Cattle on the roads. Cattle in the bush. Cattle in open arenas and sports grounds. Cattle everywhere. Animals on the loose are widespread in Karonga District where cattle is traditionally a currency for marriage, a delicacy for social events and a symbol of prestige.
Vuwa resident Chatepa Sichali’s dowry comprised two bulls. He and his wife are certain to pay out more for their two sons’ brides, but some more may come their way when their daughters marry.
“Cattle is money. Without it, it will never be easy to handle marriage and funerals of your children,” he says.
But the livestock is worth more than just social capital. It is cash in hand—commercial assets like any other.
It is surprising why the farmers keep doing business as usual, district agricultural development officer James Chikoya says.
“The animals get little or no attention. There is need for farmers to appreciate that livestock is big business. It is not wise to leave your money all over the place like that,” he says.
Clearly, there are not many cattle steads in sight. Many leave their herds wondering if they belong to no one. Some prefer neck-lacing a bull or two with lwangala, an old-style bell that produces a unique clang-clang. Others practise kupazga, entrusting them with friends who get a calf in exchange for taking care of the animals.
Livestock accounts for 11 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), the broadest measure of economic output.
But the farmers feel numerous dip tanks rusting due to disuse symbolise neglect. They blame government of favouring crop farming.
“We are paying extra costs to access drugs and pest control as well as modern ways of livestock farming,” Sichali says.
But not all is lost.
Rural Livelihoods and Economic Enhancement Programme (Rleep), a community-led initiative to commercialise smallholder agriculture, is working with farmers to close the gaps.
“We settled for cattle because beef is on high demand,” says Rleep executive director Dickson Ngwende in an interview in the district with 12 slaughterhouses and butchers along every street.
The vibrant market is manifest in the majority who no longer rely on maize, rice and cassava meals alone. The locals, like their Tanzanian neighbours, usually eat supu or mbalagha—a mixture of boiled bananas and beef—for breakfast, lunch and supper. Imbibers take the meaty dishes as snacks.
Besides the diversified diets, Karonga supplies truckloads of live cattle in the North.
“Up to 80 in 100 households in the region own cattle, but most farmers are still haunted by poverty and malnutrition to believe that livestock, especially cattle, are just prestigious assets which are rarely sold or consumed unless there are special events,” says Ngwende.
The national herd mostly comprise the Malawi Zebu, which produces meat of inferior quality and quantity.
The downside of the indigenous breed gets worse with poor management, veterinarians warn.
Interestingly, Rleep, with support from International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) has handed the smallholder farmers through cross-breeding of beef cattle and improved access to essential drugs.
One of Emmanuel Soko’s seven cows had a calf when we arrived in Mwenitete II Village, northwest of Karonga Town.
According to the 60-year-old, the cow, inseminated by bonsmara semen on June 26 2015, gave birth to a calf weighing 23.5 kilogramme (kg) in April this year. The weight had shot to about 70 kg in two months and the brown young bull is expected to be ready for sale by November when it is forecast to hit 200 kg.
“With the hybrid cattle, we are assured of more money. There is no need to wait for years for cattle to mature,” the farmer says.
Actually, Nyama World has entered a deal with the farmers in Karonga, Rumphi and Chitipa to buy the hybrid cattle aged seven months.
Soko is likely to fetch up to K132 000, for Nyama World has offered to buy the hybrids at the prevailing price for a live cow plus a 10 percent token of appreciation for the farmer.
Presently, the buying price is K600 per kg, but some vendors and butchers dictate offers as low as K400.
This makes the K660 per kg a windfall.
“There cannot be a better bargain. Some of us fail to pay school fees for our children because vendors demand too little ignoring what it takes to raise the animals,” the father-of-four says.
Strikingly, the bull will cost about K40 000 higher than its six-year-old parent—the first time Soko will profit from what he regarded as a thankless enterprise for over 30 years.
Nyama World has reached 3 000 farmers in the remote setting. Nearly 284 cows have been inseminated by skilled hands, 18 have been impregnated by the bonsmara and about 10 hybrid calves are already born.
