Meraka boss fights back

Meraka boss fights back

Denies claims the government has created a monopoly

MASERU – MERAKA Lesotho, a private company running the national abattoir, is now the sole supplier of red meat in the country after the government banned beef imports. Small Businesses Development Minister, Chalane Phori, has said the goal is to promote local farmers and create employment.  But the decision has come under heavy criticism from other local meat suppliers and consumers. Meat suppliers say the decision makes Meraka a monopoly yet it does not have the capacity to meet market demands in both quality and quantity.

They say the ban on imports is meant to insulate Meraka from competition despite the fact that it’s a private company that does not deserve such protection from the government. Consumers complain about the quality of Meraka’s products. Our News Editor, Caswell Tlali, this week spoke to Meraka Lesotho chief executive, Mosito Khethisa, about those accusations and concerns.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

There are complaints that the government has created a monopoly for you and that you don’t have enough capacity to meet the market demand. What’s your response to this?

To start with, this is a national abattoir and from the beginning it was established to be a slaughter facility and a feedlot. Our main business is to slaughter animals for butcheries and meat wholesalers. This has always been the case for a long time, even when it was solely run by the government. In those years no animals were bought from outside the borders and as you will recall, there were auctions around the country, in every district, where Basotho cattle and sheep farmers sold them to this abattoir.

It was and still is a service offered to Basotho and we are not in competition with anybody. It is therefore wrong to say the government has created a monopoly. This facility belongs to Basotho as a nation. Nobody is favoured, nobody is put above others. Yes we are capable of slaughtering and supplying quality meat. This abattoir has the capacity to slaughter 500 cattle per week and 300 sheep per day.

Talk about the quality. There are complaints that your meat is of poor quality.

The quality of meat depends on what kind of animals we buy. We buy good quality cattle and sheep in South Africa for grade A meat while the ones we get locally are mostly for lower grades. In fact, our meat is of high quality compared to the one smuggled into the country or imported by some meat wholesalers because they buy rejects. The meats they buy have been turned away by agents of European companies. You have to know today that most of the quality meat produced in South Africa is exported to Europe and the rejects are dumped to countries like Lesotho.

These meat wholesalers who fight to import meat from South Africa are actually fighting to sell the rejects to our unsuspecting consumers. As for us, we don’t import carcasses but live animals of good quality and therefore we proudly say our meat is of high quality. Yes, we produce grade A. They are selling you grades B and C and tell you its grade A.

Do you have any expert who grades your meat?

We have an experienced one who has studied in Australia and Botswana. He has vast experience in classifying meat. We also have two students whom he is supervising. But surely one cannot complain just for the sake of complaining. There must be something that makes people complain about your services. People will not stop complaining. What the government has done is good for the economic growth of this country. It is good that the government has imposed a ban on red meat so that we help the local farmers to grow as livestock farmers and sellers.

Without the government’s intervention, especially in this way, they would never grow. This has given the people an opportunity they would never have. Livestock is what they have and let them enjoy rearing livestock. Our services are good and we are doing our best to adhere to the international standards. As you may know, mishandling meat can create serious problems as you have noticed with the outbreak of Listeriosis in South Africa.
It is important to look at this through the eyes of the government and you will realise that this is done for the sake of these very people who are complaining.

How many Basotho farmers have sold their cattle to you?

We are going around the country buying animals. You will recall that recently the Minister of Small Businesses invited Basotho wherever they are in the country to come and sell their cattle and sheep to the abattoir every Wednesday. So, ever since then we have seen scores of farmers coming forward to sell their animals. This week we went to Mathebe where a Mosotho man sold his 30 cattle. When you sell many cattle at once we go to you to collect them but if you are selling just one, it is understandable that you will have to bring it here yourself.

Like I said, this abattoir has the capacity to slaughter 500 cattle per week, we haven’t reached there yet but we are quickly getting there. Perhaps it is because it is autumn and many cattle are well fed hence their owners’ desire to sell while they are still in good shape. Come winter, many of them will show weaknesses and the owners will keep them until they are well fed. They are bringing their animals here. Come on Wednesday and you will witness it yourself.

Do local farmers have the capacity to meet the market demand?

Yes they do. Although we are currently buying their animals for the lower grades of meat, we are aware that we still have many who produce for selling and they know what they want. I want you to know that we are not the only ones buying from them. Every week trucks export cattle from here to South Africa, having been bought by abattoirs in South Africa. We compete with these South Africans at local auctions. This shows you that with good education Basotho can meet the local market and have a lot of surplus to sell outside the country. All Basotho need to do is to pay attention to how they feed and they will be self-sufficient. You can actually earn a living by selling cattle.

How much do you buy a cow for?

The highest price I bought a cow was for M13 000 and the lowest price was just over M3 000. Like I said people can earn a living by rearing cattle.

Why don’t you have a feedlot?

No, we have one. When this abattoir was established, it was established together with the feedlot. In the past the abattoir used to buy cattle from local farmers and feed them here until they are ready for slaughter. We have just started after this abattoir experienced some hiccups. The plan is to resuscitate the abattoir.  In fact, there is a plan to have many abattoirs around the country and feedlots and that has to happen if we want the meat industry to thrive in the country.

The abattoir failed to do any business in the recent past. What gives you hope this time?

I have worked at the abattoir for only one year. All I can say is that the abattoir does not make money out of supplying meat only. It’s only this year that we have won a tender to supply the army. Abattoirs in South Africa make money because almost all of those I know have their own butcheries while we don’t. They are selling meat directly to the public or to the wholesales. As for us, we only sell offal and hides.

Also many abattoirs are running tanneries and make good money from the hides. We sell the hides as they are. But we still believe that with the flow of animals that are being brought for slaughter we will remain afloat. There will be enough offal and hides to sell. You cannot believe that we only make M1.50 per kilogramme. This means without the offal and hides we wouldn’t survive as a business.

How many individuals does the abattoir employ?

When I arrived here there were 45 employees. We are now 72 and we are planning to have night shift because there is a lot of work, especially in the slaughtering department. Sometimes these workers work from 7:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night.

Staff Reporter

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