Binyam Kassa studied Animal Science at the former Alemaya University and graduated with a B.Sc. in 2002 GC. He then joined the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research in 2003 at Pawe Center and worked as junior researcher in forage and livestock production systems until he enrolled in Dairy Science at Hawassa University in 2005. After graduating with a M.Sc. in 2008 he joined the former Ethiopian Meat and Dairy Technology Institute as a dairy technologist, trainer and consultant and served for one year. Then rejoined EIAR at Holeta Center as dairy postharvest researcher and served for 5 years as a Jersey National Project Coordinator and member of the dairy value chain research team.
In the past 4 and half years he was self-employed and set up Lactal Creamery PLC in Assela, Oromia region, which produces animal feed and milk products and a consultancy firm ‘ET ALIM Trading PLC’ in 2015 which supplies inputs to agricultural and food processing enterprises. Binyam talked to Capital about the challenges the livestock sector is facing. Excerpts;
Capital: As a livestock expert what are the challenges Ethiopia faces and how can we tackle them?
Binyam Kassa: Ethiopia has a large livestock population, a relatively favorable climate for improved breeds and regions with less animal disease-stress that give the country a substantial potential for livestock development. These untapped livestock resources are scattered over a diverse agro-ecology that offer different challenges and opportunities for the sector. Regardless of the huge potential we have in livestock resources, we are among the bottom in production, productivity and consumption of livestock products globally. The reasons why we are not benefiting from our resources stem from a complex set of challenges. The major challenges of Ethiopian livestock sector include; Underdeveloped input supply system, in terms of veterinary service, breed improvement, feed, mechanization and technical advisory service that are important for improved production and productivity; access to natural resources, especially land which limits the expansion of intensive livestock production as well as multiplication of replacement stock for livestock businesses. This is aggravated by expansion of crop production in rangelands; limited coverage of extension system in terms of animal disease prevention and control which exposes animals to epidemic diseases that reduces production and number of livestock; underdeveloped infrastructure such as road, water and electricity to major production potential areas has limited the marketing of livestock and their products to major road sides only; unenforced and sometimes missing policies and regulations in the livestock and products trade lead to inferior quality and quantity livestock trade and unfair competition for meager products such as milk for agro-industrial processing and small ruminants for export; and limited access to finance as a barrier to entrance as livestock business in the country.
Private sector engagement is recommended in livestock operations to turn these challenges into opportunities. For this to effectively take place, policy support and commitment from the government is required wherever applicable. Livestock businesses along the various value chains are risky and take longer time to show positive return on investments as compared to alternative investment ventures. Therefore, incentives should be placed to attract more livestock businesses and turn the existing subsistent mode of production into a vibrant and competitive livestock sector.
Capital: Land belongs to the government how does that affect livestock production?
Binyam: Livestock production highly depends on forage production for sustaining a healthy and productive flock and herd. The production of forage crops as well as forage grains in turn requires a vast area of land. A fair allocation of land for livestock investments as well as communal forage production for smallholder livestock keepers is very important to the economy at large. The rain-fed economy is still dependent on oxen traction even for cereal crop production. Ranches are required to expand the meat export to high value markets that require traceable livestock products. There are some technologies that increase production from small plots of land, such as hydroponics, but considering the application costs and area of production, land issues should be addressed if the livestock sector is expected to transform and contribute more to the GDP. Until such drastic interventions take place, increasing efficiency of smallholder livestock operations remains the viable option for the sector development.
Capital: Some research indicates that due to the poor management of cows, milk productivity still falls far below its full potential. How can this problem be solved?
Binyam: In order to attain full milk production potential, one needs cows that are healthy, well-nourished and comforted. Ninety-nine percent of Ethiopian cows are local breeds that were selected for their hardiness and not for their milk production potential, two traits that do not come as one. But there are promising dual purpose breeds such as the Boran, Fogera, Begait and Nuwer that can be selected for milk production potential. Having high yielding local breeds are the low hanging fruit while crossbreeding towards specialized dairy farming needs careful intervention. Regarding large scale commercial dairy farming there has been a precedent of importing pure Friesian, Jersey and Fleckvieh breeds that are known for their high milk production. In addition to breed improvement, high quality and adequate quantity of feed and water is required. Improved dairy breeds, be they selected local breeds, crossbreeds or pure exotic breeds, require a high level of veterinary service input and husbandry practices to comfort them. How to coil all these? Rural entrepreneurship and investment in input production and marketing should be promoted by all stakeholders and development partners.
Capital: Many cattle are sold illegally to neighboring countries which affects the country’s economy, what should be done to solve this challenge?
