There is a new vibe in pastoralism: West Africa’s fast growing urban centers need a steady supply of meat. Over the years an extensive but highly informal network of Sahelian supply has developed. On one hand this transhumance is creating new opportunities for an ancient profession, on the other hand it is threatened by modern day burdens such as climate change, harsh tax regimes and a poor regulatory environment.

Meet Mamadou

Turn on google maps in satellite mode and take a look at West Africa. When your eyes wander from North to South, you will notice an abrupt change. Halfway through Burkina Faso the yellow Sahel gives way to a green zone which extends into coastal countries like Ghana, Benin and Nigeria. Zoom in on Mali and check out the details; dark rocks and deep riverbeds break its yellow monotony. Let’s move on to In-Tillit, a village that looks like a tiny bit of nothing in an endless emptiness, hidden below some trees that have rooted in the small and smelly remnants of the rainy season. A dried riverbed.

In one of the scattered clay huts, Mamadou wakes up before the break of dawn. There’s no time to waste because he must get ready for his long trek south. The grasslands surrounding In-Tillit are already turning yellow. The landscape doesn’t allow his family to grow crops, it just serves to let their cows roam around, but in this season even that becomes a challenge. Therefore, it is time to move the herd to greener pastures and sell some cows in exchange for cash. It is called transhumance, the seasonal cycle that has repeated itself across generations of pastoralists.

In the olden days Mamadou and his family lived in tents, but now they have settled down. His sisters are all married off into the families of their husbands. One brother runs a shop in the small town of Gossi and his eldest brother is studying in Gao. He is the family’s big investment. Hopes are high that he will one day become a doctor and sustain them all because they just can’t earn a decent living with their herd alone.

Mamadou and four of his strongest cousins have been assigned with the task of bringing their herd all the way to Burkina Faso. Quite a responsibility because cows are their biggest asset; ‘Look at them, I prefer my herd to a scrap of paper telling me I have money in the bank!’ his father always states gruffly before taking another sip of green tea. Five men guide 400 mooing cows in search of fresh grass. They will be gone for over four to five months.

Pastoralist trek many miles to sell their cattle

the STAMP project helps pastoralist with up-date weather and market information

Far from a walk in the park

For centuries pastoralists like Mamadou have trekked across the unforgiving Sahel to reach the bustling markets along the continent’s west coast to sell their live- stock. They have a long history of navigating harsh circumstances.

This year’s destination is Fada N’Gourma in South-East Burkina Faso. Mamadou faces a 500 kilometre trek, and in reality, they will cover more ground as they can only steer their cattle through corridors in order to avoid conflicts with farmers while crossing their plots. However, it can happen that these corridors are not well demarcated, or have been taken over by farmers. Whenever their passage is blocked, they seek alternative routes, often resulting in conflicts.

Moreover, they need to go where fresh grass and water can be found. That is not an easy task. Over the years weather patterns have become extremely unpredictable. Where Mamadou once moved on the calendar, he now listens to the weather forecast from ‘Garbal’ an agro-information service set-up by the STAMP project and operated by mobile operator Orange Mali. Garbal means ‘marketplace for livestock’. The service also helps Mamadou to check the availability of food and water for his cattle. Many water points are crowded with competing herds, therefore he needs to know beforehand which water points are available.

Luckily, two of his uncles and aunts have started small mixed farms on the way, and Mamadou knows they will allow him to use their wells and cross their fields. Other farmers offer access to wells in return for cow dung.

But physical conditions are not the only hurdles. Handling harsh conditions has been their task as long as he can remember, but handling harsh tax regimes of the municipalities whose territories they will pass, and passing strict international borders controls pose new challenges. And once, they were even threatened by bandits.

Mamadou knows he faces a risky operation, with unknown and volatile profits waiting for him at the market. He has checked out prices with ‘Garbal’ and no longer needs to rely on middlemen or scouts to get this information. While his trade may go back centuries, his practices are contemporary. Since situations may change quickly, he needs his lifeline to feed him information. The Garbal agent tells him that the Nigerian currency is weak at the moment, lowering the price he can get on the market. His buyers, Nigerian businessmen, will pay no more

pastoralism plays a pivotal role to provide meat to the West African cities

A herd of cows at a watering hole

The spiderweb

Glance at Google maps once more and search for Mamadou’s destination. You will see that Fada N’Goruma is the centrepiece of a giant spider web. This bustling town is an international distribution point for meat, a crossroad of transhumance. Businessmen from coastal countries go there to buy Sahelian cattle that walked all the way from Mali, Niger and Northern Burkina Faso. Over the course of their trip they have become muscular cows, ready to be turned into a protein rich steak for city people.

Due to the low prices Mamadou will sell fewer cows than he had wanted, but he needs to sell some as he has incurred costs on the way (taxes, food). Ten cows will be sold, the rest of the herd will trek back home with him.

Some years ago, he went all the way to Parakou in Benin, a good 1.000 kilometers journey. The prices were somewhat higher and the countryside greener, but the territory was unknown to him, and with his light Fulani features he had felt uncomfortably foreign.

The Sahellian landscape does not allow large scale agriculture to take place

Pastoralist trade their cattle after a long trek to the regional trade hubs

Meeting an exponential growth in demand

In West Africa alone, the official cross border livestock trade is worth over €160 million and the potential for expansion is huge. In many countries of the Sahel,  livestock’s contribution to the total agricultural gross domestic product is above 40% and over 250 million people directly depend on pastoralism for their livelihoods.

Sahelian meat from Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso is also an essential source of life for urban consumers. The Sahel feeds the rapidly growing coastal cities that stretch out from Freetown to Laos (this city alone is expected to grow from 13 million to 24 million people within the next two decades). Over the years an extensive international network of meat supply has been established. Corridors for cows serve as veins nurturing the beating economic hearts of the West African region.

These cities are facing enormous expansion in the coming decades. Africa’s population is very young and they consume less than average food. The ballooning population, in addition to a growing appetite for high-protein foods driven by rising living standards (especially in cities), will fuel an unprecedented boom in demand for animal foods over the coming decades. The UN forecasts the demand for meat, milk and eggs to quadruple by 2050!

So, the potential for pastoralists to play central role in supplying the emerging mega-cities with much needed animal protein is waiting to be tapped, but professionalisation and regulation are necessary to make that happen.

Sahelian meat is competing with imported (sometimes dumped) products from South America or Europe and with intensive livestock production, able to provide standard quality meat. Coastal countries are aware that they cannot produce sufficient meat by themselves, but Sahelian meat is still largely produced in an informal way.

Still, deeming informal pastoralism as a thing of the past is unwise, since in fact it turns out to be a resilient strategy to survive in arid areas where the soil doesn’t allow production of crop. Actually, it is the best way to put this fragile territory into use. Quite to the contrary of Africa’s coastal countries, where land is scarce and alternative productive possibilities are abundant. Professionalising transhumance is a sine qua non to be able to meet the growing demand. This ineluctable development has geared SNV towards working with the pastoralists of the Sahel. Regional bodies such as the ECOWAS also want to tackle this challenge and fruitful discussions between coastal and Sahelian countries are taking off. Removing the hurdles for transhumance will benefit both the livelihood of pastoralists and satisfy the growing demand from coastal cities. 

Let’s take a last look at Mamadou, who is on his way back. Seen from above, his herd forms tiny speckles in the sand. Moving targets. He’ll be home in a few weeks, when rains will fill the river that runs through In-Tillit and the grass will respond by growing once more. Unlike his brothers he is continuing with an ancient profession - one that is not expected to go extinct anytime soon.