Livestock Research for Rural Development 7 (2) 1995

Citation of this paper

The role of zambian cattle populations in socio-economic development

Chindo Hicks

Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Department of Animal Science and Animal Health, Bülowsvej 13, 1870 Frederiksberg C. Denmark.


The role of Zambian cattle in socio-economic development is addressed, constraints are identified and measures aimed at improving their economic viability are outlined. It is argued that cattle play a pivotal role in socio-economic development, and therefore more attention should be paid to the role of cattle in socio-economic development of the country. An understanding of such a role provides a good platform to formulate both breeding and production policies. Breeding and production systems promoted by wrong policies such as copying from western countries without modification to suit local conditions can be literally a lethal weapon. An understanding between scientists and producers on the one hand and the policy makers on the other can only be reached if all parties know the benefits to the society of the efforts they are pursuing. However, organization of the work should be based on well defined breeding and production objectives for the commercial and small holders.

Key words: Cattle, beef, milk, production.


The current Zambian human population is 8 million with an annual growth rate of 3 % (FAO 1993). It has almost trebled since 1964, and according to the present projections it is expected to treble again by the year 2020. It is not known exactly when it will stabilize. Per capita annual milk and meat consumption figures for Zambia are around 12 kg and 11 kg respectively (FAO 1993). This contrasts greatly with somewhat over 300 kg fresh milk per head per year in the developed world (Cunningham 1985). This scenario calls for more attention on the part of the Zambian government to exploit this sector and make it economically viable through support services to the farmers and to save the meager foreign exchange spent on import of milk, beef and related products.

Table 1: Growth in cattle population 1991-1993 in comparison to other livestock.
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
1991 1992 1993
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Cattle 2984 000 3095 000 3204 000
Pigs 296 000 290 000 293 000
Sheep 62 000 63 000 67 000
Goats 556 000 560 000 600 000
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


Source: FAO 1993


About 60% of the Zambian population live in towns. It is the most urbanized country in sub-saharan Africa. The demand for milk, meat and related products outweighs domestic supply in all the provinces. The gap between demand and supply is narrowed by import and donations mainly from the EEC. The EEC is currently drastically reducing its milk output. On the other hand, importation alone is a drain on foreign exchange earnings which the country needs to service its foreign debt which currently stands at 7 billion US Dollars.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight the potential role of the Zambian cattle population in socio-economic development. To develop a better understanding, the constraints hampering economic viability, and measures aimed at revamping productivity in the sector, have been outlined.

The need for improved production

Table 2: Production of meat and milk products from cattle
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Beef Milk Cheese Butter

--------- tonnes ---------

BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
1991 37 000 81 000 967 000 271 000
1992 41 000 84 000 1003 000 281 000
1993 41 000 87 000 1038 000 291 000
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


Source: FAO, 1993.


The Zambian cattle population is estimated at 3 million with an annual growth rate of 3% (FAO 1993). This gives a ration of 3 persons per bovine. The growth rate is likely to continue, but even with optimistic trends it is not likely to offset the human population growth rate. The total number of cattle in comparison to other livestock is shown in Table 1. It can be seen from this table that cattle contributes the largest part in livestock production. The need for developing this sector cannot be overstated. Cattle also contributes well over 12% to the total gross domestic product accrued from agriculture.

According to the FAO Trade Year Book (1993) well over 90% of the gross domestic product attributed to livestock comes from cattle products. This shows the socio-economic importance of this sector.

According to the available figures from FAO (1990), per capita intakes of protein, fat and energy, derived from cattle products are estimated at 9 and 6 grammes and 152 calories per person per day (Table 3). This is far from being adquate, which calls for tightened attention in improving animal protein production.

Table 3: Average food supply from animal products per day (total supply in brackets)
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Calories (Cal) Protein (g) Fat (g)
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1979-1981 145 (2204) 10.9 (59.2) 8.0 (36.3)
1987 - 1989 152 (2054) 9.2 (56.4) 6.3 (30.8)
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Source: FAO 1990


There are other reasons for intensifying cattle production. As increasing population pressure will result in progressively smaller agricultural holdings, and grazing will be taken over by either crop or other development activities, the introduction of more intensive production systems is imperative to save ecological and social collapse in the rural areas. This could be achieved through integrated breeding and production systems aimed at increasing milk and meat production through the use of dual purpose breeds of cattle (Hicks 1991). Increased cattle productivity could also help Zambia to move away from her dependence on copper to a more balanced stable economy. Export earnings from exportation of milk and meat could help in creating foreign exchange reserves which are badly needed for supporting the balance of payments. Since 1964, Zambia has been a net importer of milk and meat (Table 4). This has contributed to a staggering foreign debt of 7 billion US dollars resulting in a per capita foreign debt of 1000 US Dollars (the government).

