Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Poor, Hungry Zimbabweans Turn to Pet Food

Meat waste from abattoirs and commercial dog food are now a major source of protein for an impoverished population.
By Jimmy Moyana
While Kenyans took offence at the offer of dog food for hungry children earlier this year, Zimbabweans are queuing up at meat suppliers and abattoirs to buy pet food. They crave any kind of meat, and quality products are now far beyond the means of ordinary people.

Not only is pet food popular among poor families, but pigskin and discarded fat from beef also sell well in the country's teeming working class suburbs.

Kenyan officials dismissed as "culturally insulting" the offer of powdered dog food to feed starving children made by the founder of a dog biscuit company in New Zealand.

The offer might have received a warmer welcome from poor Zimbabweans, who had been forced to adopt a vegetarian diet before they discovered packaged pet food.

Beef and pork now cost between 4,000 and 6,000 Zimbabwean dollars (16 to 24 US dollars) a kilogram in the supermarkets. A family of six which would have consumed 12 kilos of meat a month in the days before Zimbabwe's economic implosion began would now need to spend 72,000 Zimbabwean dollars (288 US dollars).

Eighty per cent of the population is unemployed and the majority of people in work earn less than 20,000 Zimbabwean dollars a month.

People buy pet food even though the packaging clearly states that it is not for human consumption. A 500-gram packet of branded pet food costs around 1,250 Zimbabwean dollars – five US dollars - and a kilo of “meat sawdust” which contains meat gristle and bone and is sold as dog meat by abattoirs costs 1,200 Zimbabwean dollars.

Those who cannot afford pet food have to be content with flavouring boiled rape leaves with animal fat cut from beef or pork.

Dignity is a luxury few can afford these days in a country which until seven years ago was the breadbasket of southern Africa. At Colcom Foods in Harare's Willowvale area, there are long queues at the department where pet food is sold.

Out of curiosity, this reporter approached some of the people waiting and asked them what they were planning to buy. One woman from the densely populated Mbare suburb, one of the poorest residential areas in Harare, said softly, "Pet food. What else?"

Upon further probing, the woman, who asked not to be named as she felt ashamed, said the pet food was for her family.

"Pet food is food and it is perfectly edible by human beings," she said. "What can I do when I cannot afford to buy meat? Have you ever tasted it? It's like minced meat and is very tasty. We boil it or fry it and mix it with vegetables. We go through a 500-gram packet of pet food in three to four days. We only eat the whole packet all at once if we want to give ourselves a treat."

This woman is a widow with three children, who sells bananas at Mbare Musika, the biggest vegetable market in Harare. On a lucky day she makes 600 Zimbabwean dollars, enough to buy two loaves of bread.

"I feel so humiliated. I never dreamt in all my life that I would queue up to buy dog meat. I feel worthless - and what is dignity in Zimbabwe? We have all been reduced to nothing, to worthless human beings,” she said. "At least when I cook the dog food or meat shavings, if I am lucky to get them at our nearby butchery, I can taste meat. It gives the vegetables a different flavour and I get the protein that has been lacking in my diet."

She is not alone in her humiliation. Harare resident Patrick Kaseke told IWPR he felt it was important to provide a "balanced diet" to his family.

In what people now regard as the golden past - just seven years ago but seemingly a lifetime away - most people, even the poor, ate well. Now the most important thing is to ensure that the family has something eat.

"Tell me what is better: eating boiled covo [a spinach-like leaf] or rape every single day, or eating meat shavings or dog meat on some days and covo or rape on other days?" asked Patrick. "At my house we call the pet food ‘minced meat’ because I don't want my children growing up knowing that they had been reduced to the level of a dog. It kills their spirit.

“To us pet food is a relish we look forward to. It gives us the feeling of the old days when we had chicken and rice at Christmas."

An unscientific IWPR survey of abattoirs dealing in meat sawdust revealed that it is the fastest selling product and can only be found before 10 am, because housewives queue up early to make sure they get some.

One worker at a slaughterhouse close to the city centre said there was now such a high demand for sawdust, pigskin and fat that they had to put some aside for their own families.

"It is meat," he said. "Sawdust is the remnants when slicing meat. So there is really nothing wrong in eating it. They are cheap products but taste just like minced meat. You must try them."

Both consumers and their government are paying little heed to the long-term implications of a poor diet - particularly among children.

As the government grapples with the huge economic challenges facing the country, nutrition is not on the agenda.

Jimmy Moyana is a pseudonym for an IWPR reporter in Harare.