Have You Herd? Meat Naturally Brings Sustainable Profits to South African Cattle Farmers

Southern Africa is home to thousands of species, including prides of lions and roaming elephants. But, in a region over 90 percent rangelands — including grasslands and savannahs — buffalo, cattle and other grazing animals are exceptionally important. “You need grazing,” explains Sarah Frazee, head of the Africa Sustainable Production program at Conservation International and CEO of Conservation South Africa (CSA). “The habitat in African rangelands has coevolved with the giant grazing herds — they depend on each other for a balanced ecosystem.” For example, large animals trample apart the “hard cap” that forms on dry soil, making it easier for seeds to grow and water to be absorbed.

Maintaining this balance is the idea behind CSA’s Meat Naturally program, which incentivizes sustainable cattle farming that benefits both the land and local farmers. Unsustainable farming practices risk damaging farmers’ land and profits. “When grazing lands are so degraded that very little nutritional grass actually grows, farmers cannot get their cattle to market grade [meat quality],” says Sarah. And when rural farmers have to walk their cattle to faraway markets, the stress of the journey makes for even poorer meat quality that sells for very little.

Overgrazed land isn’t the only problem. Feedlots — a style of animal farming in which livestock are fattened up while confined in a building rather than grazing freely — causes tremendous harm to both the environment and small farmers’ livelihoods. “Fifty percent of South Africa’s livestock is raised on communal lands, but only five percent of the market meat is from there,” says Sarah. “The rest primarily comes from government or private feedlots, and that needs to change.”

Meat Naturally encourages farmers to adopt sustainable practices that help revitalize grazing lands by using a powerful incentive: bringing mobile auctions to remote and rural communities. These auctions bring buyers directly to farmers, meaning less-stressed, higher-quality cattle that sell and negotiate for higher prices. Meat Naturally then takes a commission on these sales amounts, allowing them to bring their auctions to still more communities.

“If a farming community wants to adopt just a few sustainable farming practices — let’s say clearing an intrusive or alien plant species from part of their land — we give them a deal by only taking four percent commission,” Sarah explains of the incentive system. “If they implement rotational grazing and non-lethal predator management practices…we only charge two percent. Either way, it’s the farming community’s choice. It’s a fair deal.” 

Meat Naturally currently works with NGO partners who report on the implementation and has future plans to use a web-based app, Pasture Map, to monitor compliance remotely.

Sarah, one of the few women in free-range cattle production in South Africa, has been running Meat Naturally since 2015. “Women in the red-meat value chain are few and far between,” she says with a laugh. “While it’s a challenge in some ways, I also feel like I’ve been able to fly under the radar in this very competitive market — mostly because no one sees me as a threat.”

Meat Naturally encourages farmers to adopt sustainable practices that help revitalize grazing lands by bringing mobile auctions to remote and rural communities.

Meat Naturally is also in the process of developing a mobile abattoir — a building for butchering animals — to “bring the market directly to remote farming communities.” As the first mobile slaughterhouse used in South Africa, they’ve had to experiment. Dirt roads and height restrictions created design constraints, such as needing four-wheel-drive. But early results have been promising. In a second trial they butchered 12 animals, generating $10,000 for a farming community along the border of Kruger National Park. The model “brings the market directly to farmers,” says Sarah, “[which] means less stress for the animals, better quality meat, and more income for the farmers.”

Overall, their results have been nothing short of astounding. In May 2018, Meat Naturally’s livestock sales totaled over $1 million. “We will be profitable for the first time this year,” Sarah explains. “A full year ahead of when we thought.”

The market has grown as well — two buyers came to their first mobile auctions; now they often have seven attend. Its first year, Meat Naturally helped farmers earn $40,000; since 2016, it’s brought in $1.4 million. Three auctions so far in 2018 have generated over $100,000 each for farming communities which previously depended on income from grants.

“We are talking about communities and areas with no stable electricity or running water,” says Sarah. “But these farmers are making amazing amounts of money.” She recalls that the last time she visited a community where Meat Naturally worked, the children she saw were now in bright, new school uniforms.

Securing Water For Food, says Sarah, has “been instrumental in helping us scale. SWFF helped develop the mobile auction infrastructure and find consultants to work with us in pioneering the new technologies. We wouldn’t have been able to afford a lot of exploration and R&D, like the mobile abattoir, without it.” Meat Naturally also recently won a Henry Arnhold Fellows award and plans to expand into five countries in 2019, where the mobile abattoirs could be a game-changer.

Sarah still can’t believe her luck. “I ask myself all the time, ‘I was a vegetarian for 18 years — how did I end up slaughtering cows for a living?!’ And the reason is that this work solves so many problems in South Africa, from poverty alleviation to restoring the balance to this ecology. It’s a privilege to be a part of this.”