Somali Farmers Struggle as Hajj is Cancelled

By Lucy Nuttall ’21

Somalia's agricultural industry is crumbling without any customers, domestic or foreign (Photo Credit: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP)
Somalia's agricultural industry is crumbling without customers (Photo Credit: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP)

In recent months, Somalis have been working to rebuild a nation as their 29-year civil war nears its end, and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab’s power and resources wane. Now, with a stable government, Somalia is beginning to lay its foundations for social and economic success. Integral to this process are farmers, who are now facing a new challenge: COVID-19. 


Somalia relies heavily on farming and agriculture; according to the World Bank, the agricultural sector constitutes 75 percent of Somalia’s GDP and 93 percent of its exports as of 2018. All markets in Somalia were shut down at the start of the pandemic to slow the spread of the virus. The country also closed its borders, inhibiting trade with foreign consumers. Without domestic or foreign markets, Somalia’s agricultural sector is struggling heavily.


The agricultural industry revolves around a chain of producers, local traders, transporters, landowners, exporters, and the consumer, without whom the chain can be broken completely. Now, with the economic shutdown, this fragile economic chain is severed; as a result, the majority of the Somali population lacks sources of both income and food. 


The Hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is the most important time of year for Somali farmers, who export thousands of animals to Mecca. Annually, around 2 million pilgrims from 185 countries make the journey. However, given the current pandemic, Saudi Arabia has limited the number of pilgrims to just 1,000—only .05 percent of the Hajj’s average figure. Livestock is a necessity for all on the Hajj, both as ceremonial sacrifices and as food. Under normal circumstances, Saudi Arabia imports 3 million cows in preparation for the Hajj, with about one million coming from Djibouti, Sudan, and Somalia. In 2010, 2.32 million sheep and goats were exported through the Berbera port in Somalia, 1.612 million of which were exported between September and November for the Hajj alone.


In order to prepare for the Hajj, farmers raise extra livestock to meet the increased demand. Given Saudi’s Arabia enormous reduction in available consumers, Somalia lacks a means of selling its most common export. As a result, farmers are struggling to provide for their families and handle their livestock. 


To make matters worse, in recent years Somalia has recently been struggling with droughts, locusts, and the spread of diseases that have ruined the pastures on which this livestock grazes. Even worse, flooding has caused disease to spread through the herds. To prevent these problems, Somalis had a system of doctors to care for the animals in case infection spreads before COVID-19. Now, farmers cannot afford to pay for the doctors and Somalis are seeing the sizes of their flocks dwindle. Because of the excessive supply of animals and farmers’ inability to care for them, locals have been forced to lower their prices and try to sell as many animals as they can—some for as little as $500, or half of their value during the Hajj. 


For as long as markets and borders remain closed, Somali farmers will have to continue cutting prices and expenses, the economic chain that links the farmer to the consumer will continue to deteriorate as funds are depleted, and the Somali economy will have to deal with prolonged devastation. This economic downturn, however, may be looked upon as the nation’s first true economic crisis during peacetime. Now, Somalia will look ahead to years of growth and reconstruction as it seeks to diversify its economy and find its way to prosperity.