The boot is on the other foot for the donkey now! And truly speaking, the donkey’s status has undergone an overnight transformation — from that lowly-rated animal associated with poverty to the new broom on the communal farm where it is now valuable draught power, all thanks to droughts and diseases that have killed cattle.
Unlike cattle that have for centuries been considered animals of high status, the donkey has been associated with poverty and second-best yet in many African and some Caribbean countries they have an important, though often underestimated, role in rural development.
There are millions of them across the world with estimates indicating that Africa alone has plus or minus 12 million of them, which translates into 30 percent of the global donkey population.
Unlike cattle, donkeys are low-cost maintenance animals that are well adapted to semi-arid ecosystems and are even found in most African countries that are situated on the borders of deserts, for example, Botswana.
Of course keeping the donkey does not come with other bountiful fringe benefits like those associated with cattle, but the good thing about the animal is that with proper care they can live to over 27 years, which cattle can , hardly do.
Donkeys are not heavy feeders like cattle and can survive even on scanty grass pastures and minimal water plus a bit of crop residues here and there.
Traditionally, donkeys have been used as transport animals; they have been used for riding, packing and pulling carts.
In many outlying rural communities, donkeys have been widely used for ferrying the bucket of maize to the grinding mill while the person assigned to do the task has in some cases taken advantage of the animal’s tame nature to squeeze a ride on its back too.
Donkeys naturally have great patience, and are willing to wait for long periods for loads.
They are also highly dependable, and this allows them to travel with minimal supervision between places they know well and unlike oxen, they can walk or trot quite quickly, and this is a distinct advantage when travelling to and from the market.
The maximum load a donkey can carry is surprisingly great for its size although its ability to draw agricultural implements is somehow limited due to light weight size and nature.
Nevertheless,donkeys are increasingly being used to work with cultivators and small ploughs in light soils and are known for their high levels of endurance and working for long hours.
For heavier work, donkeys can be harnessed in pairs or in larger teams.
In Botswana, for instance, up to eight donkeys may be hitched to one large plough while here in Zimbabwe the highest number I have chanced to see was six. And they can get the job done.
In Botswana there are even suggestions that some people eat donkey meat, which almost puts them on the same level with cattle in terms of being utility animals that provide people with an array of functions.
Beef from cattle is a source of protein for people while the dung is also used as organic manure in crop production, which is not the case with donkeys of course.
On the other hand, cattle are used to fund the occasional contingency, which is not the case with donkeys whose demand has until recently been at the lowest.
But with climate change challenges evidently continuing unabated, donkeys look set to become high-value, specialised work animals that many communal farmers would love to keep.
Small-scale communal farmers generally prefer multi-purpose work animals (oxen and draft cows) or low-cost, specialised work animals, notably donkeys.
In Mhondoro communal lands, for instance, farmers are replacing the cattle they lost to tick-borne diseases with donkeys as they seek to bolster their chances of producing enough food crops both for consumption and for the market.
And the donkey population is growing in the constituency with source markets reportedly even quoting their prices in US dollars in a take-or-leave deal.
In many African societies, cattle are seen as wealth and status symbols, and men traditionally control them.
In such circumstances, donkeys may prove ideal beast of burden for use by women and children, since they are easily managed and few rules inhibit their ownership or use.
Farmers also argue that donkeys are more appropriate than oxen as they are affordable, very easy to train and look after.
Moreover, as they are not eaten, donkeys are not susceptible to be stolen for meat, and so can be allowed to roam freely in areas where oxen would need to be guarded.
Agricultural production, as well as product marketing can be greatly stimulated through the use of donkey transport. When only human power is available, animal manures and crop residues are often poorly utilised.
With the use of carts or donkey panniers, manure can be easily transported to the field, and residues collected for storage.
This cycle has the potential for positive feedback: manure application may raise yields, and the stored residues improve draft animal nutrition, facilitating more timely or more extensive land preparation and further yield increases.
It seems the time has finally come for the donkey’s true worth to be recognised and for it to be accorded a more important role in agricultural development.
Although donkeys have since time immemorial been known to provide valuable work and have also proved to be capable of thriving with minimal grazing and water, little scientific research seems to have been carried out on them,x especially in Zimbabwe.
The reality on the ground is that donkeys are becoming a part of the country’s food security matrix, as many farmers that lost cattle are now turning to them for draught power while they try to rebuild their cattle herds on the sidelines.
This makes it crucial for people to try and enhance their understanding of donkeys and promote improved systems of utilisation and greater attention to the care and health of working donkeys.