Yak Value Chain – a Ray of Hope for Yak herders

Peer Muhammad

The first families to settle in Teru, a village that sits on a barren strip of hilly land in Phander tehsil of Ghizer district in Gilgit Baltistan, came here over three decades ago. Located at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Teru became home to yak herding families from neighbouring villages after the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) constructed a water channel in the area in 1982. Today, the village is home to about 971 households with an estimated population of 8,539.

The inhabitants of Teru have always been at risk from floods and extreme weather. They face eight months of prolonged harsh winter, which makes farming crops and vegetables extremely difficult. In this context, herding livestock such as goat, sheep, cow, and yak is their only source of livelihood, although this comes with its own set of challenges. Yak breeding and herding is, in fact, central to the livelihoods of Teru locals.

“You see, this village is like heaven in these few summer months and no less than hell in the remaining harsh winter months,” says Ebrahim Khan. Sitting on the courtyard of his small house, Khan pulls the traditional woolen cap he is wearing further down his forehead as he speaks.”You cannot imagine how we endure the harsh winter here,” he continues. Khan is popularly known as chairman among the villagers because he has been involved with local village organizations for decades. Presently, Khan is leading the village community to support a pilot project promoting the establishment of a yak value chain.

Teru is one of two union councils in Ghizer, the other being Phander, where the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and AKRSP are implementing their pilot project on the yak value chain. The work, carried out under the European Union-funded Support to Rural Livelihoods and Climate Change Adaptation in the Himalaya (Himalica) initiative, is also being implemented in two union councils, Gojal 1 and Gojal 2, in Hunza district.

Yak at high pasture areas. Photo credits: Saeed Ahmed

There are over 8,000 yaks in on Ghizer, Phander, and Gojal. Pandher Valley accounts for almost 4,000 yaks that roam and graze in large herds. Herds in Teru are much smaller and Gojal 1 and Gojal 2 have sizable yak populations.According to estimates provided by the Livestock Department in 2010, there are 19,559 yaks in Gilgit Baltistan.

Implementers chose the yak value chain as a pilot to improve the livelihood prospects of mountain communities in the four union councils. They hope that these efforts will help build the adaptive capacities of locals and strengthenthe effort to build resilience and manage climate change risks.

In Teru, villagersare looking forward to the establishment of the yak value chain and related development pathways. They are hopeful that this will improve prospects for traditional yak herding in the region.

“No other resource has as much potential to enhance our livelihoods. This is the most productive and least costly value chain for us,” says Khan. Compared to other animals, yak is economical, both in term of labour and food consumption because it spends most of the year grazing in highland pastures.

Connecting Herders to Distributors

Through the pilot project, experts have trained community members in pasture management, yak health and integrated management, and the assessment of yak weight as a part of the value chain. There have been enterprise development trainings and farmers have formed their own groups to increase yak numbers and benefit from the sale of meat, milk products, wool, hide, and related products. Earlier this year, an exposure visit was organized by Himalica to Gansu Province in China, where Khan and other yak farmers were able to see the different steps that make up the yak value chain for themselves—from farming, to selling, and consumption.

Khan notes that yak herding in Gilgit Baltistan is a centuries-old tradition and that its proper commercialization through the setting up of a value chain can be the turning point for him and others whose livelihoods depend on the animal. He says that  husbandry of cow, goat, and sheep is costlier as fodder for these animals is difficult to find in the region and their rearing is also highly labour intensive.

Traditionally, yak is reared in the region for its high-protein meat and less commonly for milk. Most local households slaughter at least one yak in the beginning of winter for domestic consumption, bracing for the harsh cold when temperatures can fall below the freezing point for many months.

Value chain interventions have brought with them concepts and practices that help people improve sales, marketing, and linkages. Historically, villagers sold yaks directly to butchers. They walked on foot with their yak herd for several days to access the markets. The butchers often took advantage of the absence of a mechanism to deliver yak to local markets and exploited the yak owners. With the establishment of a yak value chain, the herders are hoping that they will have proper access to traders, hotel owners, and individuals and get better prices for their yaks.

