A cow should be a cow: Lessons from Uruguay

Uruguay, with a population of 3.3 million and a land area of 175,000 square kilometres, is South America’s smallest country by land area. Small as it is, Uruguay rates high for most development indicators and has well developed social security, health and education systems. The entire population has access to clean water and the country provides free primary through university education to its citizens. On my only visit to Uruguay, I was pleasantly surprised to find a country, with near first world standards of living.

Uruguay’s per capita GDP, at USD 22,000.00, is way ahead of most developing countries, meaning that for the country’s size, the economy is doing nicely. Agriculture, food processing, manufacturing and services constitute the mainstay of Uruguay’s economy. In 2014, Uruguay exported about USD 1.4 billion worth of beef, USD 800 million of dairy products and USD 400 million of leather products. In a nutshell, Uruguay owes a good part of its prosperity to the COW! The people of Uruguay have recognised the cow as a major national resource and have optimised this resource to drive their country’s development and prosperity.

As great as the livestock sub-sector in Uruguay is doing, that country is not resting on its oars. Policy is continuously being refined to attract investments into the sector by domestic and foreign investors. Uruguay’s beef brand is being aggressively promoted globally and backed by stringent quality control measures as well as certification programmes at home. The most recent sales pitch is “Naturally Beef.”

Still not satisfied, Uruguay has also come up with a “world first” National System of Cattle Information. As part of this system, every Uruguayan cow is fitted with an ear device at birth. The device records and sends information on its age, health condition, movements etc. to a national data bank. This tracking system also covers other livestock such as goats and sheep. So next time you visit a restaurant somewhere in the world and you are served Uruguayan beef, it would not be so out of place if you asked for the animal’s birth certificate!

Nigeria too has cows. Lots of cows! But it is obvious that we do not recognize our cattle as a major national resource to be optimized for our prosperity and development. In 2008, the cattle population in Nigeria was estimated to be about 14.73 million, of which about 10 percent were recognized as milking cows. Less than 1% of the cattle population of Nigeria is managed commercially.

The best exposure that most Nigerians have ever had to a cow is when we see a herd being driven along our streets, our highways or our forests. Standing over these herds are mostly very young boys, many of whom may not be more than 10 years old. Nothing suggests that the cows receive any particular form of care such as veterinary services, access to clean water or to choice fodder. I have actually seen a herd of cows on one occasion feeding out of a garbage heap along Nyanya-Mararaba road!

The Nigerian cow typically spends its entire lifetime moving from place to place. Our cows are known to trek up to 25 kilometres per day often under the scorching sun with inadequate fodder and hardly any water, polluting streams and destroying farms in the process. When our cows travel by train or truck, they are often crammed very close together and arranged in the most uncomfortable positions imaginable. It goes without saying that this compromises the quality of their milk and meat.

A look at the Nigerian cow instantly reveals a malnourished animal. The animals are thin and are obviously unhealthy. Meat from the Nigerian cow is very tough and is unlikely to sell well beyond our shores. I have previously asked a few people who should be in the know why Nigeria is not a major producer of milk products even for our domestic consumption. The answer has often been that the species produce very little milk in comparison to other breeds. I disagree. Our cows produce very little milk because of the level of stress to which they are subjected and the conditions in which they are kept. Indeed, if I were a Nigerian cow, I would simply refuse to produce milk!

Rather than being a factor in our national quest for prosperity, they are harbingers of economic destruction and inter-communal conflict and sterile national debate.

Coming so soon after the recent unfortunate happenings in Benue State, readers may be tempted to think that this piece is yet another commentary on our never ending farmer/herdsmen conflicts. It is not. Rather it is a reminder about our country’s penchant for shunning its potentials and missing its opportunities, a seeming disposition to turn resources into curses. A couple of examples would suffice to illustrate this point.

It is no secret that Nigeria is endowed with abundant mineral resources including gold. However, unlike Ghana and South Africa, we have not found a formula to turn our gold resources into meaningful contributors to our national prosperity. Rather we are helpless witnesses to the wholesale damage being done to our communities by unregulated mining activities.

Our approach to dealing with our oil and gas resources also appears to have failed over the years. Having discovered oil back in the 1950s and become one of the world’s largest producers by the 1980s, it should be expected that our oil bearing regions would by now have become one of the world’s most important petrochemical poles. But that has not happened. On the contrary, what we find is pollution, brigandage (misnamed militancy) and grinding poverty.

Now back to cows.

Tough times are back in Nigeria. All the easy money that was being flaunted in our faces a few years ago seem to have evaporated or gone into hiding. A South African friend once made the point that with all the easy money floating around, Nigerians had stopped thinking and planning. Now that it has all gone, we might start thinking and planning again. That should begin with recognising our resources as well as potentials and taking steps to optimise them.

In the new order, we should recognise our cows as important national resources and begin to pay better attention to them. Whatever disadvantages our breed currently present can be overcome over time through genetic improvement. In the interim, all our cows need to be corralled in proper pastures, where they would have access to choice fodder, clean water and veterinary care.

Translated roughly at the rate of N100,000 per animal, our bovine population would have a monetary value of about N1.5 trillion. But we have refused to recognise this. A country, with serious intentions to prioritise agriculture cannot simply allow N1.5 trillion worth of agricultural assets to roam aimlessly around as is the case at present. Nigeria indeed needs to do better.

Like its Uruguayan counterpart, the Nigerian cow could, and must, become a major contributor to economic progress. Our cows can produce milk and dairy products (of which we currently import over N50 billion worth annually), hides to feed potential leather and footwear industries and lots of meat to provide a source of protein for our teeming young population.

Ambassador Garrick is a former Ambassador to Brazil


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