Haile Aregawi became a cattle trader in 1989. He used to travel to Jimma frequently for other business, and his friends coaxed him into the cattle business. His first shipment included 10 bovines from Jimma to the cattle market in Nefas Silk-Lafto District, Addis Abeba, near Kera.
"Back then, a good ox could be bought for 750 Br," he said. "And 10,000 Br was a large capital to start a business."
Wednesday morning, September 8, 2010, one big animal was bought for 16,000 Br by a restaurant that served raw beef, he said while standing under a shelter at the cattle market during the following very rainy afternoon. In earlier times, some big oxen sold for as much as 18,000 Br, but these animals are not as big.
"You should have come in the morning," said a guard at the market. "Some were so big that you would have wanted your picture taken leaning against them."
The cattle market operates in somewhat the same was as other agricultural markets. khat, vegetables, and cereals make their way to Addis Abeba daily, loaded on numerous trucks from farms and markets around the country. The big cattle markets in Addis Abeba, including the one at Kera and another one beyond Kotebe in Yeka District, are flooded with cattle from towns and villages near Addis Abeba as well as places farther away such as Harar, Jimma, Wolayta Sodo, Arba Minch, Wolega, and Wollo. Most arrive in Addis Abeba on Isuzu trucks that carry up to 12 of the beasts and Efecer trucks that carry up to 17 of them. Others, although less frequently, travel on foot for as far as 200km, a journey which can take up to three gruelling days.
Yemane Mamo, a cattle trader, sources his merchandise from areas in the vicinity of Addis Abeba, including Jiru, Debre Brehan, and Kotu, near Sheno. The farthest of these is Jiru at 200km. Traders like Yemane make their purchases and leave them to experienced drivers to bring them to the markets in Addis Abeba. The traders make deals with up to eight drivers, who, in turn, hire extra hands. Over the past three years, the price that the drivers charge has increased from 20 Br to 30 Br and now 50 Br, according to Yemane. During the best of times, drivers can drive up to 400 cattle, but that is rare, mostly just during the big holidays.
Along the way, the cattle are prevented from grazing on the grasslands they traverse by local peasants. Instead, some peasants make occasional revenue from the sale of fodder.
Truck owners charge as much as 300 Br per head of cattle for transport from Wolega, according to a trader, Kebede Messele, who was trying to sell 15 oxen. This mode of transport is expensive, necessitating the alternative services of the drivers.
By truck and by foot, Addis Abeba receives thousands of cattle during the established market days of Wednesday and Friday. Some traders are now beginning to develop Sunday as a third market day during the week.
On Wednesday, 750 cattle arrived at the Kara market alone; there were an extra 250 from the previous day.
The traders are charged 10 Br per head when they take their animals into the fenced market, but that onetime fee ensures them the use of the market until they have sold all their cattle. On Friday, the eve of the New Year, however, so many more animals are expected to arrive that there will not be room for all of them in the 8,000sqm marketplace which can accommodate up to 3,000 cattle, according to Dawit Kebede, the market centre coordinator under the Modern Trade and Industry Office of Yeka District.
On the eve of Easter, 1,900 cattle were delivered in only one day. In the month of July, revenues of 71,400 Br had been collected by the office.
"On holiday eves, the market compound gets so jammed that most of the animals are sold from outside," said one of the guards.
These figures, however, are far from testimonies of considerable meat consumption nationwide. With about 40 million cattle, according to the Central Statistical Authority (CSA), Ethiopia boasts the largest such population in Africa, but the per capita consumption remained almost stable at an average of 4.8kg between 1999 and 2004. That comes down to 13 grams per person per day, equivalent to the weight of just one level tablespoon of sugar. Besides, Ethiopia's numerous livestock, known for their poor productivity, rely on natural grazing and browsing for 80pc of their feed, according to a study by the Addis Abeba Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association (AACCSA) and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).
The quality of the animals faces serious scrutiny once the traders bring them to market where they meet the shepherds who watch and feed their animals and the sometimes unwanted brokers. The shepherds are responsible for the wellbeing of the animals from the time the market opens in the morning until it closes late in the afternoon. When the oxen are sold, some of these boys are also responsible for getting them marked with the unique identification number of the buyer, which is issued by the Addis Abeba Abattoirs Enterprise for its regular clients, mostly butchers and restaurants.
With the brokers, the business becomes so complicated that it even has a term, muri gofer. The muri gofer system is mainly established to milk the buyer for some extra cash, but it also ends up causing the trader to lose some revenue as well.
The real price of an ox is 3,000 Br. The broker ensures that. Then he approaches a potential buyer, promising to help them buy a good animal at a good price. That price could be 4,000 Br. The extra 1,000 Br thus earned is called gofer. The broker extends 20pc of the gofer to the trader, and this is called muri. The first loss to the trader is that he himself could have sold the animal for 4,000 Br.
Some of the brokers go out of their way to force the buyers to make the purchase at the prices they have indicated.
"You come with enough money to buy a chicken and you want to get an ox for it," they sometimes say.
The harassment of buyers by brokers, forcing buyers to go to the Kera or Sheger markets, led to a meeting on Wednesday between the traders and Yeka District officials. The officials also met with the brokers the following day.
Usually, the one who gets cheated is the one who does not have experience with the cattle market. When Ermias Tsega, from Ato Digafe Gebremeskel Memorial Tej House and Butchers Store bought one big ox from Yemane for 7,000 Br, he did not have to negotiate. He has been buying from him for three years, and Yemane tells him only the going price.
"We have established trust," he said. "We deal with each other truthfully."
Between the animal's point of origin and the final buyer, the owner of the butcher's store, the restaurant, or the individual buyer, there are several people making a living, thereof. In the Kera area, for example, several households earn their main revenue from food and drinks sold to those in the cattle business. There are also many who survive by washing the clothes of the traders and brokers, and their clothes get dirty so very easily.
The cost of preparing an ox for market is so expensive that everybody in the process makes less money, according to Yemane. Farmers spend up to 3,000 Br to fatten an ox, according to him. The oxen used for farming, which are much stronger than those raised for slaughter, are so expensive (up to 9,000 Br, according to Yemane) that the market price is pushed upward. Sometimes, it can take such a very long time (a year for example) to sell an ox, that, with costs going up every day, it eventually ends up being sold at a loss that could amount to thousands of Birr.
Part of the loss is recouped by bigger profits made from inexperienced buyers. Most who have been in the business claim, however, to know the quality of an ox just by looking at it. Dhaba Tola, who spent close to 50,000 Br for 12 cattle for his store in Sebeta, even knows where an ox is from just by looking at it, he goes so far as to claim. With such buyers, price negotiations are short. They just go around picking their choice of the animals.
Ten thousand Birr may no longer be such a large working capital. Nonetheless, Dhaba will sell all of the meat from the 12 cattle by Saturday, he says. Most of it will go to his clients in Addis Abeba. On bigger holidays, marketwise, such as Meskel, Easter, and the end of the short Filseta fasting season, some butchers buy as much as 50 head of cattle, according to Dhaba.
Now the end of the Muslim fasting season of Ramadan and the Ethiopian New Year offer a double opportunity for the sale of cattle. In a little over two weeks, Meskel will come, also promising a big market. While most cattle traders keep themselves busy there, Haile, the trader who went into cattle business 13 years ago, will also be thinking about selling off 1,000ql of maize that he has grown in Assosa with other partners.