Table 4: Import and export of cattle products
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Imports (tonnes)

Exports (tonnes)

1991 1992 1993 1991 1992 1993
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Beef na na 58000 80000 26000 73000
Milk 19 14 36 984 547 278
Dry milk 537 911 890 NE NE NE
Butter 5 115 126 NE NE NE
Cheese 1 85 7 NE NE NE
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


na = Information not available; NE = Nothing exported.
Source: FAO 1993


The population growth rate of 3% per annum means more mounths to be feed by the turn of the century, signifying that the country is faced with a battle to attain at least a similar, but preferably higher increment in milk and meat production. In particular, demand for milk and milk products has been increasing rapidly in most provinces including those where milk was not common in the diet, for instance in parts of the northern province. Since 1975 milk consumption has been on the decline, for example, Antene (1991). But this decline has been due to the fall in real incomes which has seriously eroded the purchasing power of the consumers.

Characterisation of production sectors

Zambia inherited a colonial pattern of development, which has also influenced cattle husbandry. It is characterized by three sectors namely: the state, the commercial and small scale sector.

The state sector includes large cattle ranches operated by the government through parastatal organisations with an intended but unrealisable objective of increasing beef output, but because of inefficiency the output is low. They are characterized by large inputs channelled to them through government subsidies. This sector has not fulfilled its intended objectives and it is slowly being phased out. It is not discussed in this paper though reference to it has been made where necessary.

The commercial farms are large commercial undertakings which run both beef ranches and dairy farms. They require large investment capital but also have large economic returns. Unlike the state ranches, commercial ranches are private enterprises and are highly efficient. The takeoff from this sector for milk and beef are 90% and 60% respectively of the total domestic produce. They are mainly located along the railway line and around major cities with some isolated farms elsewhere.

The small scale cattle farmers are small family holdings characterized by low input and low output. Large numbers of cattle can however also be found under this sector particularly in the southern and western provinces. Productivity per animal in this sector is of minor importance, perhaps because traditionally farmers believe in numbers of animals and only producing enough for their families rather than for sale. Cattle husbandry in the commercial and traditional sectors play different roles and therefore it is important to discuss the two separately.

The role of cattle in the traditional sector

The socio-economic role of cattle in the traditional sector dates back to the pre-colonial days. In this sector cattle has multiple roles. It has always been regarded as a symbol of family wealth. It is known from Zambian history that tribes such as Tongas, Lozis, Cewas, Namwangas and Mambwes were traditional cattle keepers. About 70% of the Zambian cattle is found in this sector, which underlines its importance. Milk production is intended for family use, but the sector provides 40% of domestic beef supply. Capital flow from the government to this sector is low, and where small farmers have made efforts to sell the surplus of their milk, storage and collection has been a problem due to poor infrastructure. Given better economic conditions and good support services this sector could contribute significantly to gross domestic production.

Cattle were used as a means of trade in the pre-colonial days. Excavations at a place called Ing'ombe Illede (the sleeping cow), in the southern province have supported this. Cattle have been and still are used in marriage ceremonies. In some cases the value of a daughter is determined by how many heads of cattle the would-be husband has to pay to marry her. It is used as a guarantee of security and as a symbol of wealth, and it is perhaps because of this that the traditional cattle keepers prefer quantity to quality. It has also been used in settling court fines and in most cases it provides income for the families. Dung is used as fertilizer and as a source of energy. It is also known that cattle are used in paying war reparations by the losing tribe in tribe wars. Draught power plays the role that a tractor plays in the western world. Using an ox-drawn plough, the smallholder can plough 1 hectare of land per day something that could be done by one man in a month, if done by hand. There is growing demand for draught power in the traditional sector, since the smallholder cannot afford western mechanization, and where it has been supplied, it has failed due to its needs for spare parts, and maintenance which are not readily available in the country. Apart from ploughing, draught power is also used for transport. It could therefore be stated that dung and draught power increase the productivity of smallholders.

In the traditional sector the relative importance of dairying in the household economy does vary, however, from province to province. For instance, while a Tonga in the southern province may spend time looking after his cows, his Ng'mbo counterpart in Luapula Province will rather go fishing. Improvement of dairying and beef production on smallholdings can contribute to the uplifting of the standard of living for the rural population, and to the improvement of their socio-economic status. It may assist in halting rural emigration and perhaps reverse the urbanization process. The high urban population needs food which can be produced by the smallholder. A well planned policy is the cornerstone of such a strategy.

The role of cattle in the commercial sector

The role of cattle in the commercial sector dates back to the colonial era when the colonial master realized the importance of milk and meat in servicing the labor force in the mining Industry. Both in the colonial and in modern Zambia commercial dairying and beef production have provided milk and meat for the urban population. The Europeans introduced and encouraged the consumption of whole milk to the portions of the urban community, particularly the copperbelt. The consumption of milk increased due to its availability and status in colonial society (Enemark 1990). Commercial cattle ranching and dairying provide employment to many people. Factories related to these activities such as the Dairy Produce Board of Zambia and the Cold Storage Corporation which process milk and meat products respectively, employ large numbers of people.

