Exploring Wool Opportunities in Africa

Discover the World’s Finest WoolExploring Wool Opportunities in Africa

Despite the high rate of sheep production in Africa, many African countries are not maximizing wool farming.

Although sheep are highly profitable for its meat, fat, milk, and leather, wool farming is also a profitable venture and can increase sheep farmer’s income by at least 20%.

Lanolin; a valuable cosmetic, is a by-product of wool that traders sell separately from fibers. Wool production requires expert knowledge and special processes that may not be readily available to Africans.

Nevertheless, the large number of sheep being reared provides a solid base for exploring wool opportunities in Africa.

Flock-of-sheep-in-South-Africa_2

Wool is a natural fiber sourced from animals, especially sheep but also from goats, alpacas and many more

Wool fiber is valuable for its many qualities, natural UV protection, and high moisture absorption rate compared to other fibers. Clothing made from wool is durable and easy to maintain. Perhaps the most important quality of wool is its biodegradability, this means that it can completely decompose into the nutrient matter and replenish the soil. This puts it at the forefront in sustainable fashion developments.

Wool Production

Apart from garments, wool also serves as raw materials for the production of rugs, insulation, and upholstery. Shorning usually takes place once in a year, and a single wool-bearing sheep can produce about 2 – 30 pounds of raw wool per year. All kinds of wool from the finest to the roughest have their unique use. This expands the profitability margin of wool farming.

Globally over a billion sheep can produce about 1,160 million kilograms of clean wool.  In 2016-2017, Australia, China, the United States, and New Zealand were top producers, the countries collectively produced 71% of global wool. South Africa ranked lowest, contributing only 1%. While Australia is the highest wool producer there are other regions where sheep farming is equally important. The developing countries of Africa and Asia have several adapted breeds, the population of sheep in these regions surpass that of Australia.

The record shows that Africa and Asia produce more sheep meat than Australia and the meat production rate continues to increase. South Africa is prominent in Africa for its wool production prowess, enabled by the Merino sheep breeds they rear.

Origin of African Sheep

There are two groups of the African indigenous sheep in line with the genetic origin; the fat-tailed and thin-tailed sheep.

The fat-tailed sheep are more widely spread than the thin-tailed sheep. North Africa, Eastern, and Southern Africa are the homes of the fat-tail variety.

The thin-tail variety exists mainly in Morocco, Sudan, and in West Africa. African sheep share common ancestry with European and Asian sheep breeds.

Archaeological findings show that the first sheep entered Africa through the Isthmus of Suez and/or the southern Sinai Peninsula, between 7500 and 7000 BP. Sheep in South Africa is a mix of hairy local breeds, fat-tailed, and developed composite exotic breeds like the SA mutton Merino.

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South African Sheep

South African sheep breeds include the Meatmaster, Van Rooy, Ile de France, Blackhead Persian, Afrino, Dohne, Suffolk, BaPedi, Zulu, Ronderib Afrikaner sheep and many more.

However, not every one of these sheep is suitable for wool farming. Wool-bearing sheep include the pure Merino and derived breeds; Afrino, Merino, Dormer, Dohne, SA mutton merino. The Suffolk, Ile de France, and Ronderib Afrikaner sheep which farmers rear for their wool.

From the colonial period until now, the wool industry plays an important role in the South African economy. It serves as an essential foreign exchange product that is in high demand in countries like China, India, Mexico, Malaysia, France, and Germany. The South African Wool exchange manages international wool trades through auctions held in June to August. The international price for apparel wool usually influences the price of wool and the Australian market controls this to a large extent.

Merino Sheep on South African Farm
Merino Sheep on South African Farm

Although wool-bearing sheep distribution is not the same all over the continent, the availability of sheep creates a base on which wool farming can exist.

Sheep breeds in other parts of Africa include the Sudan desert sheep, West African dwarf sheep which have different names in different regions. The West Africa dwarf sheep is also called Cameroons Dwarf, Djallonké, Forest-type, Fouta Djallon, Futa Jallon, Guinean, Kirdi, Kirdimi, Lakka or Nigerian Dwarf.

Some of these sheep breeds have patches or strips of wool in specific body areas like the neck, back, and rump. They’re reared mainly for meat, milk, and leather.

Woman and Grazing Sheep - Atlas Mountains - Morocco
Woman and Grazing Sheep - Atlas Mountains - Morocco

Goats for Fiber Production

Although sheep are the commonest source of animal fibers, goats are also valuable resources for natural fiber. Some fibers we can get from different goat breeds include mohair and cashmere. The latter is a lustrous fiber similar to wool but is much smoother and thinner with more elasticity. Consumers value cashmere for its delicate softness, warmth, and durability. While only the Angora goat can produce mohair, there is a vast selection of goats that can produce cashmere, they are also known under the name Pashmina goats.

