Offal riches: tapping into a niche market

An Eastern Cape livestock trader expanded his business into a abattoir near Mdantsane outside East London, catering for the traditional Xhosa market and its peculiar cultural requirements. He now slaughters more than 1 000 animals per week, writes Orrock Robertsen.
Issue date : 24 October 2008

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Mdantsane in East London is the second-biggest township in the country, which unbelievably stretches almost all the way to King Williams Town some 60km away. Glen Victor Meats is situated right next to the N2 between East London and King Williams Town, on the Nahoon Dam off-ramp and is owned by John Bowerbank, who is originally from the Komga area and still farms there.

His managers are Craig Weatherdon and Jonathan Brody and one’s immediate impression is that these guys are modern-day frontiersmen. Glen Victor Meats is on 50ha covered in rose grass pasture of which 10ha is under irrigation. “Security is an issue, but we have it reasonably covered,” says John. This is clearly demonstrated by the electric fence which surrounds the entire 50ha. It’s backed by a proficient security force and a couple of watch towers, with enough spotlights to locate a modern fighter plane.

The fully equipped abattoir has a permanent qualified meat inspector from the International Meat Quality Assurance Services (IMQAS), as well as a meat classifier and offers customers the entire range of red meat including goat. he best-selling items, however, are the byproducts and John says they are unable to keep up with the demand for their offal, not only because it’s cheaper, but it is also traditionally a highly regarded meat among the Xhosa. “Most importantly we sell it fresh,” John points out. “Mdantsane is our biggest market and we are strongly supported there, in particular by Man Super Meats and the Highway Spar, but we also supply some local butcheries in East London as well as a couple of the Pick ‘n Pays and Spars.”

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From stock trading to big business
Glen Victor Meats is currently slaughtering about 200 cattle, 750 sheep and about 120 pigs a week and the business has shown a steady growth from very humble beginnings. John explains that the idea to start the abattoir came about some 20 years ago, when he began trading livestock into the Transkei from his farm in Komga. “I saw huge red meat potential in Mdantsane and an opportunity to provide a service. As more people were moving to the urban areas, it was becoming increasingly difficult to slaughter animals at their houses, due to health laws and space issues.

People living in Mdantsane were also becoming more affluent and so a market was developing for quality red meat.” “When we first started out I was doing so-called ‘bush slaughtering’ of livestock. We were shooting the livestock and slaughtering them illegally in the bush to sell primarily to Mdantsane. I would receive an order, go outside, choose a cow, shoot it, slaughter it and deliver it,” John says. “This was back in the day when private abattoirs were not allowed, so we had to slaughter under the cover of darkness in the bush.

We were eventually caught, but fortunately by the new Department of Agriculture which, I might add, was very accommodating. The officials simply asked us if we were interested in complying with the new regulations, we said we were and the relationship with the department has been excellent ever since.” John says he could not have continued in this business without his loyal, hard-working staff. “I’m particularly indebted to Ernest Rulf and Mzwandile Tyonti, both of whom have been with me since the days of the bush slaughtering.” His farm in Komga is used as a feedlot to help regulate his supply to the abattoir, thereby giving him more control. “The problem with South African farmers is that we have limited control over the price of our product,” he says. “More involvement in the marketing of our product is essential.”

Finding the right livestock
Sourcing livestock is the most difficult element of the business, but because they have been in operation for some time, they have cemented good business relationships, which has helped. Manager Craig says, “We source livestock from throughout the country via agents, farmers and stock sales. We then select and transport the animals ourselves. This has proved to work very well. But diesel prices impacted on us, so we had to become more creative. For example, we transport calves up to the feedlots and transport our livestock back, which makes turnaround somewhat slower, but what can we do?”

John adds that they still source a fair amount of stock from the Transkei. “But you must just be absolutely positive of ownership before purchasing livestock there.” He says the quality of the meat from the Transkei is suitable, but the problem is that it tends to be from old stock usually used for making sausage. “I get many phone calls from emerging farmers in the Transkei asking for advice about vaccinations, dosing and stock breeds. I believe that there are some farmers out there who are really trying to up their game and that’s really positive.” Contact Glen Victor Meats on (043) 745 2349. |fw