Binyam: It is impossible to fence the country to avoid the illegal livestock trade. Rather, the formal livestock market has to be competitive in the live animal trade in order to avoid livestock the smugglers’ effect on the economy – a pull factor. Border trade of live animals will not stop unless there is a better price offer and market infrastructure for the pastoralists living along the borders from the local ‘formal’ livestock traders. Better prices, timely offtake, input services and market information are important drivers in reducing cattle illegal trade and increasing the share of the formal livestock market.
Capital: Artificial insemination and importing better breeds have been the government’s policy. Even though there has been some increase in production some say that local breeds are diminishing. What is your stand on this issue?
Binyam: Yes there are a few local breeds that are being genetically eroded, but still the population of local cattle comprises 98.7 % of the total herd according to recent Central Statistics Authority reports. It is important to conserve our local breeds not only from exotic crossbreeding but also from within local breed crossing for many ecological and biodiversity reasons. Importation of pure bred and crossbreeding activities should be regulated and the government has recently announced that it has approved the first livestock breeding policy.
Capital: Brokers benefit a lot because they determine the market price. Farmers don’t earn as much as they do. What can be done about this?
Binyam: It is natural that the profit margins get higher as you move closer to the consumer in most livestock value chains. Regarding livestock and product brokers, “The broker effect” has two sides; the market facilitation and price fixing. Formalizing the market facilitation role of livestock and product brokers will lead the market towards functioning normally. Experience can be taken from the formalized crop markets through ECX. Another tool would be promoting cooperative action in livestock and product marketing. Farmers in dairy cooperatives enjoy year round market access and price negotiating power. Direct linkage of producer groups to agro-industries will marginalize the price fixing role of informal brokers in the livestock sector.
Capital: The problems of grazing land and feed have been identified as key impediments to livestock and agro-industry in Ethiopia. How can this problem be addressed?
Binyam: Feed makes up 70% of livestock production costs. Diminishing grazing lands size and productivity due to overgrazing and climate change effects have posed great challenges to livestock production. Chicken production competes with human food for cereal crops. All these call for sound intervention to sustain livestock production and agro-industries in Ethiopia. There are six forage production strategies that can integrate forage production within highland crop-livestock mixed production systems; intercropping, rotational cropping, sequential cropping, contour and hedge cropping, backyard foraging and fodder bank development. These strategies can be adapted by local extension workers to prevailing situations of smallholder farmers and increase forage production for improved livestock production. Another option is the highland-lowland forage production and market linkage. Recent experience showed us large scale commercial alfalfa hay production has reduced protein source feed costs to livestock producers. With improved access to land and other economic resources large scale production of forage crops is the way forward along with smallholder forage production strategies mentioned above.
Capital: Eggs, and chicken meat seems to be expensive and unaffordable for average income people to consume on a regular basis although Ethiopia has a good environment to raise chickens what can be done about this?
Binyam: Ethiopia has one of the lowest per capita consumption of chickens and eggs in the world. Our eating habit that puts chicken as a luxury food item coupled with high prices that stem from the poor performance of the poultry sector explain our lesser per capita consumption. The high rate of price elasticity, especially in the rural areas, of livestock products makes their consumption limited to high income households. Production and productivity improvement as well as marketing system improvement are key solutions to make eggs and chicken meat affordable and available to the wider population. Rural entrepreneurship for chicken farming, input supply and product marketing should be promoted. The contribution of the commercial sector is very minimal in the livestock sector in general and the poultry sub-sector in particular. Business opportunities in the poultry sector include feed production and processing, equipment and facility supply, veterinary service supply, breeding and establishment stock supply, chicken slaughtering and meat fabrication services and products marketing. Investment attraction with tangible support to the sector is important if we are to put eggs and chickens on the plate.
Capital: What else can be done to encourage people to eat chicken regularly?
Binyam: As indicated above, traditional dishes that use chicken have resource consuming recipes. Awareness creation in meat fabrication and quick recipes that diversify chicken meat products should be introduced.
Capital: Private investors in the livestock businesses do not make full use of local consultants. What do you think is the reason and the effect?
Binyam: Most of our local investors directly invest their resources without consulting local experts to minimize startup costs. Unfortunately they incur more costs in rectifying the problems caused by low input of local experts. Not only are local consultants experts in the field, but they also are aware of the local rules and regulations as well as agro-climatic conditions to populate the best technology and resource packages for a profitable investment better than international consultants. Consultants are available in private firms as well as government institutions such as higher learning, research and development institution. As the saying goes, ‘a stich in time saves nine’ it is better to use local consultants at the start of the investment project idea conception than during implementation.