At Hargeisa’s dusty livestock market two men quietly size each other up, haggling over animal prices by placing fingers on their chequered headscarfs to indicate how much they would pay.
“If I press one finger, it means 100 shillings, the whole hand, 500, a bit of a finger, 90 shillings…we want to hide negotiations from other traders,” said animal trader Mohammed Iid, explaining the reasoning behind the silent barter.
Amidst the chaos that has characterised life in conflict-ravaged Somalia, the animal trade has survived — and even managed to prosper.
Traders in the northern Somali city — capital of the self-declared independent nation of Somaliland — rake in healthy profits, with sales spiking during Islamic festivals.
The symbolic sacrifice of sheep in accordance with Islam sees orders increase from neighbouring countries such as Yemen, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) across the Gulf of Aden.
Up to $250 million is generated from the export of goats, sheep and camels, although the lucrative trade was crippled when Saudi Arabia — one of the biggest consumers of animals from the Horn of Africa — imposed a nine-year ban on imports amid fears of an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever.
After the import ban was lifted in 2010, Somalia exported 4.3 million animals to Saudi Arabia and 4.7 million the following year, even though Somalia was experiencing one of its worst droughts on record.
Animals are exported through the ports of Berbera in Somaliland and Bossaso in Puntland. Both have established relative stability compared to the two decades of civil war that has ravaged southern and central Somalia.
From behind a pair of glasses, 78-year-old Mohamed Aden offers an insight into what the livestock trade means to the average Somali.
“Animal rearing is our life,” he said, an animal trader for 21 years. “They are the source of our resources, our work and a source of tax for the government.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Somaliland’s animal industry provides 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, employs 65 percent of the workforce and is responsible for up to 80 percent of foreign exchange.
Over two thirds of Somaliland’s rocky and bushy scrubland are given over to the animals.
“They are free range animals, they are organic,” said Ali Gulu, chief veterinary officer for the key port of Berbera.
Berbera, constructed by Russia during the Cold War, has already exported three million animals this year.
“The port is our main source of revenue…it funds up to 80 percent of the country’s budget,” said Omer Abokor Jama, the port’s deputy manager, noting the port earned $120 million in revenues last year.
While the lucrative business may be making enormous profits today, its foundation lies in long-standing ancestral ties between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
“It is easy for us to do business with them… they have always been our traditional business partners,” said Dhamac Barud, one of the most prosperous traders, earning over $1 million a year from exports to Saudi Arabia.
Britain’s seizure of Somaliland in 1888 was driven partly by the wish to secure regular livestock exports to fuel its growing empire, including the major Yemeni port of Aden, and that link is maintained today.
Britain supports the FAO’s efforts to develop the livestock industry, encouraging the growth of other related industries.
In Hargeisa, women extract marrow from the bones of slaughtered camels, mixing it with incense and soda ash to create soap, undercutting imported bars from surrounding nations.
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