle of Matabeleland find its way to other provinces where value is added and then come back to Matabeleland fetching a high price. The sole producers of cattle end up buying their own beef value added products at a higher price than what they realised when they sold it as a commodity.

What really went wrong, one continues to wonder. Does Matabeleland need a visitor from mars to solve this problem? There is need for the people to make use of their comparative advantage in cattle production and create jobs for the youth ultimately reducing unemployment and poverty levels in the region.

Cattle production should be seen being practised throughout the beef value chain. Farmers should start realising returns from the farm gate up until beef reaches the table. Cattle rearing should not end on the sale of the carcass but continue in changing the form of the carcass into different value added products at various levels of the chain. Companies like LEMCO situated in Colleen-Bawn should be resuscitated and continue with beef processing activities. It will absorb thousands of youths who roam the streets of Gwanda and Colleen Bawn. The Chronicle

Judith Moyo is a researcher and academic in the field of agri-business marketing. Feedback on 0716171249/0772467096