The annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca is a time for celebration, not least among Somalia’s livestock herders and traders who export millions of livestock to feed pilgrims.
This year, COVID-19 restrictions mean the hajj is a small, largely Saudi affair, and Somalia’s economy is suffering.
“Business is bad,” said Yahye Hassan, who works in Mogadishu’s largest livestock market where the pandemic has suppressed trade.
“The effect of coronavirus is apparent,” Hassan said. “The Arab countries are not in need of animals from Somalia, and the nomadic people who would bring the livestock to town for trading are reluctant due to the fear of infection.”
“There is a major decrease in demand,” said Nur Hassan, another Mogadishu-based livestock trader, who said the shortage of domestic and foreign buyers was catastrophic, while supply had also seen a dip as herders stay away.
The hajj, which began last week, is mandatory for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to undertake at least once in their lifetime and involves pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca and its Grand Mosque.
Saudi authorities this year have restricted the hajj to those already inside the country — fewer than 10,000 domestic pilgrims are expected, compared with the 2 million mostly foreign visitors who attended last year — effectively canceling the annual ceremony for most.
Saudi demand accounts for nearly two-thirds of Somalia’s annual livestock exports, according to the World Bank, which reports that in 2015 more than 5 million sheep, goats, camels and cattle were shipped northwards from Somalian ports through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.
Exports are predicted to be sliced in half this year, primarily due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“The hajj cancelation has massive implications on the lives and livelihoods of the Somalian population,” said Ahmed Khalif, Somalia country director at the Action Against Hunger charity, adding that livestock accounts for about 60 percent of household income in the largely rural country.
“It is a blow to the Somalian pastoralist households particularly, who heavily survive on livestock exports to Saudi,” Khalif said.
Up to three-quarters of Somalia’s export earnings come from livestock, making the foreign sale of animals a crucial lifeline for Somalia’s economy, Khalif added.
The annual hajj is normally a reliable boom time for herders, but not this year.
“The livestock exports happen all through the year, but the majority — 70 percent of live animals — happen during this hajj season,” Khalif said.
The evaporation of exports has meant an oversupply in local markets, where prices have dropped dramatically, with camels going for US$500, half their usual price, Khalif said.
This might be good news for a relatively small number of well-off consumers, but it is a disaster for the majority of livestock-keepers who rely on sales to buy food, pay back debts and cover basics such as school fees.
Making matters even worse, keeping animals for longer than expected is a drain on limited resources, said Isse Muse Mohamed, a livestock trader in the port town of Eyl, who warned of “widespread effects” for the economy.
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