Can Namibian beef cross the thin red line?

Namibia’s dwindling beef supplies are approaching a crisis even as export markets offer huge opportunities to Southern Africa. More than ever, their industry needs to cross the “thin red line” into the Northern Communal Areas, and bring foot-and-mouth vulnerable beef in line with export standards. Servaas van den Bosch reports.
Issue date : 12 September 2008

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A recent study from the British Institute for Development Studies (IDS) hails the global livestock revolution as an opportunity for Southern African countries to boost their exports to the EU. Namibia is game, but most of its cattle live north of the “red line”, the controversial fence containing foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and other veterinary diseases to the northern part of the country. S ome consider it a relic of the past, but the recent outbreak of FMD in the Kavango region shows it is a necessity. T he ‘red line’, or veterinary control fence (VCF) crosses the B1 at Oshivelo, near the northern boundary of Etosha National Park. Below that point is a disease-free area predominantly consisting of commercial farms.

 The area above the fence, referred to as the Northern Communal Area (NCA), is mostly populated by communal cattle owners and considered a high risk area for veterinary diseases. The problem is that of Namibia’s 2 million head of cattle, only 712 000 live south of the VCF and are thus eligible for export to the EU and other high-value markets. F or now, Meatco, Namibia’s biggest meat producer, still looks south of the VCF for supplies, trying to make a profit by accessing new markets and diversifying its product range.

“But in 10 years’ time I know where will have to go to get my cattle,” admits Meatco procurement manager Vehaka Tjimune. Although Meatco turned a decent profit last year, cattle ranchers are worried about the future. For years Meatco has been operating significantly under its slaughter capacity of 190 000 head because of dwindling input from farmers below the VCF.

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A declining trend M eatco’s annual report for the 2007/08 financial year shows a surplus of R37,4 million after tax; almost triple that of the year before. In this period sales revenue on beef products increased R101 million. H owever, only a small percentage of this – around 20% – came from actual volume increases. The remaining R80 million was realised through price increases (55%) and more favourable exchange rates (25%). eatco’s CEO Jacobus du Plessis points out that the producer’s viability depends on its ability “to procure raw material in sufficient quality and quantity”, as well as finding and exploiting new markets and diversifying the product range. he slaughter of commercial cattle has dropped steadily for the past few years from 149 109 head in 2002 to 109 468 last year.

 According to Jacobus, contracted and projected numbers for 2008/09 show an even further decline. The situation is worsened by the good rains of 2008, which give ranchers a chance to rebuild their herds after many animals perished in last year’s drought. This in turn will delay delivery to abattoirs. “Without the good results overseas last year, Meatco would have had to shut down one of its main abattoirs,” says Meatco spokesperson Uschi Ramakhutla. Local beef producers fear the industry will reach a tipping point and farmers will lose their domestic market. Meanwhile commercial farm herd sizes have declined from 1,8 million head in 1972 to 712 000 head, depending on the statistics used.

The reasons for this are varied. One explanation is that the SA market offered exceptionally good prices for weaners in 2006, and the resultant high exports on hoof led to the present shortage of slaughter oxen. Meatco and local banks are trying to counter this trend by introducing a weaner financing scheme, allowing farmers to rebuild their herd for the local markets. But there are more structural reasons for the decline, such as growing bush encroachment and a shift to game farming and ecotourism. Government tends to promote marketing schemes in times of drought, urging farmers to dispose of their animals, but these are never followed by restructuring schemes in the good rain seasons, creating a downward trend. Another more controversial reason is land reform, which has seen profitable farms either reduced to subsistence farming or ceasing operation altogether.

Can the line be shifted?
An obvious solution to dwindling beef supplies would be to move the VCF northwards towards the Angolan border. This has been the government’s wish since independence and is one of the IDS researchers’ most important recommendations. But it’s more complicated than it sounds. The SA authorities erected the red line in the early 1960s after a major outbreak of FMD, suspected to have come from Botswana. It effectively separated the two farming communities, confining FMD to the north of the country rather than eradicating it. The occupation forces used the VCF as a police cordon to control and regulate the movement of people and cattle. As a result of this social engineering, above the VCF an estimated 150 000 communal households occupy 33,5 million hectares, or 42%, of Namibia’s arable land.

 In the south some 36,2 million hectares (43%) is distributed among 4 200 commercial farmers. This leads state veterinarian Dr Alec Bishi to conclude in his report for IDS that “the dual colonial agricultural policy availed considerable resources to create a modern commercial farming sector on the one hand and an impoverished and neglected communal sector on the other, that to all intent and purpose was to provide the white-owned commercial farming and mining sectors with a reserve of cheap labour.” Despite the VCF’s notorious reputation, it serves a critical economic purpose. In recent weeks FMD broke out in the NCA itself, which is supposed to be a buffer zone between the south and infected regions such as the Caprivi Strip and Southern Angola.

There are little or no constrictions on the movement of animals in the NCA, which makes it difficult to control outbreaks. Government is still battling to control an FMD outbreak in the Caprivi Strip which began in November last year, resulting in the closure of the abattoir in Katima Mulilo. Meatco’s abattoir in Oshakati suffered from a moratorium, so exports to SA and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries had frozen in the NCA. The moratorium ended recently, except for the Kavango region. Not surprisingly, the NCA is considered a high risk area for FMD and Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia (CBPP) and as such excluded from exporting to the EU and other high-value markets. Removing the VCF without creating an alternative would be disastrous for Namibia’s export status.

The ideal scenario
What scientists and politicians consider the ideal is a disease-free area that includes Southern Angola but excludes areas with a lot of wild buffalo, which carry FMD, such as east of the Kavango region. This would also keep access to two of Namibia’s few perennial rivers intact, and allow free movement of people and cattle to grazing grounds on either side of the border, a long-standing cultural practice. Although this is a theoretical possibility since the war in Angola has ended, it would require the active involvement of Angolan farmers and government in what is essentially a Namibian problem. Meanwhile the VCF Task Force, established over 11 years ago, has made very little headway. Although attempts were made to revive the efforts in 2005, the process was abortive.

Even if the NCA, or parts of it, could realise EU export status, the challenges are enormous. Despite premiums for producers in the north, off-take in the NCA is around 1,5%, as opposed to 25% south of the VCF. It’s mostly the older animals that are offered for sale and Meatco’s two abattoirs in the north have been operating at a loss for as long as anyone cares to remember. “The future of the beef industry is in the NCA, so we’ll keep a foot on the ground in these areas,” says Vehaka. But he adds that a lot of changes will have to be made to issues surrounding animal movement control and tracking, decongestation, illegal fencing, grazing, water, training and marketing. “There are possibilities and we are willing to take farmers by the hand, but they will have to choose,” he cautions. “If people in the NCA want to have access to the EU market their cattle operations have to enter the modern era. They can’t have it both ways.” |fw