Along with pictures of Tau woman in 1914 racing with dresses tugged under their bloomers and men competing for pole position on top of long-horned bulls, derelict mountains of files, news clips and reports at the National Archives on the evidence of why Botswana’s agricultural progress is where it is today give an ever fresh insight into the pace and direction at which we strived to put food on the table.
Part of this information points at where the Ministry of Agriculture got it wrong in trying to build up the food sector, with Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) abattoir’s current wobbly gait being an example of the one-size-fits-all solution blindly trusted in most corporations, including government, being religiously applied. For this reason the agricultural sector needs to do a lot of refection, self-assessment and critique to come up with working solutions to currant problems.
“With uncertain marketing ahead and the recognition [of markets at that time], it may be necessary for the BMC and government to assure the orderly development of the livestock industry. Several years of low prices could mean the delay of ranching development or drastically alter the size of the farmer who would be able to participate in such development,’’ a 1976 “Report on Livestock Marketing’’ by G.C. Bond reads in part.
Bond’s report charged that the flow of information from government to the farmers on livestock marketing is sporadic and irregular with certain areas being heavily emphasized and others omitted completely. “Very little is published on farmers’ broadcast and the policy if often not understood even by agricultural extension staff. BMC tours, conducted by abattoir personnel, often totally omit the topic of supply of cattle and penalties charged to farmers,” it continued.
Among other things, the report in the end recommended that government should place as top priority a plan to develop marketing informationstrategy to allow critical analysis of livestock offtake, movement of cattle of people. Because of the sparseness of the country and scarcity of roads, rail trucking along the Ramatlabama-Ramokgwebena line and cattle trekking were the only means available to most farmers at the time. Not much drastic change has since occurred, although farmers now have other better options. Advocating fortransparency, the report also urged government through the Ministry of Agriculture to make concerted effort to make marketing information to producers available as much as possible and to explore every opportunity to increase throughout to market.
It also recommended that the possibility of “exporting cattle on the hoof” be immediately explored. Of late, the last recommendation has been a fat and slippery bone of contention which has culminated in the formation of the Botswana Cattle Farmers’ Association to advocate for the betterment or producers’ benefits and to urge government to let go of livestock export monopoly. More prophesy In his submission to government of the “A study of constrains on Agricultural Development in Botswana including the Role of Food Aid,” in 1967,T.Rose estimated from 40 yearrecords that Botswana could expect one bad year for every three, with trend over the last 12 years counting from 1967,getting worse. The government study also found that for this country, drought or near drought is in fact a normal condition.
“Rainfed farming certainly does not have a great economical potential in Botswana and the income to be derived from dryland farming, considering it is a single enterprise, will never compare with that from livestock alone or from employment or from employment in other sectors,’’ it stated, and added that unless more drastic solutions are sought than in the past, a large part of the rural population will continue to be dependent primarily on production of field crops, a welfare distribution of imported grains or both.
For many Batswana, the disappearance of the “Mafisa” system of cattle management with the onset of modernity means that the benefits that accrued fromthat system have been cut. With mafisa, rich farmers would distribute their cattle among less privileged members of society, enabling them to use these cattle for milking, meat and ploughing. Although it reduced risk from disease and drought, it also helped in the imagined risk of witchcraft.
With the drift to urban centres gaining momentum, the Botswana government is beginning to feel the pinch of pressure to do something to alleviate poverty, but it is finding it tough to do so, just like it has from independence when the cultural fibre that held society began to crumble.
Although the cattle industry has been the backbone of Botswana’s economy for a long time, it was only last year, through encouragement from Farmer’s Magazine, that a cattle association was born. Part of this late start could be traced to the fact that Batswana are generally slow starters and tend to grumble only when they are in small, comfortable groups. It is for this reason that many daunting issues go unchallenged for too long, often until they develop into insurmountable challenges. The root cause Writing for Farmer’s Magazine this year, John Kempf, a prominent Ghanzi livestock rancher said: “The start of our problem goes to 1954 when The Colonial Development Corporation builtthe abattoir in Lobatse. The Colonial Government granted them the monopoly to be the sole exporters of cattle and beef products. Before this, we could send cattle for slaughter at Bulawayo and Johannesburg. The cattle Pool (a consortium of butchers from Copperbelt of Zambia and (Congo) purchased over the scale at stations from Mahalapye northwards. Old cattlemen stated that this was the best market we ever had. These markets were closed to us in 1954. By 1958 CDC and the cattle industry were serious trouble; they could no longer sell our beef. Cyrilhuwitz, then a butcher in Mafeking, saw that our beef could be marketed in Europe, he was the only one to make CDC a cash offer and he did well out of the transaction but built up what was valuable export market for us. In 1966 the Botswana Meat Commission was formed. It purchased the abattoir from CDC and took over the exports. It also inherited the monopoly to be the only exporter of cattle and beef products. BMC invested no money, we the cattle producers who slaughtered cattle during the late sixties paid CDC. We had no sooner paid for the abattoir when were informed that it was not up to standard and we could loose our export license. A new abattoir was built which we the producers again paid for. The seventies were good for the cattle industry, with high prices paid in Europe. When Britain joined the EU, Commonwealth countries like Australia were cut off their traditional markets overnight. The Lome agreement allowed us to continue with exports to Europe.” We’ve had enough: cattle farmers Last year, farmers are unhappy with their Business transaction with BMC. This resulted in a consultation process which culminated in the formation of the Botswana cattle Producer’ Association. With membership from different cattle farmer associations, it has since been able to lobby government for the promotion of dialogue and has enabled collective effort to give the farmer bargaining power. Government officers and farmer representatives have since visited neighboring countries to get first hand information about the possibility of solving various problems that have dogged the cattle industry since independence. The key issues seem to be worries by farmers about the BMC’s monopoly on meat export, which farmers have apparently criticized for as far back as 1967. Giving the example of Namibia which supplies South Africa with weaners, farmers argue that should meat monopoly be stopped, business will continue as usual, with only a few potholes along the way.
