From Botswana with love for Ankole cattle. Let’s move

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

What you need to know:

There is a possibility for Uganda, if it can get its house in order, to sell Ankole cattle to a country and region is fascinated by it.

Last week we were in the Botswana capital Gaborone to “kusaka” as President Yoweri Museveni likes to put it.

A Kampala accustomed to the reality-reminding jolt of its potholes, would get disoriented with Gaborone’s streets. I went searching for potholes in the city and the suburbs, and there were none. It got me thinking that the minister who said Uganda’s potholes could be a tourist attraction, might have had a point. A pothole sales office in Gaborone could bring our republic good fortunes. I didn’t mention the tourist bucket-list-worthy pothole tours to the Batswana, but I hope the relevant authorities will seize the opportunity.

The possibility which came up, and I was glad to speak about it without fear of embarrassment, was the Ankole cow. The eyes of the Batswana who asked me about the cows lit up. However, the Ankole cows that they know are not the ones in Uganda, but those owned by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and raised at his Ntaba Nyoni farm. They make big news whenever Ramaphosa takes them to auction, with one bull selling for the mouth-watering equivalent of US$ 36,800 two years ago.

I explained that Ramaphosa’s cows had come from the farm of the Big Man, President Yoweri Museveni and said, without any hard data, that they had pedigree. They were happy with that, but the Ankole cattle didn’t travel in a straight line from the Kaguta farm to Ramaphosa’s, as many will know.

When Ramaphosa visited Museveni’s farm, he fell in love with the cows. However, he couldn’t import Museveni’s cows directly, because the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries judged that Uganda had lousy disease control measures. Ramaphosa therefore bought 43 Ankole cows from Museveni and shipped them to Ol Pejeta in Kenya, where there is an embryo quarantine station. The cows were artificially inseminated, and the embryos cleaned, then sent to South Africa. There they were transferred to cows. The cows quarantined for two months for safety. Ramaphosa has close to 200 Ankole breeding cows on his farms, and easily owns the world’s most famous Ankole cattle herd. There is a problem there, but today is not a day for quarrelling.

So why are the Batswana keen on Ankole cows? Because they are cattle people. Botswana is one of the leading producers of beef in Africa and the fifth-largest exporter of beef globally. The diamond powerhouse has the distinction of having more cattle (3 million), than people  (2.6 million).

There are social and economic developments that shrewd Ankole cattle owners might cash in on. There is a sharp rise of the city elite setting up farms, or moving to live on farms outside the capital, and then they drive into the city every day to work.

There is a possibility for Uganda, if it can get its house in order, to sell Ankole cattle to a country and region is fascinated by it. It is not just excitement about the elegance of the horns. As the wonderful British musician Joe Cocker (may his soul rest in peace) declared, Ankole cattle have easily the world’s best naturally lean beef.

Cows have also created an unusual industry in Botswana. As the city expands in a German-like spread, the suburbs and commercial buildings are getting near areas that have farms with sheep and cattle.

The Batswana are touchy about road accidents, so they have “cattle patrols” (call them cow chasers) who drive around looking for cattle that might cross a road and cause accidents, and chasing them away. The cow chasing tenders are lucrative, going for as much as US$5 million!

One of Africa’s least corrupt countries, generally well-governed, with smart stewardship of its diamond wealth, and with the longest continuous multiparty system and elections in Africa (although the ruling Botswana Democratic Party has been in power since independence), Botswana is a remarkably unthreatening place.

Until about last year, bullion vans criss-crossed the vast country without any guards. The South Africans found out, organised guns, recruited some local allies, and started holding them up. Only then did the state respond with armed guards.

The one that threw me off my game completely, was at the President’s Office. The gate to Mokgweetsi Masisi’s office is open, so you can wander or drive in from the street without hindrance. It is not guarded. When we arrived, we were met and headed straight in for a meeting. There was no guard, let alone an armed one, at the entrance.

Not too long ago, a small grenade was spotted in an area of Gaborone. The police, bomb squad, military, intelligence services all descended on the location – as did a large part of the population of the city, driven by curiosity. It was the biggest threat the city had faced in over 30 years! Africa is not a country, after all.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.