A slice of the meat industry

A meat technologist is not a common profession one would often hear about in Ethiopia. Getnet Workalemahu, 61, a meat technologist, takes pride in what he does. He has served in various meat factories and in the Addis Ababa Abattoirs Enterprise for more than three decades. Born in Addis Ababa, Getnet did his Masters in meat technology in Russia after winning a scholarship in 1977. He completed a five-year study at Odessa Lomonosov Technological Institute of Food and Industry. Getnet currently resides in Addis Ababa, Ginfille area, and is well respected among his community as he never tires to pass on his knowledge. In this exclusive interview with Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter, Getnet elaborates on the concept of meat technology as well as the challenges of meat processing in Ethiopia. Excerpts;   

The Reporter: How do you define meat technology?

Getnet: In general, meat technology is handling the slaughtering and butchering process of meat in a modern way. This process starts with breeding cattle, giving them the proper nutrition and continues up to processing and packaging in different forms. Though the main consumption is meat, it also yields a variety of by-products including hides, hair, dried blood to a sophisticated process of rendering, fat such as tallow, and protein meals such as meat and bone meal. Modern slaughtering transformed itself from traditional slaughtering which brought a mechanized way of doing it. Now animals are slaughtered by being first stunned (sedated) because it has to be done humanely. Especially, the need for processing came with increasing trade exchange between countries. For cattle from Latin America to be exported to Europe, it has to be processed and preserved in the proper manner. All the remnants which are not used for dietary consumption can be used for jewelry, cosmetics and other purposes.

How did you get to choose meat technology? Did you have a previous knowledge about the field?

Many people applied for various fields for the scholarship but I thought I might have a better chance in meat technology. My first choice was forestry and irrigation. But I thought the different fields such as veterinary, medicine, forestry, canalization, irrigation would have competitions. I did not have previous knowledge about meat technology. The only knowledge I had was the packed meats that were available in the market. Once there, I could have changed my field of study but it was a hustle. So, I went further with meat technology.

Was it easy to find a job after you came back to Ethiopia?

I came back in 1983 and the government gave me a job instantly at Melge Wondo Meat Factory in Sidama as deputy general manager with a 710 birr monthly salary. This factory took the lion’s share of the country’s meat production. Mostly the cattle came from the  Borena area. The plant not only slaughters  cattle but also provides vaccination, follow their dietary needs and sell live animals. The country was also exporting meat at the time. Our meat was exported to Libya, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries as well. We were famous for our pre-packaged cuts such as silverside, top side and sirloin. A slaughtered whole sheep and also the organs of the sheep such as liver, heart, kidney was sent to various countries. In addition, processed meat such as boiled meat with pouch was sent to Japan. Corn beef used to be shipped to Italy and England. Raw meat was exported to Arab nations but it was not possible to do so to western countries. One of the occasion I remember was when Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam went to visit Korea. He took with him a huge amount of hump meat packed in mesob. The Koreans love, actually worship, hump meat. I am sure they still reminisce about that.  After working for some time at Melge Wondo, I was transferred to Kombolcha Meat Factory (S.O.P.R.A.L.). This used to be owned by the Italians but was later appropriated by the Derg regime. In this factory there was an amount of 500 tons of meat which was exported to Korea per annum. In addition, we became the main suppliers of packed foods such as ground stew beef (minchet abish) and vegetables for the Ethiopian military camps.

What was the practice before you came? Did you have to train people?

Before my arrival, there were already Ethiopians who went to England and also to Botswana and studied about meat technology. There were also foreigners, mainly Italians. There was a meat corporation which was very strong and many of the factories date back years. I was added to this collective and didn’t have to start from scratch. Even though there was quality control, there were complaints regarding sanitation. We developed a tracking system to trace undesirables.

The Kombolcha Meat Factory also has agricultural farms and pig herding.  I served as production manager for eight years beginning  from 1987. I supervised pig herding, slaughtering and processing. It was, more or less, the same salary but money was never an issue for me. It was a lot of work. We were responsible for supplying 70,000 cans of processed food per day for the military.

Did the change in regime following the downfall of the Derg affect the meat factory in anyway?  

Yes, in so many ways. We were still the supplier for the military and we had to modify the labeling of the cans. Improvements on the food were also required. This time the military wanted more meat. The export was handled by the government when the Derg was in power. With the regime change, the government transferred the responsibility to private investors. Our service was reduced to slaughtering, refrigerating and delivering to the responsible people in Addis. Transport was done using an old vehicle and this created a hindrance on exports. After some time our main focus became the military camps. More than this, due to structural changes that were going on in the factory, many conflicts ensued. I was temporarily suspended and came back to Addis. After four months, I was recalled and was promoted to technical and production manager. My salary was also raised to around 900 birr. But the issue with the management was not resolved. In the middle of this, there was a vacancy at Addis Ababa Abattoirs Enterprise where I passed the interview as main department manager.  Addis Ababa Abattoirs Enterprise was nothing like I had experienced before. The chaos was overwhelming. There are always some incidents that take anyone by surprise.

