The Middle East is one of the leading consumer markets that relies heavily on imports due to its low agricultural capacity. Ethiopia, in close proximity, has one of the most robust agrarian economies with leading livestock numbers. Nonetheless, only countries that have adopted the halal certification framework are tapping into the Middle East’s consumer market. Ethiopia is mostly absent in this regard. The linking of unapproved animal meat as the cause of COVID-19 has deepened the acceptance of halal certified foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other products even in non-Muslim nations. Religion is leveling up to science.
In a bid to cutout the halal barrier to Ethiopia’s exports to the Middle East and beyond, a new strategy of interlinking gulf countries’ halal accreditation systems with Ethiopia’s is taking root. To this end, Ethiopian slaughterhouses are working towards certification by the new system to export halal-certified food. Halal is expected to boost Ethiopia’s exports and free it from the USD3 billion chokehold of the past decade. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores
The global meat market is among industries reshaped by COVID-19, especially as the pandemic has been traced back to animals. As a result, consumers in many countries are increasingly demanding risk-free meat and other food items.
One of the major food quality standards instrumental in addressing such health concerns is halal certification. Previously only required by Muslim countries it is now becoming commonplace even in western nations. Exporting halal-conscious products requires a halal certification system accredited by the importing nation which in turn certifies slaughterhouses, factories, and other producers from the exporting country. It follows hundreds of rigorous standards on top of normally accepted quality and safety standards.
However, not all exporting countries are keeping up with this changing trend. Especially meat exporting countries like Ethiopia, with little institutional infrastructure to implement Sharia-conscious standards, are losing out.
Gulf countries are the primary export destination for Ethiopian meat. “Owing to proximity, most slaughterhouses in Ethiopia, including us, export to Middle Eastern countries. They like Ethiopia’s organic meat for its taste,” says Nuredin Abdu, Owner and General Manager of Alnujum Slaughterhouse, located in Dukem, Oromia Region. Alnujum was established four years ago to export processed meat to the gulf.
However, Nuredin could not export as much as planned mainly because Ethiopia’s existing quality certification process is not interfaceable with the required standards of the gulf countries. The fact that Ethiopian meat was banned from the Middle East in 2002 and again in 2015 displays the continuous hindrance to entry for Ethiopian meat exporters into the lucrative region.
Although even farther-off countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and India have a massive demand for meat and are keen to import in bulk from Ethiopia, they have been unable to do so thus far because Ethiopia does not have a halal certification system. The state regulatory body only implements international quality standards like ISO certifications.
Four years ago, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had requested the Oromia Islamic Council to ensure meat exported to them follows the laws of Sharia. These countries also send overseers at different time intervals.
“All gulf countries have a halal certification requirement system,” says Nuredin. “We have only been exporting from Ethiopia thus far as they are allotting us time until such a framework is established.”
However, this changed after Eatsafe, the first Ethiopian halal certifying company started operations. Eatsafe was established in 2018 after meeting certification standards placed by the Ethiopian National Accreditation Office. After passing rigorous tests and the fulfillment of over a thousand halal certification parameters, Eatsafe was in December 2020 given the green light by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Standardization Organization—halal accreditors for the region.
Thus far, Eatsafe has certified three slaughterhouses in Ethiopia including Alnujum. There are fourteen export-standard abattoirs in Ethiopia.
“Additionally, cereal and other processed food exporters are also asking us to certify them under halal standards,” explains Binmelik Abdu, Director of Eatsafe Certification PLC. “Food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics have pig fat and other derivatives from nonhalal animals including dog, donkey, and even humans. For instance, chocolate, gelatin, and candy on supermarket shelves across Ethiopia have pig derivatives. As a food microbiologist, I have seen microorganisms in pig meat surviving even ultra-high temperatures.”
Binmelik argues top meat exporters to gulf countries like Brazil, Australia, South Africa, and others have highly benefited by adopting the halal certification system on top of basic standards. “More than half of food exports from Australia, South Africa, the UK, and Canada are halal certified. Consumers in non-Muslim countries are increasingly consuming halal-certified items due to health issues.”
Eatsafe is currently finalizing an agreement with Ethiopian Airlines to verify its in-flight catering as per halal standards. “Ethiopian Airlines could not win over gulf passengers because it doesn’t serve halal-certified foods and drinks,” says Binmelik.
Brazil, a fifteen-hour flight away, exports over 300,000 tons of meat annually to gulf countries. Ethiopia, just two and a half hours away, exports 20,000 tons annually at most.
Although the absence of halal certification is one of the reasons limiting Ethiopian meat export volumes to the Middle East, other factors are also responsible. For instance, Ethiopian slaughterhouses face a persistent challenge in sourcing animals from the domestic market.
In the previous eight months 8,667 tons of meat was exported, down by 4Pct from the previous year’s corresponding period. In terms of value, USD45 million was generated, a decline of 6.6Pct. Similarly, the export of live animals also declined from 372,476 to just 248,061 with revenues also dropping by 32.6Pct to USD26.6 million.
In the 2019/20 fiscal year, Ethiopia exported 12,659 tons of meat. From this total, 50.7Pct was exported to the UAE, followed by 44Pct to Saudi Arabia, 2.3Pct to Vietnam, and 1.76Pct to Bahrain at varying prices. On average in US Dollar terms, Saudi Arabia buys Ethiopian meat for 5.83 per kilogram whilst the UAE forks out 5.43 and Bahrain 4.85. Further afield, Vietnam pays only 2.51 for Ethiopian meat and Hong Kong outlays just 2.49.
Besides the lack of certification systems, Debele Lemma, Researcher at the Ethiopian Meat and Dairy Industry Development Institute, says the major problem is the lack of animal traceability and absence of quality and sustainable meat supplies. “Ethiopia does not even have a “disease-free livestock zone.” There are no modern ranches. Cattle bulls come to the market after ploughing for years. All this affects the quality of the meat.”
Debele also says border contraband activities have inflated live animal prices in Ethiopia. “A cattle costs around ETB10,000 on average in central markets and ETB15,000 in border areas. So, pastoralists and farmers prefer to sell to traders in neighboring countries, even if far away. As a result, meat processing companies in and around Addis Ababa are not able to secure the required quality and quantity of cattle.”
“Plus, the long animal supply chain in Ethiopia, involving up to four almost value-less brokers inflates domestic market prices to above export prices at times. This is handicapping Ethiopia’s meat exports,” explains Debele. “Brazil and Argentina dominate the Middle East meat market because they mainly manage to create a crystal-clear value chain and meat supply. They produce in bulk and quality.”
Debele acknowledges Ethiopia has a large number of livestock. “But that is just a number,” he argues. “For instance, Middle Eastern consumers usually prefer sheep meat aged nine months to three years. The sheep population at this age range is very small in Ethiopia.” EBR
9th Year • Apr 16 – May 15 2021 • No. 97