Donkeys in Sustainable Food System

I woke up this morning with a huge Kisumu City lag that made me resort to reflecting on a talk held between Denyse, Lilian, Mekky and myself during the last team Acacia Hotel poolside lunch. In the talk, Lilian was definite that she will miss the Kitui INSSPIRE meeting because of the many ‘strange’ insects and snakes that comprise the local ecosystem and characterize the cool weather season. The talks ‘coiled’ to show that value can be added to these creatures to be part of a sustainable food system. Denyse recalled that in Mexico there is the use of snakes in enriching beer. I indicated to know of the Japanese using snake poison in drinks for health benefits. The morning dreams were however disrupted by a call from a former student of mine purporting to welcome me back from the lakeside city of Kisumu. The real intention of the call was to make me part of lined up speakers in her wedding ceremony which takes place in April this year. She has this feeling that I can put forth some very positive words to the public about her, based on the years I have known her. The lady has this strong charterer that makes her not seek acceptance of her requests. I learnt this the hard way when she was a student of mine. As such, I think I just have to inshallah make to the wedding event part of my April things-to-do and, go to the venue, tell everyone of what a beautiful heart she is, what an academic giant she is, how she is the only ‘Baganda’ behaved lady in Kenya and, ultimately tell the man that he is the luckiest living man!

I did attend the lady’s dowry payment sometime in 2022. Other than the mandatory cultural things the mother (who is a single parent) wanted provided, she asked for a donkey. Why? A donkey will fit very well in her food system. She argued that now that she is aging and being left alone (the daughter is the only child), the donkey will keep her company and facilitate water collection and delivery of food from the garden and markets. Listening to her talk, I realized that I could for free assist the lady in having an Archimedes pump made of local materials that could be operated through use of the donkey. I am yet to meet my part of the bargain. But I am to.
When my former student lady was through with her ‘soliloquy’, I drifted into thinking of the increasing vulnerability of donkey keeping in Kenya. The old lady will definitely get the desired donkey that will become part and parcel of her food system. But how safe is the beast of burden in light of the many thefts engineered by the love of donkey skin by the Chinese? Maybe she has no time to think about this and is ready to ignore all the risks. I am almost certain that if I dared sentiment on the matter to her she might just say ‘I will cross the bridge when I get there’.

In recent years, there’s been a huge rise in appetite for donkey hides in China, where they are used to make the ancient health-related product called ejiao, which is made from collagen extracted from donkey hides mixed with herbs and other ingredients to create medicinal and health consumer products. It’s believed to have properties that strengthen the blood, stop bleeding and improve the quality of both vital fluids and sleep. The rise in demand is driven by several factors, including rising incomes, popularization of the product via a television series, and an ageing population (age is a key demographic driving demand). In addition, ejiao is sometimes prescribed by doctors and the cost can be covered by health insurance. Consequently, the demand for ejiao has led to a shortage of donkeys in China and increasingly worldwide with countries in Africa have been particularly affected. Exact figures on how many hides are exported to China aren’t available due to a growing illicit trade, but there are indications. Agreeably, the scale of the donkey trade, both illicit and legal, poses a challenge for countries such as Kenya, especially in terms of its impact on the most marginalized communities as where my former student comes from. The region is not ready for the mass slaughter and unregulated trade of donkeys. The vulnerable households rely on donkeys for a living and are at risk of losing out through the donkey skin trade. The presence of a donkey in a household helps to alleviate poverty and frees women and girls from household drudgery. Donkeys are one of the simplest, most sustainable and affordable means of putting food on the table, transporting people, goods and farm inputs and outputs from home to farm, to market and vice versa, as well as to water wells and other places. In the harsh environments of Kitui that face serious water poverty, donkeys can travel long distances with heavy loads, limited fluids, and without showing signs of fatigue, thus making them durable household assets. Besides donkey welfare, a big part of the challenge is how affordable donkeys are locally. Donkeys have a valuable, social and economic role as a workhorse and losing access to them creates a huge problem for poor households. The loss of a donkey to a household can thus be associated with an increased risk of poverty with children dropping out of school, and there emerging less water security and more economic fragility. This makes the donkey trade a sensitive topic. Cognizance is female donkeys typically produce only a few foals each in a lifetime. In the east Africa region, the rise in Chinese demand for donkeys has elicited a variety of responses by respective governments. On its part, Tanzania has attempted to create a formal donkey industry and trade. However, in 2022, the government banned it because legal supply couldn’t keep up with demand. In Kenya, public outrage, largely due to the rise of donkey prices and diminishing supply led to a ban on exports in February 2020. Kenya’s donkey exporters, however, took their case against the ban to Kenya’s High Court in June 2020, and won. Elsewhere, countries such as Botswana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and, Senegal have banned donkey exports. Others, such as South Africa, banned or limited the donkey trade withrequirements for established slaughterhouses and related quotas. The lesson from the control interventions is that the implementation of donkey bans varies according to the strength of the regulatory capacity in each country and, how easy it is to smuggle things across borders. On the whole, only when the donkey hide trade is fully regulated and, export numbers are able to be very limited might the trade work without adverse consequences for the poor. In South Africa, export quotas have merely sent the trade underground. This leads to more donkey theft. Illicitly traded hides from South Africa are typically from donkeys that are slaughtered inhumanely in the bush or in sub-standard slaughterhouses in Lesotho. Then they are exported to China. Poverty seems to foster the trade, which in turn can lead to further impoverishment. Donkey owners, needing a short-term income windfall, will sell their animal. Personal communications with the pastoral Maasai and the agropastoralists Kamba communities within the geographical cover area of the A Sustainable Approach in Livelihoods Improvement (ASALI) project in Kenya (which is managed by Denyse) reveal unemployed youth in parts of Kitui and Kajiado Counties to be stealing own family and other households donkeys and selling them for quick income, with the animals being slaughtered and traded illegally.

The ejiao industry in China is well organized and resourced. A handful of major firms and one province dominate the industry in China, and they are represented by the Shandong Ejiao Industry Association. There is the school of thought that a donkey hide trade is an opportunity for social and economic developments if done in an organized way, and establishing a dialogue with the Shandong Ejiao Industry. The aim would be to work out sustainable mechanisms, prevent damage to local interests and help to counter the illicit trade. In parallel to this, it would be important for animal welfare agencies in China to raise awareness of the illicit and damaging impact of the illicit donkey hide trade. For now, the trade is premature. Better regulatory standards are needed by China’s ejiao industry such that illegally traded and stolen donkey hides are not part of the industry. Deeper cooperation across countries would also help to preserve the ancient role of the donkey in supporting trade and the continent’s most vulnerable and
geographically isolated groups. As such, only when the donkey hide trade is fully regulated and, export numbers are able to be very limited might the trade work without adverse consequences. Only then, will the old lady in Kitui be most safe to have and sustain a donkey as part of her food system. This is where the endeavours and outputs of the project can be useful in lobbying and advocating for fairness. Done, this will make the ‘I do, for good and bad, till death do us part’ swearing statement at the church altar by my former lady student have total meaning and, be more sustainable!

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