Livestock as wealth for rural Namibians

22 Oct 2018 - 11:45

By Ndamonako Anna Iita.

The final episode of ASSAR’s climate change radio show in Namibia, which aired September 24, looked at the value of livestock. The focus was on why most farmers in Southern Africa treat their livestock as investments, why they are slow to adopt climate-smart agricultural practices, and why they regard their herds of cattle as their bank accounts. 

Researchers with ASSAR visited northern Namibia between 2015 and 2017 to see how farmers had responded to the drought that gripped the region from 2013 to 2016. They found that many farmers chose to risk their investments by not selling their herds despite drought warnings. This was largely due to the long-standing belief that a family’s wealth and status are tied to the size of the family’s herd. Farmers have a strong cultural attachment to their livestock. As one farmer said, “a man is his cattle.” Understanding this belief system can help policymakers and development workers across drier parts of Southern Africa work more effectively with communities to help farmers adopt practices that offset the threats associated with projections for future climate change

Some breeds better suited to handle drought than others

Martin Embudile, deputy director at the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry for the north central region, was the guest for the show. He gave advice to farmers on the various drought-resistant livestock breeds they should keep. He explained how it is important to understand that the environment in which people raise their animals determines which breeds are most suitable. Since certain breeds may not be suitable for all environments, it is necessary to weight up the pros and cons and make decisions accordingly.  

Embudile gave an example. If a farmer gets an animal with a big body mass then its resistance to diseases and drought will be low, along with, most probably, its milk production. At the same time, its large body mass will fetch a good market price. But to get value from the animal requires that the farmer invests a lot of resources into it. A large animal like that needs access to good grazing, supplementary feed, de-worming, vaccines, and daily examinations. Many farmers in the communal areas, however, cannot afford this level of investment.

He explained that animals can adapt to their conditions and become resistant to the challenges existing in their environment. Animals become resistant when they have managed to survive in harsh conditions over several years. It should be noted that some animals adapt easily, while others adapt with difficulty. Breeds of cattle such as Sanga, Afrikaner, Bonsmara, Brahman and Simbra are drought tolerant, while breeds like the Simmental, Hereford, Jersey and Persian (a type of sheep) are not. Farmers are regularly advised to sell their livestock during droughts and the right procedures need to be followed through their local headman, he explained.

The agricultural extension office requires that livestock must have brands and ear tags. These animals must be registered in the owner’s name. The owner must be the legitimate owner. Embudile also explained that livestock owners must get proof of livestock ownership from the headman and take this proof to the agriculture office to get a movement permit. 

As an alternative to cattle farming, Embudile said goat farming is much easier in Namibia’s northern regions because goats are able to better cope with drought. There are, however, a lot of them. Donkeys and horses are usually not kept in big numbers. Unfortunately, farmers do not value them much even though they are important to communities. He advised farmers to keep a manageable number of livestock in their herds. Younger animals have a higher likelihood of surviving a drought, he said, and farmers should supplement their animals, properly manage grazing land before drought, and find alternative grazing sources. 

Shifting to climate-smart agriculture

The Namibian government has adopted a policy that promotes climate-smart agricultural practices. These include installing drip irrigation, switching to drought-resistant grains and livestock breeds, and reverting to traditional land-tilling using draught animal power instead of tractors. But farmers have been slow to adopt these practices. 

One of the reasons is that, as ASSAR found, many farmers in northern Namibia have deep-seated religious beliefs and see symbolic significance in their traditional ways of doing things. Rather than seeing this as a barrier to adaptation, it can been seen as an opportunity to promote climate smart agriculture. By working with religious and traditional value systems, extension workers could promote climate-smart practices in a way that helps reduce the impacts of climate variability and change for farmers. Agricultural extension officers and development workers in Southern Africa need to work with traditional and religious leaders to harness cultural attitudes about livestock ownership, and help farming families become more resilient in the face of a warming, drying climate.

Callers phoned in with questions. One asked how government is going to help farmers move their livestock for grazing if there is still a red line, put up in areas as an animal control measure, to prevent them from moving from one place to another. Another enquired about how it will be possible to cultivate land twice in the year if farmers are in a desert-like environment and do not have canals and boreholes. The final caller suggested that if government can help farmers dig boreholes it will enable them to better cope with the impacts of climate change.

ASSAR's climate change radio show has come to an end. But we are hopeful that through the programme we were able to provide communities with a better understanding of climate change and some solutions to enable them to adapt.

Recordings of the climate change radio series are available on request from the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia.


Ndamonako Anna Iita is a media graduate from the University of Namibia who is currently working at the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation as a freelance indigenous language news presenter, producing news stories and presenting them every Monday at 5 p.m. She is employed by the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia on a two-month internship and is doing translations for the ASSAR project and co-hosting the ASSAR climate change radio series.

Photo credit: Dian Spear.