THE BLOG
23/01/2018 04:58 SAST | Updated 30/01/2018 09:41 SAST

From Beast Of Burden To A Delicacy – Donkeys Are Back!

Donkeys are indeed back – not as commodity carriers this time around, but commodities themselves.

Magdevski/ Getty Images

Remember how scandalous it was when the University of Stellenbosch's meat scientists published a study in 2013 showing that some processed meat products in retail stores contained donkey meat that was not declared on the packaging? The societal outrage that ensued was not due to product mislabelling and the cheating of consumers, but rather to the use of donkey meat itself.

Although some processed products included meat from goats, complaints regarding these were few -- the headlines were undeniably dominated by donkey meats. Well, guess what; the donkeys are back – but this time they are neither packaged nor preserved.

Late last year, I received an invitation from Anga Holdings representative Mompati Kgomanyane-Modimogale, who wanted to share insights about the donkey products' value chain.

Having recently read about the new investments in Kenya and Zimbabwe aimed at creating donkey value chains, I immediately accepted the invitation in the hopes of learning more about the market. To my surprise, the presentation did not touch on donkey skins and meat, but focused only on donkey milk – and soap and lotion derived from this milk.

Anga Holdings considers donkey milk a good alternative for consumers with dairy allergies, and it can also be used as a supplement for breast milk. What struck me most in the presentation was the price of donkey milk in countries such as India – where a litre sells for $60 (~R 728).

Closer to home in Botswana, 250ml sells for around 80BWP (~R110). Fortunately, some goodieswere provided to attendees of the meeting (milk, soap and lotion), so I have first-hand experience of these products.

As yet, this industry is not well established in South Africa – the products distributed in the meeting were imported from Botswana. However, Kgomanyane-Modimogale believes there is potential to establish this market in South Africa, despite negative public perceptions regarding donkey products. He hopes that with a strong marketing, research and education drive about the donkeys, public perceptions will change.

Unlike Anga Holdings vision, other African countries have ventured into the donkey skins and meat business. There are reports that earlier this year a Chinese company invested $6-million (~R73-million) to build a donkey abattoir in Kenya that processes hundreds of donkeys per day.

With donkeys not yet formally regulated as a recognised livestock market, the growing global demand for the animals has led to theft in many communities and pressure being placed on free-ranging donkey populations.

This investment was mainly driven by solid demand for meat and skins in China and other Asian countries. The skins are used for traditional medicine, while the meat is viewed as a nutritious food source. The increased demand for skins in Asia saw donkey prices doubling from around $120 (~R1,454) in 2016 to $240 (~R2,908) this year.

In Kenya, prices increased from below $40 (~R485) in 2016 to $130 (~R1,576) in 2017. This is still competitive compared to Asian countries, where prices are at $240 (~R2,910) for the skins. With donkeys not yet formally regulated as a recognised livestock market, the growing global demand for the animals has led to theft in many communities and pressure being placed on free-ranging donkey populations.

Thus governments in countries such as Botswana, Mali and Niger, among others, have resorted to placing a ban on exports of donkey products. Data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations show that Africa has approximately 18.9-million donkeys.

Ethiopia accounts for more than a third of that, with a 39 percent share. Trailing Ethiopia are Niger, Egypt, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, with 9 percent, 7 percent, 7 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

While it is unclear where the development of donkey value chains will lead in the long term, the aforementioned countries stand a good chance of benefiting from the growing Asian demand (provided that the value chains are regulated to ensure sustainability).

South Africa remains the smallest player in the donkey market, with 156,000 donkeys. This makes up a single percent of the continent's donkey population. With that said, initiatives such as Kgomanyane-Modimogale's – one that stresses the sustainability and the breeding of donkeys, not just for their meat and hides – might eventually change the perceptions of its domestic use towards more commercially oriented export business ventures.

Donkeys are indeed back – not as commodity carriers this time around, but cas ommodities themselves.

Wandile Sihlobo

*This blog post is an extract of my column, published in Business Day, November 12, 2017