With the successful implementation of the value chain, yak herders and owners will have access to local markets throughout the year. This will convert what was traditionally a seasonal business (lasting the cold winter months) into a potentially year long one. Farmers will be able to sell yak meat to hotels and restaurants in downstream locations where they are in high demand. At present, yak meat in Teru is sold at PKR 250–300 per kilogram, which, considering the fact that the high-quality organic meat comes from animals that have grown up on fresh spring water and wild grasses and shrubs in the high mountains is not a fair price for farmers, rendering them losses each time they sell an animal. The current value chain project foresees value in reaching out to premium markets with the potential of generating higher income for farmers.
To tap the potential market for organic yak meat, Karim Aman, an entrepreneur, has established a new processing plant in Daniyor near Gilgit City for value chain, value addition, and better packaging for sale in downstream markets. Aman owns Sky Frozen, a soon to be operational meat processing facility that will provide cold storage, packing and packaging solutions, and also transport processed meat (yak, goat, and sheep, among others) to markets throughout Gilgit Baltistan and cities further downstream.

Aman is working with two partners to take the company to its operational stage and was also a part of the exposure visit to China,  sees a significant potential for organic meat in the region. Along with individual customers, Aman and his team have identified major hotels in Gilgit and other big cities as potential customers. To sustain the supply of organic meat over time, the team has started engaging youth from yak herding communities as entrepreneurs in the value chain. This also contributes to increasing the price of meat at a rate that is fair to farmers, the quality of meat being delivered to markets, and hence the incomes of local farmers.

The pilot project and its promise of guaranteeing herders fair price for their animals and access to larger markets has given many villagers hope about the future of yak herding in the province. Saeed Ahmed, a lead yak herder from Gulmit Village of Gojal says, “People who had given up on yak herding are taking it up again with new found optimism.” Like Khan, he believes that yak herding is more practical than animal husbandry in Gilgit Baltistan. He says that the establishment of a value chain will motivate more people to take up yak herding as a livelihood option. “Most farmers I know want to buy yaks now,” he says. “The government and other organizations need to provide them fair loans.”Herders in Gojal already get a better price for yak meat than those in Teru where it is sold at PKR 500 per kilogram.

Yaks are in Pasture

The pilot initiative is linking herders’ community groups with firms such as Sky Frozen to ensure regular supply of yak meat. It is exploring ways to create a long-term win-win situation for both parties.”This step will motivate herders to work on improve yak breeding to produce organic meat, which will ultimately enhance their income,” says Aman from Frozen food. He says that the lack of facilities for yak breeders and herders, the absence of a systematic yak value chain mechanism, and the lack of access to potential markets are the reasons why organic yak meat is sold at around the same prices farmed cattle meat is at local markets.

Better Access to Bigger Markets

Aman is optimistic that the new road infrastructure under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will open avenues for local herders and traders to take their products to potential markets in cities downstream and abroad. He says that there is huge demand for organic produce, including meat and fruit, in Gilgit Baltistan and that there is a need for processing plants for value addition.

Ghulam Ali, Livelihood Specialist at ICIMOD, says that value chain development project aims to increase and diversify income opportunities for farmers, create better links among value chain actors, and ensure better evolution of market systems, including trust, to help sustainable incomes for herders. The project has already started providing training and information on best practices to herders on pasture management and integrated yak management, including yak health and breed management, micro enterprise development, vocational skills, and value addition, so that they are able to cater to bigger markets and emerging tourists’ need.

Highlighting the opportunities, Ali said that the potential could be successfully fulfilled while strengthening processes, systems, and practices with value chain actors while addressing binding and systemic constraints. He said that pasture management plans prepared by the communities of Teru and Misgar are setting new trends in terms of thinking and awareness in relation to better planning and utilization of pastures as natural resources for Gilgit Baltistan.

Finding a Way Forward

The Himalica project’s value chain initiative is a welcome step towards scaling up livelihood opportunities for mountain communities in Gilgit Baltistan. The challenge is a big one and needs to be addressed systematically. There is an urgent need to expand the yak value chain in each union council so that mountain communities in each part of the region can benefit from the initiative.

The bigger role rests with the provincial and federal governments, which have the authority to get involved in the development of various pragmatic initiatives for harnessing the potential of the yak value chain in the region for the socio-economic development of poor and marginalized communities. The onus is on the government to attract more development agencies and private investors to work on various potential areas going beyond yak value chain. Such a holistic approach ultimately benefits both the government and communities in the long term.

(This story has been published under the HIMALICA Fellowship Program awarded to Gilgit Times Online by ICIMOD after a competitive process).