Rabbit Rearing In Uganda: Learning From Past Mistakes
The business of rearing rabbits has a long, winding history in Uganda. Rabbits were first introduced to the country by Catholic missionaries in the 1870s. In the 1990s, rabbits were hailed by enthusiasts as a quick ticket out of poverty, triggering what many dub the “Rabbit Craze” (Lukefahr, 1998). Encouraged by these claims, many Ugandans turned to rabbit rearing as a get-rich-quick scheme.
The shining bubble around rabbits popped, however, when breeders and feed suppliers raised their prices. This caused the price of rabbit meat to surpass beef and chicken, quickly drying up the already overestimated market. While experts were skeptical about the 1990s hype, they remain adamant that rabbits do have real potential to become a popular source of protein and even lift Ugandan farmers out of poverty.
The Science Behind Rabbit Farming
Today, the rabbit industry faces the question of what role rabbits can play in building the agricultural sector of the Ugandan economy, and the challenge of avoiding the mistakes of the 1990s.
Beatrice Luzobe is a seasoned agriculturalist, specializing in animal science, who has continued to rear rabbits before and after the trends of the 1990s. Luzobe and her husband are the founders of Learn Enterprises Limited, an organization that connects farmers, provides training and has grown from only five rabbits for commercial use to a production capacity of 150 rabbits ready to slaughter per month.
“In the mid-nineties there was some kind of hype about rabbits in Uganda,” Luzobe said.”A rabbitry project was started at [Makere University], a food security project. They were intending to give poor families rabbits. Unfortunately, the goal wasn’t achieved. . . Somehow people started viewing rabbits as a very lucrative business and the rabbit meat became overpriced. The farmers who got rabbits never ate them; they kept them to sell them.”
Why The “Rabbit Craze” Fizzled
In the midst of the enthusiasm, Luzobe and other experts tried to warn farmers that they needed to aim for the mid-market, but they didn’t listen. Sure enough, the “Rabbit Craze” withered and the promises of quick prosperity went unrealized. According to Luzobe, there were several different reasons that led to the downfall of the rabbit industry.
“First, they never broke into the real market. A rabbit was selling at about 20,000 UGX ($7.63) which isn’t even a kilo of meat. Who will buy it, if beef is 8,000 ($3.05) and chicken is 15,000 ($5.73)? We also suspect that inbreeding broke in. Inbreeding is very serious among rabbits. One farmer would buy from another farmer, and there was no following if they were related rabbits or not.”
In 2009 Luzobe and her husband launched Learn Enterprises and in 2010 Luzobe left her career of working with NGOs to focus on the project.
“We had done rabbitry on a subsistence scale, but we decided to start rabbitry on a larger scale. We said, ‘Let’s use the 1990s challenges as lessons learned,'” Luzobe recounted.
Although rabbits didn’t live up to the 1990s hype, Luzobe is not the only one that believes that there are still many benefits that rabbit rearing offers to small-scale Ugandan farmers.
Bosco Kabagambe is the managing director of Kansanga Urban Farmers. Along with his wife Annette and his brother Nicholas, he owns a small farm and raises a variety of animals and crops. Kabagambe has raised rabbits his entire life, and is passionate about encouraging people on the local level to rear rabbits as well.
Finding a Rabbit Meat Target Market
“We encourage people to rear rabbits for income, because there are many benefits that rabbits offer. They are easy to rear compared to other animals, and the rate of production is high as they quickly multiply. The food that rabbits eat is readily available, and the project can be started quickly,” Kabagambe explained.
“Rabbit meat is grouped as a white meat, which is healthier, and rabbits provide natural manures for farmers,” Kabagambe added. Kabagambe’s goal is to encourage more local farmers to rear rabbits so that, as a group, they can meet the demands of the market.
While Kabagambe is generally more optimistic than Luzobe, Luzobe echoed Kabagambe’s confidence in the market. Before launching their commercial rabbitry, Learn Enterprises conducted a market survey for rabbit meat. “The market survey had informed us that there was a market, but no supply . . . I’m not worried about the market,” Luzobe stated.