In Africa, stocks of animals and especially poultry have increased in recent years. However, the growth in animal numbers has not kept pace with human population increase so per capita the availability of meat has declined and the real price of meat and meat products has risen. Watch the video below for a brief overview of livestock postharvest losses presented by NRI's Professor Ben Bennett.

Source of losses
Livestock products are highly perishable and lose absolute value very quickly in the absence of an expensive cold chain. Unlike some agricultural products, meat is considered spoiled and unusable with only a relatively small defect. Moreover, the high potential for harmful microbiological activity in meat means that it can be the source of human health costs. The total cost of poor food safety in the meat sector to the economies of developing countries is probably very substantial and could be measured in, say, working days lost through ill health or morbidity in association with other health impinging factors such as HIV/AIDS.

PHLs in the meat sector fall into three main loss categories of physical, opportunity and external. Physical refers to the loss of value through spoilage (the product sells for less or does not sell at all). Opportunity costs are those values forgone. This could mean selling at a low value market instead of a higher value one. External losses from livestock are those losses that fall to the livestock keeper and the rest of society. For example, keeping animals beyond prime marketable age could impact on many aspects of grass-land and habitats and effect the environment more widely. Producing unsafe meat products might result in a health loss because people are ill.

Much of the total volume of livestock produced in Africa does not reach the market but is consumed on farm or bartered. Livestock is converted in a huge range of sub-products with disparate and fractured individual value chains. The conversion of each animal into its separate economic parts and the relative values and losses of each part have not been the subject of much considered enquiry. There are also complex externalities in the livestock sector that also have to be considered such as their role in term of status, risk aversion, gifting and many other possible social benefits, these may outweigh the loss of value attained from sale at the optimum moment. Clearly, a PHL in an intensive livestock production system would be different from that in a sub-optimal small-holder system.

There is a need to take account of the range of products the meat sector (Fig. 1) to give a 'whole animal' or systems approach to understanding the economics of PHL. Many of the intangible costs and benefits and externalities in livestock system fall at the level of the live animal (Fig. 2), and therefore largely to the livestock keeper.

Livestock image

Figure 1: Product diversity and fragmentation in the meat sector

PHLs in a typical value chain for livestock products may occur at various links in the chain (Fig. 2). Quite a high proportion of in-chain loss issues, such as meat yield and quality, could be addressed on-farm and lead to direct value capture by livestock keepers. Animals sold to local traders or local butchers usually fetch a lower per kilogram price than those sold into the formal, commercial abattoir system because local butchers sell in the low value 'piece-by-piece' market. However, this is not always the case. Local butchers have low over-heads and for some products, such as local chickens, there is a premium for so-called 'bush' or 'traditional' standards of taste and texture. Where supply is constrained and at peak consumption times (e.g. before holidays or festival), prices at local butchers can peak because additional costs can easily be passed on to the buyer. Local butchers, however, have to average the expected return on products whose marginal value declines steeply in the absence of any means to store or preserve. Prices paid reflect a combination of business and market knowledge and risk management. Local processing comes in a range of different forms from municipal abattoirs to state-run and commercial processing plants. Direct sales and local butcher sales commonly do not fully utilise the by-products available, particularly hides and skins, though the so called "5th quarter" or parts unsaleable as 'meat' are an important source of protein for huge numbers in Africa and are often considered to represent the 'profit' among livestock processors and so must be important. Poorly run state trading enterprises for meat products are common in Africa and could represent a major area of loss. At the level of sale to the consumer, a key issue is how long meat and meat products can retain their optimal value before spoilage ('shelf-life').


Figure 2: The nature and source of losses in the product chain for beef

Physical losses through spoilage and wastage may occur throughout this chain. Poor handling is a major cause, but there may be many others. Human health losses through poor hygiene may also occur at any stage. Most environmental costs would seem to be incurred at the level of the farmer, but environmental externalities from livestock keeping may affect us all for example through promoting ozone depleting gasses.

Loss estimates
The issue of PHLs in the livestock sector has been ignored or even dismissed as only related to the special problems of the distribution system (Pariser, 1987). Whilst production factors such as low yielding husbandry practices, the presence of animal diseases and poor access to feed are important causes of this situation, the extent of PHLs is unknown but could be substantial.
There have been some individual studies of national and regional livestock value chains focussing on opportunities to capture value, but these only point towards PHLs they don't specifically identify them (see for example UNECA 2009:159). Part of the problem is that PHLs in the livestock sector do not appear to have been clearly defined in the same way that there has been for, say, grains. At what point does an animal become harvested? For a small-holder selling a live goat for fattening, the point is that of the sale transaction which may be on-farm or at a market although for meat sales we suggest that it is not simply the moment of slaughter, but rather the moment at which the livestock keeper decides to try to sell the animal. Many pre-processing factors impact on the absolute value realised by each animal sold. Poor animal conformity, bringing the wrong species to market at the wrong age and stress prior to processing all reduce meat yield. Sub-optimal management of animals can reduce off-take and yield of meat, but can also lead to losses in key by-products such as hides and skins.


  • Pariser, E. R. (1987) Post-Harvest Food Losses in Developing Countries. Food Policy: Integrating Supply, Distribution and Consumption. J. P. Gittinger, J. Leslie and C. Hoisington. Baltimore, World Bank, 309-329.