Explosive agriculture to the North, but what about the South
If the Northern Communal Areas carry twice as much cattle as the commercial farms, then a simple process of deduction leads to the startling revelation that these herds could also contribute twice as much to beef production, and eventually to exports.Of course I realise it is not as simple as that but when one has to make a reasonable assumption of what beef production can be, say 20 years from now, then the fundamentals indicate an available production pool three times the current size. I think this is a fantastic prospect and if the first step requires another (second) cordon veterinary fence on the Angolan border, then the sooner we start, the sooner can we open the market and address the other obstructions, be they financial, biological or cultural.
When discussing agricultural development and its huge commensurate contribution to economic growth, the tendency is to look North only. This, I believe, is based on the common sense observation that the most fertile areas and the biggest populations, are found in the Northern Communal Areas. I can not fault that line of reasoning but I want to remind the policymakers that there is also vast potential in the South. The only trick is to find the right commodities to match the arid conditions. And in this regards, my two favourite items are ostriches and karakul.
Imagine my delight to come across a fashion article in the latest edition of Vogue India (page 190) where a short snippet and a picture praise the qualities of what they call, Astrakhan. I have never heard this word before but the coat the mannequin in the picture was wearing, looked suspiciously like karakul. The only difference to the karakul I am used to, is that this garment is dyed a shining, glitzy gold. The article states that Astrakhan is derived from the karkul (not a typo) sheep in central Asia. Doing some more research on Asian karkul, I eventually came to the conclusion that the expensive Indian coat did not come from Central Asia at all, but rather from furriers who obtain their valuable pelts at the fur auction in Copenhagen. The karkul story is just a legend while the real karakul, or a big part of it, comes from us. It is only through the fashion chains of Europe and Russia that it eventually ends up around the shoulders of rich Indian debutantes.
Sensing how far this value chain extends, unfortunately forced me to realise that we, as primary producers, are only skimming a very thin layer of fat from a very large barrel of lard. I am speculating a bit, but if karakul has such an extensive appeal across the world, especially in temperate climates, then we could double if not treble the size of the local industry. What’s more, if we follow the tenor of local development policy, then the next step would be to produce enough pelts to merit our own large-scale tannery for the production of quality fur. And when that is in place, there is no limit to what local designers can achieve with our own product. Obviously this is not for us, it is simply to warm here, but there is a large cold world to which we can export our sought-after karakul garments.
Again, I realise it is not as simple as that. Many pieces of the puzzle will have to fall in place to make this a reality but one can not get around the basic fact that we “underproduce” and that we miss many opportunities by focussing on primary production only. It only needs a bit of a push, preferably from entrepreneurs in the South, to turn this dream into a tangible reality. It is an understatement to say the South is the right place. It is absolutely the right place, the only trick is to create sufficient critical mass so schemes like I envisage can take off, and return karakul to its black gold status. This time across the entire value chain.
The same goes for ostriches. I have yet to find another spot on Earth better suited for ostrich farming. But then we have to honestly state the reasons why our first attempt foundered and eventually died. I still think ostriches should be farmed extensively with the focus on protein. Those skins that are suitable for the fashion industry must be seen as a bonus. All the other skins can become ordinary ostrich leather, in itself a commodity not without value. But to achieve success as ostrich producers, we need to change many attitudes, both in the commercial farming areas and in the communities on communal land.
There is no economic reason why ostriches, farmed extensively, can not contribute significantly to the revenue of any mixed farming operation. Ostriches have been made suitable for arid conditions by nature. We need to take the most pliable genetic material and develop our own domesticated ostriches without sacrificing their extreme survival qualities. And of course, we need to remove greed from the equation, arguably the most important reason why ostriches failed. The vast unpopulated South can produce hundreds of thousands of ostriches per year.
Is there an ex-ostrich farmer with guts out there?