Zambia spends substantial sums of her foreign reserves on importation of milk, meat and other related products. Inputs such as breeding material are also imported. The consequences resulting from such measures on the Zambian economy are well known such as cuts on other services and soaring foreign debt. An improved cattle population will help to alleviate such problems and help in stabilizing the balance of payments. For instance in 1988 Zambia exported 10, 000 bovine embryos to Australia (Muijs 1988). Expansion of such schemes would earn the country useful foreign exchange. The commercial sector produces 90 % and over 60 % of the total milk and meat output traded in Zambia, respectively. This shows the strategic importance of this sector in relation to the Zambian economy. Improved cattle productivity in the commercial sector will improve the standard of living of the Zambian people particularly those in the urban areas.

Commercial versus traditional sector

The majority of the rural population of Zambia are smallholders. If viability of dairy development and beef production are to be enhanced and they are to have a real impact on socio-economic development, it is important that small farmers be involved. However, it should be pointed out that the role of commercial dairying and beef production should not be overlooked because of its strategic importance. Zambia's development has very much depended on the colonial pattern characterized by a strong commercial agricultural sector and any disturbances to it can bring a political turn-about, given that this sector produces all the marketed milk and over 60% of national beef output. It is doubtful whether the smallholder can produce bucketfuls of milk and fill trays with beef to support the urban population if the commercial sector is allowed to collapse. Therefore, it would be wise to suggest that any change should be gradual, leaving both sectors to co-exist though that is very difficult due to varied interests. Any attempt to push the commercial sector will result in a fall in both milk and meat production thus forcing the government to resort to importation with the unforeseen consequences of economic erosion and soaring foreign debts which given Zambia's current economic situation the country cannot afford. In this regard it could be rightly claimed that advocating such a policy in the case of Zambia is advocating instability. On the other hand, ignoring the smallholder will increase the already encountered problem of rural emigration with its resultant socio-economic problems such as increased crime.

It could be argued that state farms offer good opportunities to maximize the impact of specialized management skills, minimize input supply and transport problems. However, their high costs of production, labor costs, inefficiency and mismanagement and accompanying subsidies required for operational costs could outweigh the benefits. Commercial dairying and ranching are more efficient, although their capital inputs are also quite high but, exports obtained from efficient commercial production could offset this. Equally it could be argued that, given good support smallholders could do better because of low capital investment. However, even if the conditions were good for the small holders, circumstances such as lack of title deeds to land ownership may block further development. The commercial dairy and beef producers therefore have a logistical advantage. This obstacle can be solved by service cooperatives in the small scale sector, so that the buying and distribution of inputs can be centralized as done in Kenya (Jorgen Henriksen, personal communication). But this brings another constraint, that is management skills for handling business, ventures which are lacking at village and district levels. It is sometimes difficult for the government to assign a skilled man to such an undertaking as that is tantamount to intervention and it is doubtful if the cooperatives would welcome him.

A large commercial undertaking may do well, but its inability to earn the foreign exchange required for inputs, shortage of spare parts and shortage of human resources to man commercial operations hinders maximization of production, although these problems can be solved by streamlining foreign exchange allocations to the farmers. Unless the rural population develops economically and can feed itself, the lack of purchasing power of those who need milk will prohibit the scale of the commercial undertaking as the market will remain limited to the higher income group who can afford products such as milk, butter, cheese and other dairy products. Expansion to large scale undertakings is limited to the availability of land which may eventually become scarce. It will be saddening and disastrous to the Zambian economy to develop the commercial sector at the expense of the traditional sector and vice versa.

Constraints to economic viability of cattle production

A common problem in the Zambian dairy and beef industries is that the focus has been mainly on marketing outputs. An effective strategy should also focus on inputs since the whole venture is input oriented. Cattle production has been underemphasized as compared to maize production for instance. Lack of sound government policy resulted in low production. The multiplicity of objectives and instruments suggest that in some cases conflicts arose between objectives and policies pursued to achieve them. The likelihood of such conflicts is heightened when, as it has often happened, different ministries are interested in different objectives. For instance the ministry of agriculture may be geared for efficiency and increased production through improved producer prices and support services to the farmers while the ministry of finance may prefer interventions which raise revenue. This has been aggravated by constant devaluation of the currency (Kwacha) which has forced many commercial dairy and beef operations to close down and as a consequence there has been a growing discrepancy between the increasing demand for milk and meat and the inadequate production of the two products. This scenario calls for implementation of a cattle husbandry policy if cattle are expected to play their role in uplifting the national economy and the standard of living for the Zambian people.

