Academic journal article Africa

The Transfer of Trust: Ethnicities as Economic Institutions in the Livestock Trade in West and East Africa

Academic journal article Africa

The Transfer of Trust: Ethnicities as Economic Institutions in the Livestock Trade in West and East Africa

Article excerpt


This article explores the role of ethnic identity in the framework of the livestock trade in West and East Africa. It argues that ethnic identity was used as an instrument to build trust relationships that were vital to the development of pre-colonial livestock trade networks. With the onset of colonial rule, alternative marketing channels developed, none of which proved to be capable of providing reliable and low transaction cost services to both livestock producer and consumer. Nevertheless, the ethnic trade monopolies were threatened by the advent of formal colonial marketing institutions and the progressive 'opening up' of the market. This situation remained basically unchanged during the post-colonial era and with recent livestock and meat trade liberalisations. The evidence from Benin and Kenya demonstrates, however, that ethnic identity continues to determine the organisation of the livestock trade, albeit in a different way. The transfer of trust remains crucial to minimise transaction costs in a market that is characterised by a mobile commodity, long distances, and delayed payment in the absence of adequate financial institutions. In addition, it is argued that the specificity of the market environment equally facilitates the use of ethnicity for commercial purposes such as the delimitation of market niches.


Compared to other agricultural product markets (such as grains or horticultural markets), studies on the livestock trade and traders in Africa have typically been few.

In West Africa, attention paid to livestock trade increased following the severe droughts of the early 1970s and mid-1980s (see Josserand and Sullivan 1979; Cook 1991; Holtzman and Kulibaba 1992). The rationale of these studies was primarily developmental. It was assumed that a more 'efficient' organisation of regional livestock trade would improve the incomes of pastoralists and, at the same rime, assure the food security of mainly urban consumers while enhancing regional economic integration. A supplementary objective was to protect the environment by an increased herd off-take and a reduced pressure on grazing resources. The studies carried out to underpin these new development strategies focused primarily on the market structure and on economic parameters and policies, and were much less concerned with the actors in the livestock trade, be they traders or producers.

In East Africa, the persistent role of government-dominated marketing agencies did little to stimulate the study of the livestock trade system. Attention to the latter had invariably been linked to pastoral development projects, which were little more than mere livestock production projects, geared towards the meat market (Goldschmidt 1981). Thus, the few policy studies that were undertaken not surprisingly focused on livestock, and on the meat trade linking production areas to meat consumers. Only much later was a more integrated approach to pastoral development and range management advocated, in which context livestock markets were considered useful buffet mechanisms for local producers when natural conditions dictated de-stocking of animals (see Scoones 1995; Zaal 1998).

More recently, the role of traders has received increasing attention in the renewed study of African trade in general and that of livestock trade in particular (see Gregoire and Labazee 1993; Ensminger 1996; Quarles van Ufford 1999; Boutrais 2001). In their analysis of various African trade sectors, these so-called actor-oriented studies emphasise the importance of examining traders' strategies, their mode of organisation and background, when understanding the development of trade patterns and the changes in markets.

The present article constitutes a further attempt to understand the mode of organisation and background of traders who operate in African livestock markets. It will highlight in particular the role of ethnicity, an issue that bas been widely debated in African studies, and seek to contribute to the debate that revolves around the relationship between social institutions and the economy. …

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