China’s Thirst for Donkeys is Killing Africa


According to China’s commerce ministry, trade volume between China and African countries has increased by 16.7% in the first quarter 2017 to USD38.8 billion. And bilateral trade between China and Africa stood at USD149.1 billion in 2016.

However, underneath this colourful statistics lies a disturbing and security-threatening donkey trade. China has an acute shortage of donkeys occasioned by a high demand for e’jiao – a traditional anti-ageing medicine from donkey skin (gelatin), and also gelatin is used for other medicinal purposes. This trade is largely undertaken between Chinese nationals, often represented by Nigerians as middlemen, and rural peasant farmers in northern Nigeria where donkeys are used for income generation, transporting farm implements and produce after harvest. While it may be easy for the Chinese government to bring succour to its farmers’ plight that grow vegetables in the mountains, who also use donkeys, by providing them with accessible feeder roads, modern farm implements or other modern means of transportation, the story is entirely different for the average Nigerian farmer that relies on this archaic but age-long reliable means of transportation and source of income generation. It is a source of income generation by way of offering freight services, by and large.


The production of this donkey product is put around 5,000 tonnes annually in China. To meet with this production demand about four million donkey hides are needed each year. However, local supply is put around less than two million hides, according to Xinhua news. This shortage explains China’s thirst to bridge this demand gap through Africa, and most importantly to also buck the trend of fake e’jiao produced from mules, horses, pigs and oxen as counterfeits.     

Unfortunately, Nigeria doesn’t have any available statistics or data that clearly shows the impact of such trade. The Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Services (NAQS), whose mandate, is “to provide an effective science based regulatory service for the quality assurance of agricultural products through the enforcement of sanitary measures in international trade” does not also have a data base of this massive plunder. This may not be unconnected to the lack of recognition of working animals such as donkeys. But its lack of recognition does not affect its importance to peasant farmers in the rural areas. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) also does not clearly state the status of donkeys in the nutrition and food security interventions.

With the exception of Kenya that is doubling down on the export of donkeys. African countries are beginning to ban its export. For example, Botswana, Burkina Faso and Niger have banned the export of donkeys. It seems likely that other African countries may follow suit in banning the export of donkeys to China. This may seem ingenuous, but the ban could make donkey trade in black-market to thrive as is the case with elephant ivory in East Africa. Either way the challenges look the same.


In addition to the twin threats of desertification and drought in Nigeria and neighbouring Niger respectively; and a farming practice that is almost entirely reliant on rain-fed agriculture, this massive donkey trade could as well be the last nail on the coffin of the rural peasant farmer. The consequences may be better imagined. 

Because donkey trade is unregulated in Nigeria and in most African countries, it increases the suffering of local farmers as means of transportation becomes less accessible or prohibitively expensive. The donkey trade-induced suffering could make local farmers to abandon farming which they inherited from their forebears. It could also render the teeming rural youth jobless. We also shouldn’t lose sight of an unhealthy rural-urban migration. This aggravates food insecurity, unemployment and conflict in the long term.  


Similar threats to means of livelihood have exacerbated conflicts in Nigeria, such as the nomadic Fulani cattle breeders and farmers unrest. In the same manner that the Boko Haram insurgency that is still going on got willing and unquestioning army of recruits from the pool of jobless youth that relied on the water resources in the shrinking lake at the chad basin. The threat to the means of livelihood has a more negative and wide-ranging implication as a conflict trigger than any other factor.

As long as donkeys are not classified as endangered species, the right way to go about it is for governments to legalise the trade, and also to provide sustainable framework to accelerate the procreation and breeding of this animal through ranching. Nigeria as well as other African countries can turn the fortunes of their rural peasant farmers through this. Botswana achieved similar feat with the European Union during the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Europe to scale up its production of ostriches to help cushion the demand for beef in Europe.

Without coherent policies geared towards addressing the plight of the less vocal rural peasant farmer’s plunder of their major component in their toolbox – the donkey - the ground may soon be fertile for the peasant rural farmer to lend themselves to any vice unimaginable to survive.