In May, 50 families, under the umbrella of Gomezgani Club at Vuwa, deposited their cows in one kraal to be serviced by a bonsmara bull and artificial insemination technicians.
The farmers are excited the crossbreeding is playing out according to plan. Almost 20 of them had conceived during the visit to the shore setting in June.
Nyama World project manager Imtiaz Waka is upbeat with the emerging generation of hybrid cows.
“We have surpassed our expectations and it’s exciting the people who used to wait up to five years to sell a live zebu,” he says.
He envisions the zebu-bonsmara crosses ensuring his meat chain store, with shops in Mzuzu, Salima and Lilongwe, stocking better beef.
Explained Waka: “Farmers will be able to make money within a short duration while we are guaranteed quality and availability of beef.”
Some customers detest the zebu for yielding more bones than meat.
Usually, the animals scarcely get the attention they deserve because feed is scarce, housing costly to build and epicentres of pest and disease control are almost non-existent following the neglect of dip tanks.
For the past 20 years, most dip tanks have been abandoned following a policy shift restricting dipping to the wet season—especially November-April when tick infestation is on the increase.
The reforms envisaged the beneficiaries running the operations of the dip tanks on what Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development spokesperson Hamilton Chimala terms “a partial cost recovery plan” while government offers technical support, the dipping facility and starter-up chemicals.
Many dip tanks ended up being discarded, overgrown and shut down.
This left some desperate farmers in Karonga making up to K8 000 trips to Mzuzu City and back just to buy drugs for common cattle diseases. Others used to cross the Songwe Border to Mbeya in the neighbouring Tanzania.
The trips were costly, time-wasting and signs of lapses in the livestock industry, they say.
But the good news is that Rleep, working hand in hand with the Department of Livestock and Animal Health, have identified Impact Agribusiness, a member of Nyama World consortium, to sell drugs at veterinary offices.
Christened Ziweto Agrivet, the shop stocks vital drugs that were in short supply.
“This means farmers no longer have to travel long distances in search of the medicines because we have it all under one roof,” says veterinarian-cum-shopkeeper shopkeeper Lumbani Kumwenda.
Being housed in the animal health department’s offices not puts the shop closer to the farmers, but also assures them of quality control.
“The drugs are always kept well and farmers are unlikely to be sold expired drugs or fakes. Inspections are regular and the chemicals are kept in good conditions,” he said.
The shop is run by a member of Nyama World consortium.
The drugs go at affordable prices as the vendor only strives to recoup the money with a small profit margin while easing the farmers’ access to drugs.
“The shop is a milestone, quality checks are tight. There are no fakes nor expired drugs,” says district animal health and livestock development officer Harvey Kumwenda.
Karonga is home to 110 310 Malawi Zebus, 160 crosses and 119 dairy cattle.
This offers the farmers improved income and diets trickling from three Ms-meat, milk and manure.
Apart from the improved beef cattle and accessible Agrivet shops, the farmers thank Rleep for rehabilitating six dip tanks that have lied dry and dilapidated for decades.
Mwaulambo, situated on the borderline of Eland Coal Mine near Ngerenge Rice Scheme, is one of them.
The population, rich in livestock, say the upgrade opens a new chapter for the vital structure stopped working around 2 000.
The smallholder farmers confess struggling to control with ticks and common diseases, saying they did not know where to go with sick animals.
Now, cracked pits have been refurbished, walls plastered and painted, floors reinforced with concrete, the rail guards reinstalled and iron sheets roof replaced.
In this way, Mwaulambo becomes the fourth operational dip tank among Karonga’s 24.
They three includes Kasoba, Mwenilondo and Mwenitete.
For sustainability’s sake, the farmers are putting together a revolving fund for buying dip, essential drugs and repairs.
Ngwende says: “The main interest is to improve value chain and animal health.”
Better markets for livestock are part of the deal if we are to overcome a culture of reserving livestock for funerals, weddings and visitors. We cannot continue using animals for strictly cushioning financial shocks. We need to stop doing business as usual.” n