Cattle: Our Illiquid Assets

South Sudanese Cattle
South Sudanese Cattle

In South Sudan cattle outnumber people, giving us an exciting opportunity to develop an export market. But are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices?


In South Sudan the cattle outnumber the human beings. A 2013 estimate placed our cattle population at 11.7 million. When added to our equally substantial sheep and goat populations, South Sudan was estimated to be in possession of livestock worth $2.3 billion USD. The largest per capita in Africa.

What type of cattle do we have?

We have three types of cattle: The Nilotic, the Toposa-Murle and the South-Eastern Hills Zebu breeds. All three types are exceptionally resistant to harsh environmental conditions making them suited to our unforgiving part of Africa. But each breed is particularly suited to its own unique environment. The Nilotic can readily weather the constant flooding and attendant insects of the plains on which it grazes. The Toposa-Murle is able to endure for long periods without water in its semi-arid ranges. And the South-Eastern Hills Zebu is surprisingly resistant to sleeping sickness and can live off sparse hillside vegetation.

What do we do with all these cattle?

Cattle and culture are deeply intertwined for our pastoral communities. They represent the underlying currency of social interaction. A British survey team in the first half of the 20th century noted that:

“It is not easy to realise the overwhelmingly important part that cattle play in their lives; and to their acquisition almost everything is sacrificed.”

Not much has changed in the last 70 years. Among our pastoral communities, there remains an emphasis on increasing the size of their herds. Notwithstanding the social prestige having a large herd attracts, cattle are also used to pay increasingly exorbitant bridal dowries and are perceived as providing future economic security for families.

How productive are these cattle?

Though the three breeds differ slightly in appearance, their productivity is roughly the same. The cattle are incredibly poor at milk production. Their daily yield is around 1.3 to 2.2 litres. Compare this to Western breeds, such as the Holstein-Friesian, which can produce between 22 and 30 litres per day. In general our South Sudanese breeds are only good for meat production. Unfortunately, antiquated animal husbandry practices and sporadic veterinary care has left our cattle population riddled with parasitic infections and other preventable diseases. A three month study conducted in the Juba slaughterhouse in 2013, focused on just one parasite, the liver fluke. It found that 90% of slaughtered cattle were infected and 40% of inspected livers were found to be unsuitable for human consumption. Cattle hides also present a largely under-exploited economic opportunity.

What contribution do all these cattle make to our economy?

Largely because of deeply ingrained cultural practices, South Sudan has proven extremely resistant to adopting ranching as a commercial activity. This represents an economic challenge, especially when considering that 1 out of every 5 citizens depend on livestock for their livelihood.

The potential definitely exists but until productivity is increased and, critically, until cultural practices are set aside to make room for a monetized economy market orientation, then the cattle will remain just a potential asset – i.e. our cattle can’t represent wealth because our cattle aren’t marketable. Consequently, outside of our inward looking communities, our cattle hold little to no value.

What is the opportunity cost?

In 2000, it was reported that 90% of the fresh beef sold in the Arua region of northern Uganda was sourced from South Sudan. For a country utterly reliant on crude oil, this presents an exciting opportunity to diversify our economy by developing and growing an alternative export market. South Sudanese cattle also present an opportunity to produce a value-added product by exploring tanning and leather goods production.

The basic tenet of entrepreneurship dictates that (a) you work with what you have; (b) you do it better than everyone else; and (c) you’re always ready to adapt to changing commercial environments. What we have in abundance is the cattle. Unfortunately we are unprepared as a society to make the most of this resource. Until we recognise that cattle ‘on the hoof’ and in the cattle camp is an under-utilised and dormant resource, then allocating such a large proportion of our human resource in caring for them is actually undermining our economic development.

Is it culture versus commerce?

Of course this must be offset by our desire to maintain and protect the unique cultural identity of our pastoral communities. It was South Sudanese tenacity in defence of our cultural identity that helped us defeat Khartoum’s hegemony and eventually realise our independence. We must now decide if the way of life we fought so fiercely to defend is more important than economic advancement. It could also be that this is not a zero sum game and that a subtle re-orientation in cultural practice could see us realise both economic benefit and a continuation of long held and treasured cultural identities. It’s time for some creativity and innovation in the cattle camps of South Sudan.

@CitizenLagu