The majority of smallholder farming households in Zimbabwe are rural based and rely on agriculture to support their livelihoods.
Since time immemorial, livestock rearing had been the backbone of many African communities. Cattle were a major source of draught power, manure, social security, milk and meat.
Even up to now, livestock still remains a major asset for smallholder farmers.
Focus is now shifting from livestock rearing for own needs to cattle productivity that contributes to the growth of the formal beef markets.
The growth of smallholder cattle farming had stagnated due to a number of factors over the past couple of decades.
But faced with several challenges, including declining prices for traditional crops and irregular rainfall patterns, smallholder farmers are now seeing the need to diversify income sources, with livestock promoted as a more viable livelihood activity, particularly cattle and poultry.
It is encouraging that smallholder farmers in various parts of the country are taking up livestock rearing more seriously, helping the country’s beef industry to slowly get back to its feet.
Smallholder farmers are taking steps to address poor breeding, feeding and health management strategies that had affected cattle production for years.
Notwithstanding the numerous challenges that still bedevil beef cattle production, smallholder farmers have slowly come back into the fold and are actively contributing towards rebuilding the industry.
After the collapse of the industry due to economic challenges and disease outbreaks from the year 2000, new technologies and livestock management trainings have slowly given a new lease of life to the sector.
Innovative breeding technologies like artificial insemination have been embraced and are bringing in a new breed of cattle to once more conquer the global beef market.
In the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s beef industry was the most thriving in Southern Africa.
During that time, the country’s herd topped 1,4 million and earned approximately US$50 million annually from exports to the European market.
For most beef producing provinces, sales accounted for about 80 percent of the farmers’ income.
Now, with the big players like Carswell, Montana Meats, Koala Meats, among many others, already back in the game, smallholder farmers have been crawling back into the fold.
By 2013, experts were certain that smallholder farmers had become the main suppliers of Zimbabwe’s beef industry, owning more than 75 percent of the national herd then.
However, due to the fact that communal farmers were only able to maintain a small herd at a time, only selling off one or two animals when the need arose, the benefit to the farmer was very minimal and slow, with most profits going to traders and abattoirs instead.
In an effort to fully resuscitate the industry, development partners and Government have implemented various projects aimed at improving the country’s herd and eventually, reclaim the country’s spot on the global beef market.
The European Union has a €40 million fund for six projects under the Zimbabwe Agricultural Growth Programme (ZAGP).
The fund is supporting various livestock value chains with an overarching objective to contribute to the development of a diversified and efficient agricultural sector that promotes inclusive green economic growth.
One of the six is the Beef Enterprise Strengthening and Transformation (BEST) project, which received €7,6 million, to create a robust, competitive beef value chain that promotes enhanced trade, employment creation, food security and inclusive green economic growth by 2023.
The project has targeted 24 900 small to medium cattle producers in 10 districts across the country.
It is also reviving the formal livestock markets that had died down, leaving farmers with little option than to sell their cattle to middlemen for a song.
In the past, rural district councils (RDCs) facilitated marketing of cattle through the auction system, and the BEST project is seeking to revive this system.
According to Mark Benzon, the BEST Project Team leader, in order to resume consistent and competitive cattle formal markets at district level, the BEST project will construct 10 main and 50 satellite Cattle Business Centres (CBCs) across Zimbabwe’s rural areas.
The CBC will not only be a place to market livestock, but smallholder farmers can receive all the training on good animal husbandry practices and innovations around livestock production.
Since the CBC is a commercial entity, it will be run and managed by private sector players in collaboration with the host to ensure sustainability beyond the funded lifespan of the project.
While the revival of the beef sector is important, it is the reintegration of the smallholder farmer that will make the whole process worthwhile.
But the quality of the herd in most rural communities is still a worry, owing to poor grazing lands brought about by the persistent dry conditions being experienced in the region due to climate change, there is still more that needs to be done.
Under the BEST project, not only are the farmers gaining the knowledge on how to manage and grow their small herds, they are also learning sustainable production through growing part of their own stock feed.
This could also address the challenge of poor grazing land once all farmers are sustainably producing feed.
With such initiatives in motion, the livelihood of thousands of rural farmers is set to change for the better.
They can certainly reclaim their position in the value chain and once more earn good money from their livestock.
As cattle raising provides a superior income source due to higher returns and lower variable costs, it should be promoted as a preferred livelihood activity by the Government, extension services and development partners.
Income from off-farm sources may prove beneficial in providing the additional monetary funds to support cattle raising activities and assist in providing generally poor smallholder households with enhanced economic resilience.