It’s early on a Monday morning, and Dr. Eric Zeli has just started doing rounds at Zambia’s Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka.
As he pauses at a bed to examine a 40-something female patient, he lets out a gasp. “Oh my God” he says excitedly. “You are looking great.”
Performing hospital rounds is a typical day in the life of Eric (31) and other doctors working at Lusaka’s University Teaching Hospital’s (UTH) Cancer Diseases Hospital.
What makes this doctor different is that he is also a goat farmer and this information always provokes an “oh”, reaction.
Not surprising, considering that goat farming has traditionally been seen as an occupation for undereducated, poor farmers. Previously, the majority of goat farmers were between 45 and 65 years old, eking out a living along with seasonal crop farming.
That has drastically changed in the last decade as the rich pickings of goat breeding lured people from different professions and ages.
Starting with 7 local indigenous breeds in 2016, Eric’s herd is now almost 100 strong. He crossbred the initial Kalahari Red and Boer goat stock and has been building on the successes of the cross-breeding to get to his present number.
“It has been a good start for me, and what matters now is increasing conception rates through cross-breeding. My target is to reach numbers well above 1 000 to benefit from growing market at home and in the region,” says Zeli.
ADVANTAGES OF GOAT FARMING
While previously seen as an enterprise for poor people, goat farming has become increasingly profitable, luring many people. Zeli was influenced by his upbringing. His grandfather, the late George Cornhill, was a noted farmer in Monze, Southern Province.
“Coming from an agrarian background, passion for farming was almost a natural instinct, and I’m convinced I’ve taken the right steps to do goat farming. It makes good business sense and fits into my day job as it is not too demanding,” he says.
Fitting into his day job is not the only advantage Zeli finds in goat farming. The local and regional demand is growing. Significantly, the demand was set to grow further through Saudi Arabia’s interest in importing 1 million goats a year from Zambia.
Goat products like milk and meat that are not only nutritious and tasty, but easily digestible and healthy, are reputed to be behind the rising demand.
At the moment, however, there are only about 4 million goats in Zambia, and that is not enough to meet the new demand. This is good news for farmers like Zeli, who can now expand their herds.
Unlike farmers engaged in raising larger livestock like cattle, and crop farming, goat breeders have the additional advantage of goats being more resilient to drought conditions.
Goats are good breeders and they reach sexual maturity within 7 to12 months of age and give birth of kids within a short time. Some goat breeds can produce numerous kids per kidding.
“Investing in goats, which have many advantages, cushions me against losses,” says Zeli.
EXPANDING THE BUSINESS
Zeli recently acquired a bigger piece of land where he plans to move his current herd on the 3 hectare customary land, 20 km north of Lusaka.
The infrastructure at the current location includes a 3 bedroom house for a caretaker, his only full-time hire who lives with his wife. In addition, the farm has a 12 m x 6 m shelter for the goats. The shelter is made of brick and covered by iron sheets. A borehole, a 5 000 litre water tank, a generator and water pump complement the existing infrastructure.
“This is what makes goat farming different from other forms of farming. It is less complex,” says Zeli. “The caretaker performs the day-to-day tasks of putting the goats to pasture and cleaning the shelter, while I manage the deworming and vaccination, and supply of feed supplements.”
He ascribes his expanding goat breeding enterprise to the proper selection of breeds and proper animal management. He acquired this knowledge by talking to livestock specialists and through his own research.
His medical training has also helped the success of his goat farming business.
Starting off with 5 to 7 indigenous breeds mainly found in Southern, Central and Eastern provinces, Zeli crossbred them with the Boer and Kalahari Red bucks.
Boer goats commonly have white bodies and distinctive brown heads. Some Boer goats can be completely brown or white or paint, which means large, differently coloured spots appear on their bodies. Kalahari Red goats appear similar to Boer goats, but have a red coloured coat.
Zeli says he specifically selected the 2 breeds because they have a fast growth rate and good quality meat. They also have a high resistance to disease while adapting well to drought conditions.
Breed selection coupled with good animal management practices hold the key to success. This includes access to adequate food and water, which are as important as vaccinations and dosing.
Supplementary feed is also critical. Though the goats feed on natural grass, plants and shrubs, these feeds dwindle in the dry season.
“Having sufficient knowledge on good animal practices is paramount. These practices are non-negotiable. I use no. 3 meal and soya cake to the ration of 2 : 1,” he says.
Though goat farming holds great promise for smallholder livestock farmers, a number of challenges constrain their growth.
For Zeli, a glaring challenge is the absence of an organised formal market for goat products. Locally, with the exception of outlets one could count on 1 hand, there are no established butcheries and supermarkets to serve goat farmers.
“The markets is mostly informal. In my experience, I sell excess bucks to people who buy them for slaughter, and in some cases barter them for more does,” he says.
At the regional level, the market in the border town of Kasumbalesa, a gateway to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is chaotic. This is despite being an important market for the majority of goat farmers.
This had a negative effect on prices and profit margins. In the absence of standardised pricing, the size of the goat determines the price.
The national agricultural think-tank, Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI) estimates 80% of the marketing channels for goats are informal. IAPRI says the negligible formal market channels limit the farmers’ ability to invest and expand their livestock production.
Saudi Arabia’s desire to import 1 million goats from Zambia is expected to reverse the current status quo by providing farmers like Zeli with a large formal market. However, Zeli and other smallholder farmers know too well that to access this market they have to surmount the challenge of increasing the size of their herds.
According to livestock specialists, non-descriptive breeding is the origin of 80% of the country’s goat population. No herd book is maintained to keep standard breed records of the goats. Therefore, goat farmers have to start everything from scratch.
“It is critical to bring good genetic breeds from around the world as there is already evidence that cross-breeding our indigenous breeds with Boer goats improves growth characteristics that translates into meat value and is useful to lift marginal farmers from subsistence to commercial level,” says Zeli.
OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE
Zeli is optimistic about the future of goat farming. The 8 or more hours he has to work daily gives him the discipline and focus required to grow a farming venture.
He says the thinking process in farming and medicine are a lot like troubleshooting.
“When someone comes in with a complaint, you think of a bunch of things, different diagnoses, and then you ask question to narrow it down, and then figure out the medicines. At this stage, we have the diagnosis of what is wrong with goat farming, and a number of solutions are being put in place, making it more exciting,” he adds.
Contact: Eric Zeli – +260975213516