Mahamadou Diallo grasps a large ram by the horns, examining their curvature and the beast’s muscular form and markings to determine how much it will fetch for the Muslim world’s biggest sacrificial feast.
This year at the end of December during the annual Eid al-Adha feast — known here as Tabaski — Muslim families will slaughter a sheep. This commemorates the scriptural story of Abraham, who was about to sacrifice his son when God gave him a ram to slay in its place.
It is boom time for the livestock traders who buy sheep from nomadic herdsmen of the Sahel, south of the Sahara, to sell on to city dwellers in the capital or further afield in the coastal cities of West Africa.
“I sell around 100 sheep a month most of the year, but for a feast like Tabaski I may sell 800,” Diallo said over a small glass of sweet mint tea, sitting on a wooden bench in the shade of a palm-leaf hut in Mali’s capital Bamako.
Informal, but swift trade
“The other day a Wolof (Senegalese) man came looking for 100 high-quality sheep,” said one of the men who hang around Diallo’s stall, hoping to gain commission if they can egg on a customer and get them to pay more.
With nothing even approaching a fixed price, the trade is informal and plays to the bargaining instinct shared by many peoples of this arid corner of Africa.
Today the daraal, or livestock market, in Banconi, one of Bamako’s poorest neighbourhoods, is a ramshackle row of stalls along the side of a main road.
Each has 20 to 50 sheep tethered around hay mangers improvised from rough planks and oil drums cut in half.
But by late December, Diallo said, the road will become all but impassable as thousands of beasts arrive by truck from the interior, and prices may push higher as people rush to secure a handsome specimen for the family feast.
Landlocked Mali is Africa’s third biggest gold exporter, and is cashing in on high prices for the metal on world markets.
But millions of Malians depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and livestock trade is an important part of the internal and export economy, with live animal exports to Senegal alone worth more than $12 million in 2004.
Beyond cursory veterinary inspections — and symbols like the red mark Diallo paints on each animal’s forehead to identify it as his — the sector is largely informal.
That offers an opening for clever dealers like Diallo, a farmer’s son who got into the business 10 years ago when he found himself with a diploma in agriculture but no job.
He stands out in the daraal crowd with his smart black shoes and bright purple shirt, a shiny new mobile phone clutched in his hand.
“It’s a profitable sector, but it’s not at all organized. Many people are illiterate, and we have problems even finding financing,” he said, a bundle of crisp purple 10,000 CFA ($20) notes in the other hand.
A micro-finance organization, Kafo Jiguinew, extends him up to 1 million CFA francs ($2,026) credit which he can use to fund regular trips in a lorry with other traders to buy stock from livestock fairs in rural Mali.
But banks will not lend to him without collateral, which he said limits his working capital and ability to expand what is clearly a successful business.
Sheep on a plane
Because of that informality, precise statistics on the market are hard to come by and prices vary widely. An average ram may sell for 35,000-50,000 CFA francs ($70-$100), depending on size, the curvature and length of the horns and markings.
A top quality beast, however, can fetch many times more; and wealthy people sometimes present such prime specimens as gifts to win favor in business or politics, Diallo said.
“Yesterday a Wolof came to buy two prize beasts — the creme de la creme,” Diallo said, adding the buyer was looking for all-white sheep. “He bought one for 400,000, the other for 350,000. He was a businessman. He sent them home in a plane.”
Most Malian sheep exported to Senegal travel by more basic means, although since most of the 715 mile road to Senegal’s capital Dakar was re-tarred, truck transport has become a quicker option than the aging railway.
“It took too long by train — you could spend two, three, up to five days getting there. The animals were tired. We had to take them off at Kayes (near the Mali-Senegal border) to graze, and then get them back on again,” he said.
Even now, transporters complain security forces along the route demand bribes, slowing down trucks and eating into their profits.
But it remains a profitable trade. A sheep costing 50,000 CFA here in Bamako can fetch 70,000-100,000 in Dakar and the margin on more expensive beasts can be even higher — a tidy profit even after transportation costs.
“Malian sheep are prized in Dakar. Our sheep look much better, higher quality, than over there. You get a taller breed of sheep here,” Diallo said.