Hunger for beef offers rewards and risks for Nigeria’s pastoralists

LAGOS (AFP) – With over 200 million people and an emerging middle class, Nigeria is witnessing a boom in demand for meat that offers potential but also risks for the semi-nomadic herders who provide most of its beef.

According to government estimates, Nigeria, consumes 360,000 tonnes of beef each year, accounting for half of all West Africa.

In per-capita terms, consumption is low compared with advanced economies, but it is growing fast, and expected to quadruple by 2050.

Today, most of the demand is met by pastoralists from the ethnic Fulani group, who follow time-honoured techniques of raising cattle, driving them south to pastures and taking them to market.

During the dry season, the herders come down from the arid Sahel to the fertile plains of central and southern Nigeria, seeking water and pasture for their live-stock.

The millennia-old activity has been thrust into the spotlight in recent years because of worsening confrontations with sedentary farmers over access to land and water.

Clashes have claimed 7,000 lives over the past five years and cost the Nigerian economy USD13 billion annually, according to a report in May by the NGO Mercy Corps.

The friction has roots dating back more than a century. Droughts, population growth, the expansion of sedentary farming into communal areas but also poor governance have all played a role.

Such neglect has pastoralists feeling isolated, according to Ibrahim Abdullahi, secretary of Gafdan, a national union of herders.

“Nothing was done to implement the grazing reserves designed by the law in the 1960s – most of the land has been sold and is now cultivated by farmers who grow crops,” he said.

Nomadic herders also find themselves far from the channels of the meat trade, while many markets and outdoor slaughterhouses lack basic sanitary conditions, such as running water, animal shelters and cold storage rooms, he said.

“At all the levels of government, the livestock sector was always marginalised in favour of agriculture. Some states still allocate less than two per cent of their budget to livestock,” he added.

As Nigerians clamour for meat, can this ancient practice – with its long supply chains, climate risks and social tensions – compete against sedentary farming, which has high productivity and lower risks?