By Daniel Teferra (PhD)*
Ethiopia’s rulers, under pressure from the public, recently ordered the slaughterhouse for donkeys in Bishoftu be closed. The meat was to be exported to Vietnam and the skin to China.
Trade can be mutually beneficial, but not when a country slaughters its farm assets; or exports its natural resources. All these are needed to create goods and services for domestic consumption and exports.
The current rulers do not seem to know or care much about that. Their only goal is to earn foreign exchange. For instance, they sell electric power to neighboring countries while the domestic demand goes unmet. The idea of exporting water to Djibouti is also being floated.
In the first place, the whole idea of slaughtering donkeys is culturally insensitive. In accordance with the teachings of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, Christians are not allowed to slaughter animals that do not have split hoofs. This should not have been lost by the Church leadership.
Furthermore for Christians in Ethiopia, the donkey is a peaceful animal. Based on Christian teachings, Jesus entered the capital city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover on a donkey, an animal that demonstrated his peaceful intentions.
Traditionally, In Ethiopia, the donkey (ahya) is a tireless servant of the poor. “You don’t harm a friend that good,” we were told, growing up in Ethiopia. The donkey accompanied the soldier to the battle field carrying his ration. Mothers mention the service of the donkey in lullaby songs. As they sing, carrying their babies on their backs, they say, for a baby girl:
“እሽሩሩ ማሜ፣ እሽሩሩ ማሜ
የማሚቱ እናት ቶሎ ነይላት
ዳቦውን ባህያ፣ ወተቱን በጉያ፣ ቶሎ ነይላት!
And for a baby boy, they say:
“እሽሩሩ ማሞ፣ እሽሩሩ ማሞ
የማሙዬ እናት፣ ቶሎ ነይለት
ዳቦውን ባህያ፣ ወተቱን በጉያ፣ ቶሎ ነይለት!
The cultural ramifications aside, it does not make economic sense for Ethiopia to slaughter or export its donkeys. Ethiopia’s peasants, most of them dirt poor, rely mainly on the donkey for packing and riding.
Slaughtering donkeys not only reduces their supply drastically, but it will also decimate the mule population. Mules are off-springs of male donkeys and mares (female horses). Donkeys and mules are both hardy and versatile animals. Furthermore, mules have a reputation for their disproportionate strength and excellent hoofs. They also live longer than horses.
In Ethiopia, farming is still done by hand with the help of machete, hoe and burning. Oxen-drawn plow is not widely known. There is also a critical shortage of oxen. Therefore, the significance of donkeys, mules and horses for Ethiopia’s agriculture cannot be understated.
For example, if the traditional plow could be improved, farming with mules and horses could work efficiently well on Ethiopia’s small scale farms. In addition, farming with draft animals is sound ecologically.
Ethiopia’s trade relation with the outside world will be beneficial if Ethiopia can transform its peasant farming first. That will enable Ethiopia to produce a diverse group of agricultural products for exports. Ethiopia is still stuck with its traditional exports of coffee, hides and skins and oilseeds.
For instance, Ethiopia could export pork to China. According to USDA, domestic consumption of pork in China has increased five-fold since 1980. Unable to keep up with the ever-rising demand, China has been importing pork in large quantities.
Thus, in order to take advantage of the massive Chinese market, Ethiopia could introduce pig farms instead of establishing slaughterhouses for donkeys. If that is possible, Ethiopia’s peasant farmers will be able to improve their incomes, and the government will be able to reap tax revenues and foreign exchange. Then Ethiopia will not have to engage in a destructive trade relationship and impoverish itself further.
*Emeritus Professor of Economics.