Meeting Africa’s meat market potential

Analysis in brief: Africans’ meat consumption is growing but can only be met by imports because of systemic problems that have long impeded African nations’ ability to achieve high levels of meat production.

The lag between production and today’s demand is tomorrow’s potential

Although chicken is the most widely produced and traded meat in Africa, this article focuses on production and export of hoofed animals – cattle, buffalo, pigs, goats and sheep. Fisheries and fish products are also a topic for a separate discussion.

Meat production varies widely from country to country. The reasons for this are directly tied to the reasons why Africa lags in meeting its own domestic demands and in meat production in terms of the rest of the world. It should be noted that meat production is far from stagnant and indeed has almost doubled in the past 20 years, from 12 million metric tons in 2000 to 20 million metric tons in 2020. However, while Africa’s global percentage of meat production has risen by a third during that time, from 4.5% to 6%, this is not due to a rise in production. Rather, it relates to a lessening of global meat demand that has seen a decline in domestic animal herds in other parts of the world.

Consequently, any discussion of increasing meat production must address this change in consumer preferences, which is related to health factors involving meat production and the environmental harm wrought by animal husbandry and meat transportation, as well as animal welfare concerns. Those caveats noted, the demand by Africans themselves for meat can sustain growth in the animal husbandry sector and fuel a lucrative export industry, if investment was properly directed and the factors that have retarded African meat production are recognised and overcome.

Exploiting market diversity must guide investment in meat production

Goat meat is still largely an exotic commodity in the West. However, investors have made a profitable export market out of goat meat in Eastern Africa, both through intra-Africa trade and by developing markets in the Middle East. Goats were introduced to Lesotho more than a century ago and now constitute one of the small landlocked country’s primary export items. Camel milk and meat is unknown in Europe and the Americas but is avidly consumed both in East Africa and in the Middle East. Somalia has for centuries bred camel for export. In the 21st century, the camel export business has become an industrialised affair that sees year-on-year growth.

Camels crowd the docks at Mogadishu. Somalia’s livestock industry has thrived by meeting Middle East demand for camels, and the market is so large it cannot be considered a “niche.”
Image courtesy: Wall Street Journal

Targeted investment has exploited markets for all these meats that are alternatives to staples like pork and beef. On a much smaller scale but with real growth potential has been investment in game meats, which are air-freighted to distributors and restaurants that feature exotic meats or sell online specialty items like buffalo biltong. No matter what the meat type, expanding production requires addressing the common systemic problems that have those structural limitations that hinder all agricultural production in Africa and thus the attainment of universal food security.

Animal husbandry favours modern production methods

Why is South Africa the continent’s largest beef producer, achieving an output of one million metric tons in 2020, and Africa’s largest pork producer in value terms as opposed to the number of its pig population? In terms of quality, South Africa is the continent’s second-most efficient beef producer, yielding 231 kg on average per animal, behind Egypt that manages 315 kg per animal. Other large African meat producers like Kenya, Morocco and Nigeria produce far less efficiently, obtaining half of South Africa’s meat yield per animal.

The reasons for this disparity relate to the conditions that are hobbling Africa’s agricultural growth in general. South Africa’s commercial meat sector benefits from the country’s relatively advanced infrastructure, which is able to support necessary cold chain facilities like refrigerated warehouses, allow for efficient transportation of these perishables, provide communications links for farmers, transporters, buyers and distributors, as well as employ modern veterinary and animal husbandry technicians and techniques. Most importantly, the modern commercial meat industry relies on commercial breeds to achieve its production goals. Most of Africa’s agriculture is in the hands of small-scale farmers, most of whom use traditional methods like rains to water crops. Cattle of traditional breeds, while practical in harsh weather conditions, yield far less meat on the hoof than commercial breeds. Efficiency of scale also comes into play. The large animal breeding facilities in South Africa and other industrialised countries produce higher yields and are usually tied to value-added meat production.

South Africa’s meat production has raised steadily over the past two decades, but had never quite matched meat consumption. The disparity between production and consumption in most African countries is much more severe, necessitating imports.
Source: South African Bureau of Food and Agriculture Production, 2022.

The greatest encumbrance to Africa’s meat production is animal diseases. When these strike, they often shut down an entire country’s meat industry, resulting in shortages and an immediate termination of export contracts. Southern African countries in particular have spent decades cultivating and achieving trade deals with the European Union (EU) and other overseas markets, only to have these markets slam shut when animal diseases break out. In 2022, Botswana underwent a culling process to rid herds of foot and mouth disease after an outbreak stopped exports to the EU. Shipments were resumed by year’s end after a concerted effort to ensure a healthy stock.

Political decisions will determine the meat industry’s future

Just like traditional farmers who are apathetic about adopting new ways to produce food, African governments have been slow to provide incentives for meat production investment or to focus on necessities like ensuring proper cold chain infrastructure. As populations grow, land use decisions must be made between crop growing and animal husbandry. The market economy has already made some of these decisions by driving urbanisation as rural populations, unable to support themselves through traditional small farms, seek employment in towns.

One thing is certain: demand for the product exists in Africa and is increasing. African’s meat consumption per capita has grown by nearly a third between 2000 and 2020, from 15.65 kg to nearly 20. This is still less than half the global per capita consumption of 44 kg. Illustrating what is required to properly develop the meat sector is the situation faced by two countries on opposite ends of the continent, Ethiopia and Nigeria, who both possess large domestic cattle herds. Despite the number of cattle, meat consumption in Ethiopia and Nigeria is amongst Africa’s lowest per capita. This is due to the small meat content of traditional breeds relative to imported cattle breeds, and in some cases the reluctance of small cattle herd owners to part with their beloved animals. By contrast, because of modern animal husbandry methods and proper infrastructure, South Africa leads the continent in meat consumption per capita, at 60 kg, far ahead of the global average.

The critical points:

  • Africa’s meat production has grown significantly since 2000 and still has considerable growth potential
  • Successful investment in the meat sector requires knowledge of diverse markets
  • Modern animal production methods, disease control and cold storage infrastructure are necessary to meet Africa’s market needs