It would also appear that for a long time government has been giving agriculture lip service. The 1963/64 government expenditure on agriculture accounted for only 3% of the total budget. Up to now, this trend has not improved much. If anything, it has worsened.
As a result of the agitation by the new cattle farmers’ association, government saw an opportunity to work together with farmers in order to solve problems besieging the beef industry. While farmers might take all the blame to the government’s door step, it has emerged that farmers in Botswana take long to realize that it takes group power to dislodge governments from their often ill-timed decisions. Notwithstanding this fact, it often does not take much coercion by the farmer to pressurize government to change position about the decisions they made, sometimes without consultation between the government and farmers is one of the most welcome developments in Botswana’s agricultural sector.
Life starts at 40, they say. BMC turns 40 next year. For this saying to prove true to BMC, the abattoir should be steadfast in reaching conclusions that would bring it to life. It should begin life at 40 with a fresh mandate. It would seem that government ought to have alternative solutions to agricultural problems by strengthening for example, irrigated crop production and livestock marketing, with the whole focus on maximum benefit to the farmer. It’s high time the government bootstrapped its hefty weight. Stakeholders at a recent drought conference organized by the Water Utilities Corporation agreed with the idea that drought or near drought should be treated as an inherent phenomenon of the weather pattern in Botswana in other words, for agriculture , planning should revolve around drought conditions. For the livestock industry, one of the daunting challenges has been the market, including complaints of unreasonable price by the BMC. For the reason that drought is part of the weather pattern of Botswana, it cannot be said that whenever there is drought the government was caught by a sucker punch. For example, if water is the most limiting factor in Botswana, what has the government done for the irrigated production? How many irrigation engineers do we have? How much are we into integrated crop and livestock production, which could go a long way in alleviating risks in agriculture? Without an efficient set of politics aimed at integrating crop and livestock husbandry, the governments strong desire to increase crop production and eventually reach self-sufficiency in food can hardly be achieved, an FAO/Botswana study on constrains on agricultural development concluded.
Government should continue to work with farmers to build trust. To do this it should be open, for example, about how it determines the prices at BMC, what it is doing, apart from recycling sewage water and planning a few irrigation projects, to invigorate cereal production, including teaching farmers what they have always known-integrated production. The government should also do more consultation with farmers on various aspects of marketing.
Public servants have suddenly clammed up on the media, including the type of media that seeks to help in the dissemination of sector-specific information. This is barely understandable, but is hardly an excuse to close communication altogether. Reporting on agriculture, for example, is hardly a sensitive issue, especially if it is done maturely, as is the case with most publications now. What happened to Hon. Assistant Minister of Agriculture Peter Siele’s call to open all communication channels? Did it, like the proverbial Biblical seed, fall on hard, thorny ground?
It was gratifying to note that efforts are being made to close the gap between research, extension and the farmer at the recent BARIN conference. But like other government organs, BARIN suddenly seems to be quite, waiting perhaps, only for the next annual event. This could be a bright idea if it does come to fruition.
Having researched most of this information from the National Archives, it boggles the mind what our future generations will reap from us. We hardly ever write: to local publications, to the government and even civil servants do not seem to be interested in writing or renewing those information pamphlets that are meant to enlighten us uninformed mortals. This culture of storing information for the future should be revisited. Some years back there was something called “The new Agriculture Policy” that government tried to put in place. It gradually wilted away as the modalities for its implementation fell apart. Batswana have a strong historical link with agriculture, but some preferred one sub-sector to another. For example, in the not-so-distant past, Barolong, whose offspringare still alive, were known for their prowess in grain production. The western region is not called “Texas” for name’s sake. It is a cattle “county”. Bangwato were, and are still cattle farmers. Bakalanga are some of the hardest workers the country has. With modern technology, their good soils and potentially good sources of water, why not harvest this natural advantage and for some time shelve the bookwork? FMB, This article appeared in FMB, September 2004