The Angora originates from Asia minor and got introduced to South Africa when the ewe sent by Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire gave birth en route to Port Elizabeth. There were later importations of the Angora goat to South Africa, owing to its profitability. Although we can derive cashmere from almost any goat, farmers rear certain breeds to produce the fiber in a significant amount. A significant percentage of the world’s cashmere comes from goats in Northern China and Mongolia.

Cashmere production is virtually non-existent in Africa. The cashmere fiber comes from the fine coat of fibers found on the underbelly of goats. Harvesting the hair involves combing or shearing after which it is detailed to remove coarse guard hair.

Angora Goats in South Africa: The ANGELA Project - by: Samil Natural Fibres
Sheep on a Cultivation Field in Lesotho
Sheep on a Cultivation Field in Lesotho

South Africa is the third-largest producer of mohair, with over 4 million kg produced annually. The South African mohair industry has about 1,000 mohair farmers and infrastructure for advanced processing. Together with Lesotho, South Africa supports 70% of global mohair production.

Angoras can be sheared twice a year and produce an average of 10.6 pounds of Mohair per year. This makes Mohair farming very profitable as one pound of unprocessed Mohair can cost around $7.88.

When processed up to the yarn stage farmers can get up to $150.00 in return for a pound. Opportunities exist for goat farmers to increase their income through fiber products besides meat, milk, and leather production.

Mohair farming is a practice that can spread rapidly throughout Africa with the efforts of goat farmers, and can become a good source of income on the continent.

Advantages of Mohair Wool:

In addition to its unique look and fluffy feel, the high-quality wool scores with the following properties:

  • Mohair wool absorbs the moisture of up to 30 percent of its weight – so you can sweat and don’t even notice that your garment is damp.
  • The wool has excellent warming properties, so it keeps you warm in winter and cools in summer.
  • Mohair fabrics are virtually crease-free.
  • The antibacterial effect of mohair wool neutralizes sweat smell.

Clothing made of mohair wool is strongly represented in the luxury segment. Great designers and fashion houses turn to this noble material to give their garments a unique fluffy look.

Exploring Wool Opportunities in Africa

Challenges, Solutions, and Opportunities

While South Africa is doing its bit to represent the continent in the global wool trade, wool farming has not reached its full potential in Africa. Wool farming is common in South Africa, but other parts of the continent can take it seriously.

The major obstacle to wool farming is the lack of wool-bearing capacity in the sheep breeds that dominate the area. However, with scientific methods of genetic engineering and interbreeding, new breeds of wool-bearing sheep can develop.

Inter-breeding is an age-old animal husbandry practice that has proven successful in improving animal bloodlines and traits. This allows farmers to bring attributes like parasite and disease resistance, high fat production, rapid growth rates, etc, together from different breeds into a single derivative breed. The SA Mutton Merino was derived from the German mutton merino and other Merino breeds are now available because of inter-breeding

Apart from the development of wool-bearing sheep, wool farming requires technical processing to make raw, dirty, and greasy wool into clean, export-ready wool.

It’s imperative to remove the wool from the body of the sheep through shearing before starting the manufacturing process. Next is the grading and sorting according to the texture. After this comes the scouring of the wool in water, soap, and soda ash, or other alkali solutions. At this point, all impurities are removed, including the greasy lanolin which is quite valuable.

The next thing is to card the wool and send it for spinning. The spinning machine turns the wool fibers into yarns. Later on, the plain or twill machine handles the weaving process.  Finishing the wool fabrics involves a series of procedures such as fulling, crabbing, and decorating. These help to make the fibers interlock permanently set the interlock, and shrink-proof respectively.

Maasai shepherd - Ol Doinyo Lengai in background
Maasai shepherd - Ol Doinyo Lengai in background

There’s a great opportunity to make a profit in wool processing in Africa. The establishment of wool processing factories will make wool farming more profitable for local farmers and directly increase wool farming practices. This will also eliminate the exportation cost with the distinct advantage of buying cheaper raw wool.

The majority of the sheep farmers in West Africa are uneducated or fairly educated persons who inherited flocks from relatives. They also inherit age-old practices and trade systems that work apparently. This, however, is the primary reason wool farming has not spread across Africa. The  farmers do not see a need for wool farming as they do not have the necessary knowledge needed to begin, to process or advance with international trading.

Therefore, there is a need for capacity training to enable herders to tap into the possibility of wool farming. Sheep farmers will also have to learn improved farm practices to maximize production and ensure the welfare of livestock.

This presents an opportunity for experts in parasites and disease control in sheep. As their knowledge and expertise will help to bridge the gap in terms of healthcare, dealing with challenges like Flystrike Parasitic infestation.

Conclusion

Wool is a natural fiber that is in high demand and will continue to be an important material in textile production. It’s warmth, durability, versatility, and eco-friendliness makes it unique in the textile industry.

Harnessing the full potential of African sheep to sustain wool production will not only improve the economy but also the lives of sheep farmers.

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