Putting the heads together
With its cattle counted and its land surveyed, Niger debates its new-found riches
Dessa/Kara/Niamey – Niger’s first-ever agriculture and livestock census has just revealed a surprizing treasure trove of resources, including 30 million heads of livestock - 30 percent more than previously assumed. Now farmers, cattle breeders, policy makers and entrepreneurs ponder what their next move should be.
The mooing of cows is so loud that the voices of dignitaries, gathered on a hillside field just south of Niger’s capital Niamey, can barely be heard. The backs of cattle coming down from the surrounding hills towards the slopes of the mighty Niger river stretch almost as far as the eye can see.
‘They are launching the yearly vaccination campaign,’ says Boubacar Ali, a 56 year-old cattle breeder, who has brought his stock to this field near Goroutchirey, nine kilometres from Niamey. ‘If I am not underway with my animals, I always come.’
Being underway is a fundamental part of Niger’s ‘lifestyle’. One-third of its cattle are transhumant and breeders travel as far as Mali in the north and Benin in the south to find grazing lands.
Asked about the size of his stock, Mr. Ali says: ‘I don’t know.’ And: ‘It’s a secret. If I ask you how much you have on your bank account, would you tell me?’
Overcoming cattle breeders’ reserves featured among the major challenges when FAO, in partnership with the Government and the European Union, prepared the ground for Niger’s first-ever census of its livestock assets.
Intense exchanges with local authorities, including village elders and tribal chiefs, convinced them that it was not about bringing back a tax on livestock abolished in 1977, but that they too could benefit.
‘Take this campaign for example,’ says Saley Mahamoudou, Director of Statistics at the Ministry of Animal Resources. ‘The census found that vaccination levels are very low in Niger, below 10 percent. If we want to export meat, our livestock must be healthy. The new figures will help us advocate the need for change.’
For others, the census is all about water. ‘Our main concern here is water for our animals,’ says Amadou Harande, chief of Dessa-district, some 150 km to the north-east of Niamey. ‘The census charted all our water points, or the lack thereof. It allows us to go to the authorities for their assistance.’
Bougou Hissoubu is less concerned about water. Living in Beïnam, not far from Dessa, he can be considered a fortunate farmer. Not only does he grow crops and herd cattle, he lives on the shores of the Niger river, where the water is plentiful.
Mr. Hissoubu admits that there is also some superstition involved in farmers’ secretiveness. Finally, the surveyors convinced him and he participated. In fact, he became friends with them. ‘The day they left, my heart ached,’ he says.
In comparison, Suman Hassan could be considered less privileged. He has no cattle, and what is more, his village of Kara, is miles away from the river. This year’s harvest, 35 sheaves of millet, will cover just half of his needs until the next season.
Until then, he depends on a small vegetable garden, where he grows cabbage, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes. But the well in his garden suggests Mr. Hassan may not be so unfortunate after all. For there is water less than two meters below ground.
Readily available supplies of underground water was another of the treasures uncovered by the census. The country has huge potential to irrigate its farmland and increase production.
In her spotless office in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Niamey, Ms. Maidah Zeinabou explains why she is particularly interested in Niger’s livestock treasure. She is executive director of Niger-Lait, the country’s leading dairy factory and what counts above all for her is milk. The importance of the census in “finding” those millions of extra animals is evident, she says: ‘It’s a trampoline.’
‘Today, world-wide demand for dairy products is far bigger than supply,’ she says, citing drought in Australia as a contributing factor. ‘We need to exploit our potential, which we now know exists.’
Maybe one day, cattle breeder Boubacar Ali will be one of Ms. Zeinabou’s suppliers. Back in Goroutchirey, he explains that he will not travel this year.
Instead, he has entrusted his cattle to his cousin Ali Djadjë, who is packing up to move southwards to Benin. This is what he likes most, he says, to be on the road. ‘We go wherever there are good pastures. If my animals thrive, I’m happy.’
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