University Of Fort Hare Nguni Project


University Of Fort Hare Nguni Project, The University of Fort Hare’s Nguni Cattle Project, launched in 2003, is successfully managing the resurgence of the Nguni cattle breed in its traditional home of the former Ciskei and Transkei. Mike Burgess reports on how this acclaimed development initiative has brought the Nguni back to its traditional roots to uplift poor rural communities.

During the mid-1850s, the indigenous Nguni cattle of the Eastern Cape were decimated by two cataclysmic events. First, in the early 1850s, a bovine lung disease – introduced by imported northern European bulls in the Cape Colony – spread like wildfire across the frontier regions. Second, a young Xhosa prophetess, Nongqawuse, captured the imagination of the paramount chief of the Xhosa by demanding the sacrificial slaughter of all cattle to initiate a resurrection of all ancestors and their cattle to drive the British and settlers into the sea. With many cattle already dying from lung sickness, they seemed cursed anyway, and so began the great cattle- killing of the 1850s which came close to wiping out the herds of the Cape, and specifically of the regions that would later become the homelands of the Ciskei and Transkei.

The adaptive skills, honed by natural selection, have however allowed them not only to survive the 1850s but many more decades of challenges, to be transformed today into a recognised breed – represented in the Eastern Cape by the Cape Nguni Club. Deeply respected for its ability to withstand natural threats such as periodic droughts and marginal grazing, and with a resistance specifically to tick-borne diseases, the Nguni thrives on minimum management inputs.

During the early 1990s, the recognition of the Nguni’s unique economic value first drew the attention of Professor Jan Raats (dean of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture at the University of Fort Hare) to the as a possible tool to ensure sustainable agricultural development amongst communal farmers around the university in Alice in the former Ciskei.

In 1992 he approached the Cape Club with the idea of a link between commercial and communal farmers whereby registered nucleus herds would be introduced to communal areas with the aim to upgrade existing com munal herds to registered Nguni herds, thereby allowing communal farmers to become bona fide Nguni breeders. “The organisation was interested from the very beginning,” says Prof Raats, but the scale of the project he was envisaging demanded significant financial backing, so he began to source funding. “I couldn’t give away the idea for a number of years,” he admits, but in 1994 a pilot project was eventually launched – with Norwegian funding – after which interest in the project waned.

However, by the late 1990s, the Faculty of Science and Agriculture at the University of Fort Hare began to involve itself in surrounding communities to ensure a visible and lasting agricultural impact. This intimate involvement between the faculty and the surrounding communities slowly gave birth to a multi-pronged rural development initiative known as Agripark under which the Nguni Cattle Project today falls, explains Nkosi Mzileni, livestock superintendent of Agripark and the University of Fort Hare Research Farm.

Within this environment, Prof Raats was significantly more successful in accessing funding, and today the Nguni Cattle Project – launched in 2003 with the first nucleus herds being introduced in 2004 – is worth over R60 million, funded by the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the Industrial Development Corporation, Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture as well as a private British donor, Alan Fleming.


Forty-three communities across the Eastern Cape are currently involved, and the project’s success has drawn the attention of almost all the country’s provincial departments of agriculture, which have adopted the ideas and principles of the project in their specific rural development drives. Adding even more depth to the project, the Kellogg Foundation also recently donated funds for research into the marketability of Nguni beef with a special emphasis on meat yield and its quality on natural grazing, including tenderness, flavour, colour and health benefits, explains Fort Hare University agricultural researcher Voster Muchenje.

Unique principles and goals The Nguni Cattle Project is based on a self-generating model borrowed from the post-Second World War development initiative known as the International Heifer Project. Prof Raats explains that faced with extreme poverty after the war, pregnant heifers were donated to households in Europe on the basis that they in turn were expected to donate their first calf to another household. The university – acting as the driver of the project – therefore donates 10 registered pregnant heifers and two bulls – sourced from the Eastern Cape Nguni Club – to each community which in turn will be expected to pass on the same number of Ngunis to another community after five years.

In fact the community, selected by the Department of Agriculture, enters into a contractual agreement with the university binding it to recognised management systems that will allow for Nguni offspring to qualify for registration to the breed.

Communal farmers are organised into community trusts and are regularly visited by members of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture at the University of Fort Hare and mentors from the Eastern Cape Nguni Club to support them in the transformation of their herds to registered Nguni herds.

Prof Raats says the Eastern Cape Nguni Club has been invaluable in the process, and adds that right from the beginning it wanted the project to work. Such support, also focusing on training young appointed livestock managers in the community to become Nguni breed inspectors, a formal agreement stipulating communal farmer obligations, and the existence of established local knowledge concerning cattle farming, “gives the project a solid grounding,” assures David Alexander, manager of Agripark.

Beneficiaries from the Ngqele community near Alice agree that the project is well supported and a success in their community. Welile Thuani says the project will transform their area: “We have almost doubled the number of Nguni-type cattle in our community in the past two years. We know these cattle – we grew up with them and know they are tough”. It is the long-term potential of the project that is truly fascinating, says Prof Raats, explaining that the approximately two million cattle in the former homelands of the Eastern Cape represent an enormous resource. “If we can just replace a fraction of these cattle through the Nguni Cattle Project we would have already achieved enough,” he says.

The current goal is focused on upgrading 10% of all cattle in target communities to pure Nguni by 2010, and ultimately the idea is geared towards creating niche markets for lean grass-fed Nguni beef nationally and internationally. Negotiations are currently under way with a leading supermarket chain to market Nguni beef from targeted communities in the Eastern Cape. Prof Raats says, “Imagine we can get the top restaurants in the world selling Nguni beef.
We could be creating an asset with significant added value and enable small-scale farmers to benefit from at least 50% of the added value. ” There are further plans to market Nguni hides as luxury items, and negotiations have been undertaken with Daimler-Chrysler, which has shown an interest in using Nguni hides in export Mercedes vehicles. Contact Prof Jan Raats on 082 200 4709 and Nkosi Mzileni on 082 200 9288. |fw

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