RFID Tags and the Economics of Cattle Raiding

I’m sure many folks expecting this blog to be filled with geek speak have been surprised, but hopefully not too disappointed.  This post should appease slightly, as it covers an interesting application of RFID technology.  The items to be tagged are not pallets of aid or anything like that.  The items to be tagged are cows.  Yes, cows.

Cattle are a vital part of the economy of Karamoja, and indeed they are to many other regions in Africa, notably for this post in Kenya.  Cattle raids have become increasingly common in Karamoja, to the extent that UN requires its travelers in the region to proceed with armed escort, flak jackets and combat helmets when traveling outside the major cities in the region (see my previous post on the joys of flak jackets here:  https://rebeccaparsons.com/?p=81).  Raids occur between different groups of Karamojong as well as between Karamojong and Kenyans across the border.

Cattle raiding impacts the life of the Karamojong in myriad ways.  The lack of physical security makes acquiring food and water more difficult.  Natural resource utilization patterns have changed, with over-utilization of some resources affecting their long-term viability.  Trade diminishes with increased hostility and concerns about the security of trade routes.

There are two different issues I’d like to explore, but this post will concentrate on one issue:  How can cattle raiding be reduced or even eliminated?  It seems to me there are four potential points of disruption: demand for cattle, supply of cattle, difficulty of raiding cattle, and difficulty of profiting from raided cattle.  Let’s consider these strategies.

Uganda has recently passed laws calling for life sentences for people caught cattle raiding.  Unfortunately, one side effect of this law has been an increase in the recruitment of children (we heard one story of a seven year old being captured).  I guess the view is that society will not want to punish children that severely for something they have little ability to understand and possibly even to resist.  It also seems to my naïve mind that, given the prevalence of gun use in these raids, the life sentence for cattle raiding adds little to what would hopefully be the penalties for armed criminal activities of any kind.  Attempts at disarmament have resulted in villages being left exposed to raids from Kenya just after the gun collection.  I don’t think anyone believes the current policy of disarmament is working, but I could be very wrong about what the political class in Uganda thinks about the issue. I don’t move in those circles. So, making it more difficult to raid doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact yet.

Supply of cattle is reducing somewhat already, as it becomes more difficult to tend properly to herds in the insecure environment.  In addition, there’s little incentive to invest in a herd for things like vaccinations if the probability is that you won’t be the one who reaps the benefit of the investment.  As a result, there’s significant spare capacity in Karamoja to support more cattle; it isn’t being utilized.  So, limiting supply doesn’t seem to have helped much.

Demand for cattle remains strong.  Although the security situation is shifting things, the culture of the Karamojong is strongly tied with cattle.  Bride prices are discussed in terms of cattle.  Cows are a source of food.  They’re an integral part of the economy.  Disruption of the demand for cattle would produce (and/or require) an overhaul of the culture of the region.  There has to be an easier way.

So, the next pressure point is the ability to convert cows to cash. There are three things one can do with a cow: keep it in a herd, for stud or for milk; sell it in a market; or sell it to a slaughterhouse.  The second and third options provide for points of intervention, if one can actually identify the cows.  Now, branding is commonly used, but given the fact that cows are also sold, brands are not infallible.  This is where technology comes in.  An experiment has already been run in Botswana, which showed a massive reduction in cattle raiding through implanting RFID tags into cows and registering the owners.  The slaughterhouses and markets verify ownership of the cattle before they’re accepted.  Law enforcement personnel also have portable readers to identify cattle when dealing with cases of suspected raiding.  I heard about this previous experiment in talking with the director of Vets Without Borders or VSF, the vet version of Doctors Without Borders, in Moroto.  While originally designed to assist in tracking and auditing to make beef export to the EU easier, the experiment has had unintended consequences, as so often occurs.

What does this system require?  Each head of cattle in the country would need a unique RFID tag, placed in a tamper-proof location.  Each slaughterhouse, of which there are only a small number in Uganda at the moment, would need devices that could read the tag and retrieve the registered owner of the animal, and the ability to mark the animal as deceased.  Each market would need similar equipment, as well as the ability to transfer ownership after sale.  The owners would need some way to prove they’re the person in the registry.  Law enforcement personnel would need devices similar to those used by the markets and the slaughterhouses.  Vets Without Borders  is trying to get funding for a project like this in Uganda to help reduce cattle raiding.

Efforts in Kenya, primarily relying on significantly increased and focused enforcement along with technology, have resulted in a marked decrease in cattle raiding there as well.  Unfortunately, the situation degrades quickly when attention is moved elsewhere.

From a technology perspective, likely the most complicated part is figuring out the design of the RFID tag to make it easy and safe to insert, hard to corrupt, and able to survive in the part of the cow’s anatomy for which it is destined.  The rest of the application is relatively straightforward.  A social issue might surround how an owner proves he’s the person listed in the register, as to my knowledge there is no recognized ID system yet in place in Karamoja in practice.

One of my first questions after hearing about this is the economic impact from reducing the raiding.  If the economy currently “works” with cattle raiding, the economy needs a way for the reduction of cattle raiding to be sustainable.  Two things immediately spring to mind as a way for the economy to compensate for the lack of cattle raiding.  The first concerns the spare capacity for keeping cattle in Karamoja.  The current herd sizes are quite small compared to what is feasible. Thus, individual herders could significantly increase their herd size, thus improving their economic prospects and providing growth for the overall economy.  The second source of economic potential is simply in the increase in trade activity and more sensible resource usage that can return once the situation becomes more stable and secure.  The economy, and the livelihoods of the individuals in this region, are held hostage to the security situation.  Economic development can occur if the area can be made stable.

More broadly, increased trade allows for economic diversification, which might help make the region less dependent on cattle as a whole and more tolerant of issues such as drought.  Drought conditions over the last 4 years have simply increased the pressure on the natural resources and the people in this region.

Cattle raiding won’t just stop.  The individuals participating in this activity need a viable alternative and structures to increase the barriers to raiding.  There are examples of ways this can work.  Hopefully, VSF gets their grant to try it.  Technology to the rescue, perhaps, even if it does come in the form of an RFID tag in a cow’s stomach.

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