When we talk about animal welfare in Africa, we often focus on issues like the illegal poaching of rhino and elephant tusks or hunting of endangered lions and cheetahs. But in recent years, the expansion of factory farming in many African countries has become a new cause for concern.
While factory farming is most prevalent in the Global North, it is gaining traction in Africa, and animals are paying the price. Since the 1990s, animal slaughter in Africa has seen a dramatic increase. Now, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) projects that beef consumption in Africa will grow by nearly 200 percent between 2015 and 2050, while poultry consumption will increase by 211 percent and pork by 200 percent.
As meat consumption continues to rise, factory farming is emerging as an important industry to help meet the growing demand, and political support for factory farming is strong in most African countries. The practice is considered a positive economic force by the general public and often goes unchallenged, despite its drawbacks.
Factory farming is an intensive livestock production system that maximizes output while minimizing cost. This approach usually disregards consequences to the environment, workers, and especially animal well-being. Factory farming negates the sentience of animals and commercializes them as products for profit. This negation of animal sentience is made apparent by factory farming processes that disrupt animals’ natural life cycles and facilitate abuse. For example, animals are often confined in small spaces where they cannot stand or move around, beaks or tails are removed, and ammonia that accumulates from waste often irritates the eyes and lungs of farmed animals.
A force to be reckoned with
Economic factors play an important role in the rapid expansion of the factory farming industry in Africa. “As the population grows… we have to think of ways to increase the food supply and deal with food insecurity issues,” said Judy Muriithi, Kenyan lawyer, advocate and founder of Lawyers for Animal Protection in Africa. “For some Africans, factory farming makes a lot of sense.”
The population of Africa is projected to double by 2050, which will put unprecedented pressure on already strained food supplies. The economic hardships of COVID-19 and political conflict and environmental issues, such as water scarcity, deforestation, and soil degradation, have contributed to food crises in many African countries already. In Ethiopia, over 600,000 people living in the Tigray region face food insecurity after desert locusts, flooding, and political conflict devastated their crops. Under such pressures, Ethiopia continues to lead Africa in the expansion of factory farming practices as an attempt to meet the needs of its population.
Factory farming practices are also becoming more common in peri-urban areas, or areas within and around cities where resources are diverted to satisfy the needs of urban populations. Tony Gerrans, Executive Director Africa Humane Society International, notes that the development of peri-urban areas involves “moving animals from rural areas to peri-urban areas close to markets.”
For proponents of factory farming, bringing livestock closer to urban areas is beneficial because it lowers transportation costs. However, these small and dense facilities are a prime place for animal abuse. Due to the limited land availability in peri-urban areas, animals are packed into dense confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to minimize cost. These facilities are breeding grounds for diseases and injuries as frustrated animals may hurt themselves or each other.
As factory farming becomes more common, it also erases the diverse livestock traditions throughout Africa. These traditions may not be perfect in terms of animal welfare, but many communities see animals as an important part of their community and have a higher respect for their well-being in comparison to factory farming.
Maasai people of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania have a 400-year-old pastoral tradition of cattle herding. Unlike factory farming practices, the individual health and well-being of each cow is of great importance to the owners. Cattle served as the main form of wealth among the Maasai, and their well-being was prioritized as men actively protected them against lions and cheetahs. Maasai men are given cattle from a young age to raise and often develop close relationships with their animals as their primary occupation.
Due to the challenges of climate change and a transforming economy, many Maasai people can’t continue their pastoral traditions. The traditional practices of the Maasai and many other livestock traditions throughout Africa are declining, as industrial practices become commonplace.
The fight against factory farming
In light of the growth of factory farming, animal rights advocates throughout Africa are fighting for the protection of animal well-being. Organizations such as the African Network for Animal Welfare, Lawyers for Animal Protection Africa, and International Fund for Africa are on the front lines of the fight against factory farming. But because public support for factory farming remains strong, animal advocates and organizations often find it difficult to raise awareness and push for policy change.
Their goal, much like that of animal advocates around the globe, is to create an accessible and popular message to counter factory farming propaganda. But Muriithi has found that focusing on the well-being and sentience of animals can be a difficult task when developing advocacy strategies. She explains that most arguments for factory farming are based on economic issues that many Africans are aware of. Therefore, appealing to them on an economic basis has been much more helpful.
Furthermore, countering factory farming from an environmental perspective is perhaps easier than advocating for animal welfare. The strategy is visible in Ethiopia, where the government has recently committed to decreasing intensified cattle farming due to environmental effects. This bill has its limitations, as it proposes expanding the poultry sector as an economically viable alternative with less environmental impact. Still, it marks a unique step in environmental policy that challenges conventional livestock practices.
Many advocates remain committed to the cause for animal welfare but have to find creative ways to achieve this goal. They know better than anyone that their approach to animal welfare must be responsive to Africa’s diverse cultures. Simply put, there is no one size fits all solution to animal advocacy in Africa. Lynné Vigeland, master’s student at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa studying sociology and biodiversity, emphasizes this point.
“Moving forward, it is essential to consult the people for country-specific laws,” she said. “This ensures recognition of their attitudes towards the role of animals in those societies and to create the policies to regulate and affirm the welfare of the animals.”
Rising to the challenge
Politicians, development organizations, and industrial livestock business leaders advocate for the growth of factory farming in Africa under the guise of economic growth, with little consideration for the environment, human health, and animal well-being. But activists have risen to the challenge and are working against the grain in advocating for animal welfare. This work is surely not easy, as the narrative of factory farming’s economic advantages often goes unchecked.
These activists are developing messaging that appeals to their community and is responsive to their culture. For example, the Kenyan Livestock Bill (National Assembly Bill No. 16 of 2021) “has empowered the county governments to come up with policies that promote animal welfare,” said Muriithi. But even with the positive parts of the bill, advocates still fight an uphill battle against other provisions in the same bill that could support the expansion of the livestock industry.
The Kenyan Livestock Bill is a step toward a future where animals can thrive as an important and respected part of communities. Meanwhile, in Kenya and across the African continent, Muriithi and other advocates continue to develop culturally responsive strategies to challenge factory farming and promote animal welfare.
Kwolanne is a student at Columbia College studying History, and she is passionate about writing, international politics, and sustainable development. She’s worked at Columbia University's Climate School, Brighter Green, and the United Nations where she integrates her knowledge of policy, writing, and advocacy. Read more about her work and writing.