Asia Economics Blog


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China's Pain in the Ass for Africa

Around 7,000 years ago in today’s East Africa, the donkey, equus asinus, was domesticated, marking a turning point in human productivity and mobility. To the present day, the donkey plays a vital economic role on the African continent, especially in remote and impoverished areas.

Around 3,000 years ago in today’s Dong’e County of China’s Shandong Province, an elixir for youthful vigor and feminine beauty, ‘ejiao’ (阿胶), or ‘donkey gelatin’, was concocted. The key ingredient in ejiao is donkey hide collagen.

In modern times, these two ancient markets have set upon a collision course with an exploding demand for ejiao in China becoming a pain in the ass for Africa. The African Union, representing 55 member states, is now pushing back. At a summit meeting on February 18, the AU announced a ban on donkey skin exports.

During Chinese imperial times, ejiao was a homogeneous and rarefied medicinal product consumed mainly by the emperor’s court and the elites of Shandong. Its spread was inhibited by the protracted nature of the donkey breeding and rearing cycle on the supply side and by income constraints and cultural proclivities on the demand side. In recent times, however, gains in per capita income and the marketing of ejiao for a range of health and beauty aspirations to an ageing population seeking to maintain vitality have sent demand soaring.

Ejiao became a billion-dollar industry in 2015, according to China’s Ejiao Industry Association. By 2021, production is estimated to have reached 15,700 tons on input of about 5 million hides, of which some 2-3 million were imported. Quantifying even the formal donkey hide trade is difficult, however. Relevant data series under the Standard International Trade Classification (SITC) of the United Nations are empty, including that for “bovine or equine hides and skins, raw (fresh, salted, dried, etc.), whether or not dehaired or split”.

Efforts at mass production of ejiao hit up against the donkey's biological nature. A jenny (female donkey) typically starts breeding at about two and a half years of age, is pregnant for 12 months, and then nurtures a foal for some four to six months. In the course of her reproductive life, she will typically give birth to only one to three foals. Further, the sensitive nature of the donkey that makes it such a reliable working companion also inclines it against forced breeding. 

Figure 1. Chinese Donkey Stock

Data source: UNdata.

Figure 2. Global Donkey Distribution

Data source: UNdata

Ineastic supply crossed with burgeoning demand has resulted in the serious depletion of China's donkey stocks, as shown in Figure 1. Hide shortages began to appear in 2014, prompting pursuit of foreign sources. With two-thirds of the world’s estimated 53 million donkeys to be found in Africa, as shown in Figure 2, Chinese traders turned attention in that direction. I first and only incidentally learned of the trade in 2017 while in Ethiopia, which is home to the world’s largest donkey population. With no prompting, locals shared their distress over China's market incursions, evincing the gravity of the situation.

What I learned informally from Ethiopian villagers accords with what is being reported by concerned civil society organizations. In short, much of the Chinese donkey trade is illicit, with donkeys often stolen from owners in middle-of-the-night raids, then hastily absconded with and brutally slaughtered. For African villagers, stolen donkeys are often irreplaceable given the high cost relative to household income, with incomes further diminished by the loss of the donkeys. For the poor, and women and girls especially, the donkey thefts can lead to a downward spiral

Loss of a donkey, even when sold rather than stolen, impacts labour productivity, and female labour productivity especially. Without a donkey, female household members are obliged to take on more physical labour, in farm work and the carrying of water and other loads. Women sans donkeys also have less time available to work outside the home, reducing their contribution to household income. Girls are often newly required to support their mothers in bearing these burdens to the neglect of schooling. All this acts to the detriment of fragile social mobility and gender progress.

Until recently efforts to limit – or even ban – the donkey trade have had little success since donkeys are found mostly in remote and unsecured areas, and hides can easily be shuttled across borders. In hopes of building unity of action, a conference was organized in December 2022 by the African Union, the government of Tanzania, and donkey welfare organizations on the theme of “Donkeys in Africa, Now and in the Future”. The conference called for a continent-wide 15-year ban on donkey trade, allowing time for more sustainable and humane arrangements to be worked out. As of February 2024, not only has the African Union now mandated such a ban, so, too, has Brazil, another major source of Chinese imports.

There has been no formal response from China's ejiao industry to the trade bans, let alone from Shandong’s “chief donkey official” (驴官) who is tasked with attending to the industry’s supply challenges. Chinese media have, however, suggested that the country's future donkey trade may lie with South Asia, especially Pakistan, and Europe. Given the important role of the donkey in economic life in developing countries, for women especially, and China’s interest in promoting Chinese medicine globally, the trade bans afford an interim to establish sound practices of animal husbandry and put trade on a legitimate footing.


For more on this subject, see the author's "China, Africa and the Market for Donkeys: Keeping the Cart behind the Donkey", Occasional Paper No. 339, South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg.

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