There are some obvious reasons for low production such as: climate , feed, breed type, economic factors, human influence, government policy, tsetse fly and other diseases. The effects are reflected in low productivity levels per cow on the one hand and consumption patterns on the other. The drought that engulfed Southern Africa in 1991-1992 which did not spare Zambia caused devastating economic problems to cattle husbandry in Zambia as large numbers of cattle died through lack of feed, water and because of disease. This was a major setback particularly in the southern part of the country which was the worst hit, as almost 50% of cattle in the traditional sector are found there. The political appeasement offered to the politically sensitive urban population through consumer subsidies at the expense of the producers has also been a major hindrance to increased production of milk and meat and thereby hampering the economic viability of the cattle industry. Lack of financial resources is a key factor contributing to low productivity.

Development of the dairy industry is one of the most complex issues within the Zambian Agricultural system to tackle. Biologically it is sensitive requiring good genetic material, good management with respect to feeding, health care and the capital requirement relative to the beef and other sectors. Since milk is highly perishable, good transport and storage systems are important if spoilage and economic losses are to be avoided. Absence of such infrastructure will produce unforeseen consequences to the farmer, particularly the traditional farmers as commercial producers can easily deliver their products to market places. Similarly input services such as breeding, extension, veterinary, recording and AI should be established and well functioning. Production itself has to be well organized and be closely linked with processing and marketing. Due to these factors dairy development must be of an integrated nature addressing all the key aspects of this wide spectrum.

Measures for improving productivity and economic viability of zambian cattle

In order to ensure economic viability of Zambian cattle and their contribution to the national economy, measures such as the ones outlined below are necessary.

Parastatals and state dairy and beef undertakings should give way to the commercial sector since they are just a drain of funds. In the commercial sector the government should take a backseat and simply play the catalytic role in creating markets for the dairy and beef industries whether at home or abroad. At the same time it should be active in creating opportunities for the small scale cattle keepers and promote integration between the two sectors. Commercial farmers should be allowed to utilize the full potentials in maximizing production instead of operating as government subcontractors in the agricultural sector. In general, state trade tends to act against the market forces rather than reinforcing or complementing them. The most obvious sign of the effects of state trading against the market forces is the existence of "black" coined as free market. Funds from that sector could be channelled into research and provision of support services to the small holder farmers such as the advisory services and bull stations.

Another point worth mentioning in this connection is that both quantities of dairy products imported commercially and as food aid have to be considered seriously as they may affect domestic production through unstable prices. It may not be immediately clear how the Zambian government can develop the domestic dairy and beef sector other than by reducing imports and increasing domestic producer prices. It is rather perplexing and paradoxical that while farmers struggle to improve production, the government continues importing milk and other cattle products which could be easily produced by Zambian commercial farmers. Certainly the government ought to meet some international trade agreements, but this has to be met through fair trade not at the expense of Zambian farmers.

Foreign assistance to agriculture as pointed out earlier should not go to the state sector or be used to subsidize consumption, but instead to research, support services and stimulation of production in both small and commercial sectors. It is also important to see to it that ecological balance and environmental protection are maintained using either statutory or legislative powers vested in government. This is a key element in modern agricultural development as it would be wrong to satisfy the present generation at the expense of future generations.

Technology transfer can be used to improve breeding, and productivity of local cattle. This should be done by first improving indigenous cattle. However, if exotic breeds suit production and marketing conditions and are genetically as good as or better than domestic stock then as pointed out by Smith, (1988) a policy of continuous importation can be recommended particularly in the commercial sector. Plans aimed at improving breeding and production in the tropics have been discussed by (eg: Cunningham and Syrstad 1987; Smith 1988; Muijs 1988; Vaccaro 1989; Dolberg 1991). Smith (1988) has proposed the use of nucleus herds in cattle improvement in developing countries.

Based on his ideas commercial herds could be used as nucleus herds while base herds could be those in the traditional sector. This means well, adapted improved heifers and bulls could be obtained from the commercial sector for subsequent improvement of village herds as discussed by Hicks (1991). This may be a better step and perhaps a less costly way of improving production other than direct use of imported cattle for improvement of village herds.

It is important to point out here that breeding in itself without good nutrition coupled with good management cannot bring the expected results. The feed problem in the traditional sector can be resolved by teaching the farmers how to use crop residues and how to make good fodder. Commercial farmers know how to manage their feed system.

In conclusion it could be stated that Zambian cattle contributes to socio-economic development and that its increased role in this sector will depend on how the commercial farmers and smallscale farmers on the one hand and the government on the other interact. A well formulated government policy supported with adequately and clearly defined breeding and production policy is the cornerstone of such a development.


The work described here benefitted from helpful comments from Mr Frands Dolberg (Aarhus University - Denmark) to whom the author is very thankful.


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(Received 1 September 1995)