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New Agriculturist: Focus on... Making more of the Middle East market
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Making more of the Middle East market

Feeding sheep in the central highlands of Ethiopia
Feeding sheep in the central highlands of Ethiopia

Somalia, more than any other country in the Horn of Africa, is uniquely dependent upon its livestock. Around four-fifths of the population depend on the milk and meat of their camels, sheep, goats and cows. And although there is a strong local market, the sale of animals and meat products for export provides important income for Somali pastoralists and the traders who are involved in trade to the Middle East. However, Somalia has been severely affected over the last 20 years by bans on the importation of livestock into the Middle East from East African countries. And whilst bans are in place, alternative suppliers - such as Australia - are well placed to exploit the situation to their advantage.

The Horn of Africa has a long history of exporting large numbers of live animals - sheep, goats, cattle and camels - by sea to the Middle East. Ethiopia alone has exported up to 350,000 cattle and 1.15 million sheep and goats annually in recent years, with the demand for live male sheep peaking each year at the time of the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. But the trade in live animals is vulnerable. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have imposed a number of bans on the import of livestock from the Horn due to risks associated with transboundary animal diseases, including rinderpest, foot-and-mouth disease and Rift Valley fever. Such bans impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of the region's pastoralists who rely heavily on the sale of surplus livestock to support their families.

Impact of export bans

Following an outbreak of Rift Valley fever in East Africa, a ban imposed by Saudi Arabia in 1998, resulted in the loss of exports of live animals worth an estimated US$100 million. The impact on large numbers of livestock keepers in Somalia and Ethiopia was severe; living in arid and semi-arid areas, viable alternative livelihood options are scarce and, due to periodic drought, many were already food insecure. Some nomadic communities were particularly affected, with many young men forced to look for work in urban areas.

Bans can also lead to overstocking of livestock, and large numbers of surplus sheep and goats result in over-grazing and environmental degradation. Oversupply of animals in the local market depresses prices and further reduces the income and purchasing power of livestock owners. But the risk for the importing country can also be high: in the year 2000 the first outbreak of Rift Valley fever outside Africa occurred in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Rift Valley fever usually affects small ruminants but sometimes also infects humans. The outbreak resulted in the deaths of dozens of people with hundreds more infected in the Arabian Peninsula. Inevitably, imports of livestock from the Horn were subjected to another ban and traditional pastoralists were left without a market for their animals.

Fresh hope for region's livestock trade?

Slaughterhouse in Egypt (© FAO)
Slaughterhouse in Egypt

Saudi Arabia is the only market in the Middle East that still maintains a livestock ban from the Horn of Africa. However, the need for a more secure and controlled market has now become a priority for the region. To assure importing countries that the risk of human or animal disease from inspected livestock is low and acceptable, an FAO project has been assisting with establishing an Export and Certification of Livestock for Export (EXCELEX) protocol in Somalia and Ethiopia. Trained veterinary inspectors are now working for local authorities and are assisting with the identification, inspection and certification of export animals from Ethiopia destined for Egypt.

In partial response to the problems of market uncertainty, the focus of the livestock export trade in Ethiopia has begun to shift. From a traditional reliance solely on the vulnerable trade in live animals, there is an emerging, growing trend to export carcasses, mostly frozen goat meat, to Gulf states. Frozen beef is also exported to various countries including Egypt, by airfreight. Factors driving this development include not only the periodic disease-related bans on export of live animals but also because Ethiopia is a landlocked country, reliant on neighbouring countries for access to ports. There are now five privately owned export-standard slaughterhouses actively involved in the export meat trade - some joint ventures with Saudi partners - with more planned, and at least one similar operation in northern Somalia.

Adding value through meat and milk processing also avoids some of the concerns from importers over disease in live animals and proves less expensive in terms of transport costs for exporters. Products may still need to be certified to provide assurance of certain standards but particular commodities, such as deboned meat pose little risk of diseases such as rinderpest, foot and mouth and Rift Valley fever and provide greater value to exporting countries.

Written by: Keith Sones

Date published: May 2006


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