By Geoffrey Kamadi                             

The mushrooming donkey abattoirs all over the country are slowly but surely ruining rural economies more than many realize, new evidence now suggests. This is a far cry from what these slaughterhouses were intended for in the first place.

They were meant to create jobs as their main objective. However, it just so happens that the well publicized rampant donkey theft in parts of the country is depriving income for a growing number of individuals.

Apparently, stolen donkeys have since become a lucrative source of easy and quick cash for thieves, given the rapidity with which this emerging enterprise is expanding.

A demand for donkey skin from China is allegedly behind the pervasive theft of these work animals. And the effects are only now beginning to manifest themselves in the shape of lost income.

Animal welfare groups confirm that donkeys from southern Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, find their way to Goldox Kenya Limited, an abattoir (constructed with Chinese money) in Naivasha.

These countries banned the trade given the sanitation issues brought about by challenges of carcass disposal. What this means is that Kenya has become a de facto market for illicit trade in smuggled animals from her neighbours.

But it is not just the issue of donkey theft that is a concern, but that “some owners will be persuaded to sell their animals for quick cash, thereby undermining livelihoods,” offers Titus Simiyu, the Director of Environment at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Machakos County.

The County is the latest to play host to the newest donkey slaughterhouse in the country. The new Fuhai Slaughterhouse in Machakos County, brings the total slaughterhouses count to four, the first having been established in 2013.

Simiyu says that the abattoir fulfilled all the necessary environmental regulatory requirements prior to construction.  The new abattoir is the only such facility in the whole of Eastern Kenya, which will source its raw materials from as far as Garissa all the way to Lamu.

Charles Maina a resident of Guest Inn area in Naivasha began his water vending business in 2009 in Naivasha, a parched region of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley – an hour’s drive from Nairobi, the country’s capital.

He started out by purchasing a donkey, having been advanced a loan of KSH 30,000 ($300) by the Small and Microenterprise Programme (SMEP) – a microfinance lending institution. He added two, 210-litre drums and a cart to kick-off his new money-making venture.

“I have been working with donkeys ever since,” says the 38-year old. Prior to settling down on this business, Maina earned a living as a casual construction worker, making KSH 200 ($2) a day, whenever he was lucky to find work.

However, his daily wages improved substantially, after switching to peddling water, which saw him take home a steady income of KSH800 ($8) daily.  “The business has enabled my two children go to school, one of whom is in the second year of high school and the other is only now completing her primary education,” he says.

In addition, Maina managed to open a hair salon business for his wife courtesy of his new occupation. She used to work as a washerwoman in the town.

However, things began taking a bad turn when all of a sudden, donkeys started disappearing, the cause of which remained a mystery to Maina and many of his colleagues.  He would fall victim to the same vice in December 2016, when three of his donkeys vanished, handicapping his income generating capabilities. However, I did not give up on the water business,” he says.

He therefore hired donkeys from a friend, in order to continue making a living and support his family. But this came at a cost. He would part with KSH 200 every day, the amount charged for hiring the two donkeys.

On the other hand his operations became limited to a large extent, given that this arrangement came with pre-conditions. For example, the animals would be returned to the owner by noon having been engaged since 6am. He therefore could only eke out an income for half a day, unlike before.

Joel Kimemia’s story reads much like Maina’s. And just like him, he used to sell water in Naivasha, using a cart drawn by a team of donkeys. His four donkeys were stolen, only to find their remains dumped in the bushes.

“I have since suspended the water vending business on a full time basis, until such a time when the security for my animals can be guaranteed,” he affirms. Kimemia has now set himself up as a bodaboda (motorcycle) taxi operator. But the business is not as promising as his previous undertaking. “It is not easy to make money with a motorcycle compared to a donkey,” he laments.

He used to make KSH 1,000 ($10) selling water with the help of his donkeys but now, he struggles to take home KSH 600 at the end of the day. Besides, he maintains that there are added costs that come with running a motorcycle taxi such as license, insurance and maintenance fees.  However, these overheads are non-existent when it comes to donkeys.

One of the main contributing factors to the widespread of donkey theft is that these animals are never sheltered. They are not valued like other livestock, so they are made to sleep in the open outside, weather conditions notwithstanding.

This is something that Philip Alili, the chief of Kyoto area in Naivasha has been keen on addressing. “We are now sensitizing the community on the need to take good care of their donkeys,” he says. With the help of such groups as Farming Systems Kenya, the community is sensitized on good animal care practices. And building shelters for these animals is central to this goal.

“In addition, we are instructing owners to tether their donkeys something which they never used to doing,” says Alili. He adds that, if found wandering about, these donkeys are impounded and taken to the chief’s compound until their owners come for them. In the same vain, both Maina and Kimemia are seeking funds through the Naivasha Tunza Punda Youth Group, to put up sheds for their donkeys.

The population of donkeys in Kenya remains unknown. The numbers were estimated at 1.9 million in 2009, according to Samuel Theuri, the Innovation and Advocacy Coordinator at Brooke East Africa, which is an animal welfare charity organization.

As far as he is concerned, approximately 700 donkeys are lost every day to theft in the country. “And given that the reproduction rate is only 100 a day, this is creating a crisis of imminent shortage of an animal that is critical to the rural economy,” he notes. According to Tunza Punda animal welfare group, a donkey contributes 200 Kenya shillings ($2) per day, for six days a week to the rural economy.

But even this modest income is now being eroded, thereby entrenching or exacerbating poverty in the process, among populations that are usually marginalized and rank lower in many development indices.

This can only undermine efforts to attain many of the Social Development Goals (SDGs), beginning with SDG1 of ending poverty.

When sold, the animal can fetch up to KSH 47,000 ($470) in China and about KSH 12,000 ($120) in Kenya. Even though some people may be opposed to the growing number of donkey abattoirs in the country, not everybody shares these sentiments.

Take the 83 year-old David Muthoka for instance, who runs a filling station in Kithyoko, Machakos County. He donated 10 acres of his land to be used for the construction of the Fuhai Slaughterhouse, the new donkey abattoir in the country, set to open its doors for business soon.

Following several meetings with the owners, Muthoka maintains that the community was assured that raw materials will not necessarily be sourced in the area. “So, any fears that their donkeys will be targeted should be put to rest,” he says.

This view is mirrored by the slaughterhouse manager who also doubles up as a Chinese translator, who identifies himself only as Patrick. “Our raw materials will not be coming from Kithyoko simply because there are no donkeys here,” he states, adding that they will be receiving from as far as Somalia and Ethiopia. The plant is set to employ 400 individuals.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.