Bulawayo businessman Garrith Lumsden has been in the eye of a storm after his plans to set up a donkey abattoir in the city were made public.
Animal rights groups have come out strongly against the project, saying it would see a spike in cases of donkey thefts and drive the animals into extinction.
However, Lumsden (GL), who has been in the meat processing industry for more than 20 years, told The Standard (TS) in an exclusive interview that his critics are ill-informed about the project.
The businessman, who already owns an abattoir for sheep, goats and pigs, recently applied for a licence to slaughter donkeys for export to the Far East.
He said contrary to claims that if the abattoir is licensed donkey meat may find its way into local butcheries, everything and not just skins, would be exported.
He believes that if not done above board and properly, illicit donkey-skin trafficking would prevail and donkey meat might end up inadvertently in local butcheries. Below is the full interview.
TS: Were you surprised by the reaction to your plans to set up Zimbabwe’s first donkey abattoir?
GL: Not really, I know it’s a culture shock for most, although neighbouring countries like Botswana and Lesotho actually eat donkey meat and it is considered a delicacy abroad.
It is important to emphasise (in order to allay some fears which I have noted) that I am going to be exporting everything that I process.
TS: Did you anticipate the kind of resistance that you are getting now when you came up with the plan for the abattoir?
GL: I knew there would be resistance from particular sectors like SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], Donkey Trust, Vaws [Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe] and the like; however, our ministers and their relative departments are more than capable of monitoring and controlling the affairs of our country.
TS: What sort of regulatory approvals have you obtained and when do you expect to start slaughtering donkeys at the abattoir?
GL: Before I started this project, certain ministries were consulted and guidelines given, which we have adhered to so far.
As to when we will start operating, I will leave that decision to our “fathers”.
TS: Animal rights groups argue that slaughtering of donkeys on a commercial scale will drive them to extinction because they “are not suited as intensive production animals, since they have long gestation periods, high foal mortality, and slow foal development rates.” Do you agree with that assertion?
GL: They have been exposed by this project and I’m sure, quite embarrassed by the condition of most of these donkeys that have come to the forefront of our country’s scrutiny and not made an impact whatsoever on how these beasts of burden are treated and or kept.
However, it is not their fault that they don’t have the means to increase the value of donkeys, which will in turn give owners the incentive to look after their stock from conception to mature animals, which takes about two years.
High foal mortality comes down to stockmanship. If you leave a foal out in the open, it will be killed by another male (Jack), which contributes mostly to the high mortality of foals.
Besides, it has not really been in anyone’s interest to breed donkeys as livestock, so the assertion is rather weak in that regard.
TS: How about fears that if your abattoir is allowed to operate, it will fuel stock theft cases? What measures will you put in place to ensure that donkeys you receive for slaughter are not stolen animals?
GL: First and foremost, I do not accept deliveries to the abattoir by private individuals. There is already a system in place that is used for the buying of cattle, goats, sheep and pigs where the particular rural council is contacted first and a sale date requested.
Once that date has been set, I will collect the police and vet officers that will attend the sale along with a member of that particular rural council who will document the purchase of every animal as there are levies to be paid.
Every seller will also be in attendance and has a stock book where the sale of his animals is recorded.
TS: Before you came up with your project, did you seek to establish the size of the donkey population in Zimbabwe and whether this will be a sustainable venture in the long run?
GL: Absolutely! We have 10 provinces in Zimbabwe where the average donkey population for each province is around the 40 000 mark, but there are quite a number that are considered stray animals.
These stray animals will fall under the umbrella of each district council to auction off as they do any other stray animal, if not claimed.
Obviously, some areas carry more than others. We could work on a quota system where only a specified number of animals can be taken for slaughter, just like National Parks do with our wildlife.
TS: What will you do to ensure farmers are aware of the long-term consequences of being involved in the donkey trade?
GL: Everyone makes out that our rural farmers, including myself, are complete idiots! I say we are not. We have been breeding, raising, selling, buying, trading, donating and slaughtering animals for generations.
TS: Animal rights groups say donkeys are too sensitive and transporting them over long distances could cause them stress or even death. Do you have any plans in place to alleviate the suffering of donkeys destined for slaughter?
GL: I’m sure a donkey does not know that it is about to travel 200km or 400km, so distance is not the issue. I will however, endeavour to make the trip in as short a time as possible.
TS: Do you think Zimbabwe has adequate regulations regarding the welfare of donkeys, especially around slaughter?
GL: Regarding the welfare of donkeys, no, just take a closer look at the next span of donkeys you come across and you will see for yourself that rules and regulations are sadly lacking.
It comes back to the fact that everyone, from top to bottom, considers the donkey to be “not worth the effort”. Well, I’m going to change that.
As for the slaughter of donkeys, it’s the same as cattle, goats and sheep so the regulations should be the same, which regulations are certainly in place.
TS: The debate on social media about the abattoir seems to be centred around fears that donkey meat might end up being sold to unsuspecting consumers. What do you have to say to allay such fears?
GL: Social media in general tends to be very subjective and populist. There is a tendency to rave and rant without facts, and there are a lot of armchair conservationists that do not fully appreciate the real value that my project will add to the welfare, value and treatment of donkeys.
As for the fears of donkey meat ending up in our burgers or in local butcheries unwittingly: actually, not granting me the licence (so it is done above board) will result in the inevitable mushrooming of the illegal trade in skins only, then the rest of the carcass gets sold to local butcheries.
We will export all that we slaughter whereby every part, from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail will be boxed, frozen and shipped abroad — much more rewarding than selling locally for sure!
TS: How much do you expect to generate annually from the project?
GL: I am hoping to slaughter 50 animals per day at a value of around $40 so that equates to under half a million dollars.
However, and this is important, you must understand that only a small percentage of that is profit, there is revenue for government and related bodies as well included therein.
TS: Of what economic value will the project be to the city and country?
GL: Quite a bit more than is around at the moment. With the opening of the abattoir, there are several government departments that will generate revenue from veterinary to health inspectors, from clearance certificates to movement permits from rural councils to Zimra [Zimbabwe Revenue Authority] to EMA [Environment Management Agency].
TS: How many jobs are you going to create with this project?
GL: Directly related to the abattoir, about 20. People on the ground and in the field, about 25.
Then there are the benefits in terms of other downstream socio-economic spinoffs that will result from the new nationwide trend to breed donkeys.
TS: Finally, what inspired you to tread where no one has ever ventured, slaughtering donkeys?
GL: Those who know me will confirm I consider myself just like every other Zimbabwean. I just wish to take this opportunity based on my farming and business experience to unlock value out of the president’s prophetic Look East policy, which nobody can deny was way before China became the global economic giant that it has become.
This can be an example and pioneering endeavour that can show fellow Zimbabweans and entrepreneurs that we must not just be buying from China but also selling, for only then can we be engaged in proper trade, and, instead of sitting and looking to the government to provide socioeconomic solutions for us, let us as Zimbabweans, as long as we are mindful of the environment, of our resources and indeed do everything above board, get up and think outside the box as it were with business ideas that are not western-inclined or not prevailing.
Imagine packaging mice or macimbi (mopane worms) for instance as examples, but it doesn’t have to be in foodstuffs only, it can be with traditional African arts and crafts, garb and dress and even theatre and so forth…
I have seen a lot of false allegations and unfounded fears floating around from the cesspool that is social media to the otherwise sanctified House of Parliament by some MPs and supposedly some farmers through the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Agriculture claiming, rather incredulously and illogically, that the abattoir will derail their farming activities!
So, to allay these fears I have tried my best to answer them as objectively and calmly as possible as I understand that there is an initial culture-shock that people have to get over.