The beef industry was once the pride and joy of the commercial farming sector. As we show in a paper on the history of the Zimbabwe livestock industry and veterinary control, white ranchers enjoyed extraordinary levels of support from colonial and post-colonial governments. The industry also profited from generous import agreements to the EU supported by the aid budget. The result was that beef exports became an important foreign exchange earner for the country through the 1980s and 1990s.
But this export trade was reliant on compliance with stringent EU disease control regulations, particularly around foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease. Huge amounts of money were invested by the EU, creating a series of disease control zones to facilitate export. The beef export industry migrated northwards, away from the traditional cattle ranching country of the lowveld towards the Highveld, and so far from the FMD infected zones. FMD is a natural disease in Africa and is found in wildlife, and particularly buffalo. A beef export strategy and wildlife do not mix, and even with FMD-free buffalo herds maintaining disease freedom. Compliance with EU regulations became an expensive challenge.
And then everything changed. With the land invasions of 2000, there was a massive movement of livestock and a breakdown in veterinary controls. FMD outbreaks occurred and the export trade was lost. The beef industry as it had been known collapsed. The massive infrastructure built up around the CSC (under the direction of one Eddie Cross, see earlier post) became a white elephant, and the investment in disease control by the EU became largely an irrelevance.
Today, the livestock industry is based on multiple small herds owned mostly by small scale farmers. FMD is under control again, and movement controls are in place. But the prospects of regaining the export market look remote. This is seen by some as another example of the tragedy of Zimbabwe’s land reform. But has this transition in the structure and focus of the livestock industry been all bad?
The subsidised investments in the old white ranching sector which continued for 20 years after Independence through the beneficence of government and the donors meant that beef ranching was rarely economic. The subsidised parastatals like the CSC were a massive drain on public resources. The meat supplied was not geared for domestic demand (‘nyama’) but to export (fillet steaks for Europeans). The ranches that were required for this industry were vast, amounting to thousands of hectares, and increasingly in the higher potential areas of the country. Was this really the optimal use of this land? And the fences, market bans, slaughter and quarantine controls that were imposed on everyone for the benefit of a few exporters, resulted in cost and inconvenience for many.
Today, Masvingo’s ‘real markets’ for meat are based on a diverse group of producers, and linked to a distributed network of traders, sellers, brokers and suppliers, spreading the economic gains further (see our report on livestock in Masvingo). The unit value is lower, but the overall benefits for economy and development may be greater. In another paper on options for disease control in the southern African beef industry, plus a set of commentaries, we made the case that the ‘disease freedom’ approach adopted before 2000 and required by the EU and OIE, does not make sense in areas where FMD is endemic. Other more appropriate ways to control and manage make more sense, although enclaves of high-value production could still exist through ‘compartmentalisation’ but would have to be factored into private business plans. For others, a commodity-based trade system would make more sense, with a focus on different domestic and regional markets.
As Zimbabwe’s herds are rebuilt, but under very different ownership patterns, important policy decisions will be required. Will there be a vain attempt to recreate the past glories of the commercial beef export system, or will a more sensible focus be on different markets, productions systems and disease control measures?
E. Cross, ‘An Economic Appraisal of the Production and Marketing of Rhodesian Beef’, Rhodesian Journal of Economics, 5 (1971), 19.
E. Cross, ‘A Comprehensive Review of the Beef Industry Situation Necessary’, Financial Gazette, 1 June 1990