Zimbabwe: Farmers face poor prices for cattle after disease outbreak, market changes

| August 22, 2016

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Derrick Ngwenya took up cattle ranching 12 years ago when he retired from the military. But a new government policy to decentralize cattle sales is making it difficult for the 59-year-old to support his family.

Mr. Ngwenya used to travel 75 kilometres to the Bulawayo show grounds, where cattle auctions were held twice a week. Now, these centralized auctions have been cancelled.

Cattle ranchers in Zimbabwe’s Marula Mangwe district have been doubly impacted, as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease last year prompted the government to ban the movement of cattle to stop the spread of the disease. Cattle sales have been decentralized, but Mr. Ngwenya says there are fewer buyers and lower prices at district auctions.

For years, cattle ranching provided Mr. Ngwenya with enough income to support his family and send his kids to school. But since the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the decentralization of cattle sales, his situation has worsened. He explains: “A good steer used to give me about $500 to $650 US at the auction sales in Bulawayo, but recently when I took one to the local sale, I got $410. These days, there are very few buyers who come to the sale. You get one or two buyers and they are buying our cattle at very low prices.”

Mbuso Moyo is the head of veterinary services in Matabeleland South Province in Zimbabwe. He says the government decision to decentralize cattle sales is good because it protects small-scale and communal farmers. He explains, “About 90 per cent of cattle in Zimbabwe is owned by communal farmers, and it is our duty to protect them from diseases―and poor prices.”

Mr. Moyo says it costs a lot of money to transport cattle long distances to centralized auctions. He says decentralized sales may help farmers reduce these costs, or motivate them to hold out for a better price. He explains: “If someone transports cattle for 100 kilometres to a cattle sale, they cannot take them back if they do not get a good price. They will end up selling them at whatever price is given by the buyers because they do not want to incur more transport costs.”

He admits that centralized sales attract more buyers, but says that prices will rise as buyers adjust to the decentralized system. He says: “We cannot be controlled by buyers. Buyers also need to decentralize their operations. We know they will resist the move at first, but in the long term, it will benefit the [small-scale and] communal farmers.”

Mr. Ngwenya is not the only farmer complaining about the low price of cattle. Geneva Sibanda is a cattle breeder in Bubu district. He says, “The problem now is that you go to a cattle sale and find one buyer who determines the price, unlike at an auction where you have many buyers bidding for your animal.”

Mr. Siyanda says the now-cancelled Bulawayo auction used to attract an average of 55 buyers a week. He says the average price for a cow was $700 US. The average price at district sales in Bubu is now $570, with fewer than five buyers at an auction.

Mr. Ngwenya is facing an economic challenge. He says, “I have three children at a boarding school and I used to pay school fees every term without any problem. But this term I only managed to pay for two kids. I owe fees for the third one.”

Photo credit: Zenzele Ndebele