What were these incidents?

There were always incidents regarding the disappearance of oxen and cows. The animals become frantic and run away so there are always people running after them. Even with the butchering process, the meat gets burned or gets spoiled, which is always a nightmare to handle. Let me put it like this, every morning there is a disaster to report. The Addis Ababa Abattoirs is very huge, the main department has three slaughtering slots, two sheep slaughtering and one pig slaughtering. One of the slaughtering slot has a space for 12 cows. The cows are then split in half along the mid-ventral axis and the carcass is cut into wholesale pieces. The dressing and cutting sequence is still done with a very intensive manual labor while in many countries it is being fully automated. We started off the same as other countries but we could not catch up with the progress of automation. The one we use is outdated. It is dangerous for workers and exposing them to hazardous situations. This harsh situation of the workers still haunts me. They are working for long, intense hours in inhumane conditions. The chaos and the yelling is still fresh in my mind. However, there are some things that were improved but it still needs a radical change.

What is the radical change needed?

It should transform itself in a new way starting from the building which is very old and has holes everywhere. The slaughtering and butchery process is done arbitrarily. The animals die because of suffocation, or they become hysterical and push each other which results in death for some of them. Due to structural problems, mistakes happen frequently which forces the enterprise to pay compensations. The one improvement I observed is increment of salary for workers. Especially those in the management position are benefiting highly. The enterprise is also investing in capacity building trainings for workers. The improvements are lagging when it comes to putting the necessary machineries. Workers sustain injuries and the meat is sometimes butchered in improper way.

The other thing is that the meat eating culture in the country results in ill-planning for slaughtering. In the slot where slaughtering is done for Muslims, slaughtering is regular (there are certified religious leaders for Muslims and Christians hired to bless the animals before the slaughter). But in the Christian’s slot, where much of the slaughtering happens, it is irregular [Ethiopian Orthodox Christian followers avoid meat and dietary products on Wednsdays and Fridays]. For example, on Wednesday, 800 to 1000 cattle are slaughtered to be distributed on Thursday. The number increases on the weekends but on Mondays and Tuesdays, there is nothing. Apart from that, on the eve of the end of the lenten  season, the number escalates to 3500, which is too much of work for the employees. Their job starts with wrestling with an animal that weighs more than 300 kilograms. In other countries, the animal to be slaughtered do not come in contact with a person. On the contrary, the process in Ethiopia sends the animal to hysteria and becomes difficult to handle. They are sedated with knife next to their ear. In other countries, the area where the animal is sedated and slaughtered is different whereas here they are slaughtered in a space they are sedated. The dressing process is done manually with the help of an outdated machine. One thing I have to stress is, it is a very outdated system. The camel slaughtering is done in Akaki area and it is upgraded a bit. Addis Ababa is the center of African Union and many international delegates reside, so the standard should be upgraded. There were complaints from the international delegates that the meat should be imported from South Africa and Botswana because of the sanitation issue. There are researches and projects to upgrade the enterprise and I am also part of that from time to time.

What are the plans to upgrade the enterprise?

It should be completely automated and the transportation system should be standardized. Apart from that, the chopped meats should not be carried by people. Spilling the blood affects the quality of the meat. The workers should not be subjected to this laborious work. Slaughtering in other places should be banned and the enterprise should take over. In the enterprise, the animals have numbers which can be traced and I know they do a good job in testing the animals. In other places, there might be infectious disease and there is no mechanism to trace that. There should be close scrutiny on butcheries. They hung the meat with a nail in unsanitary way. The knife should be stainless steel. Many places do not have refrigerators and some butcheries are located in unsavory areas. The safety and sanitary of the butchery places including distribution and preservation should be scrutinized. Eating habit should also change. Raw meat is the main consumption and so nobody wants to eat refrigerated meat.

Despite having one of the biggest cattle populations in Africa, how do you evaluate the country’s meat export?

The Addis Ababa Abattoirs Enterprise exclusively serves the Addis Ababa market. There are private enterprises such as Modjo Modern, Luna, Organic, Elfora. The number of exporters, especially beef, are growing. Meat is very expensive in America and Middle Eastern countries. Countries that used to deliver meat at cheap price such as India and Australia are now becoming expensive. The competition is fierce. Ethiopia’s are known to be grazing animals, which can attract those who prefer organic meat. A couple of years ago, Ethiopia was banned from exporting meat. Even though the ban is lifted, it is very tough to penetrate the market. If the enterprise was reorganized and if the projects planned are implemented, the target is to be a prime exporter to Africa and the Middle East.

But when you see our live animals being sold in all corners – through Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. The meat exporting business needs a lot of work. There are vaccination issues and also there is a need to establish disease free zones. It needs promotional work. There are still complaints from customers with regards to refrigeration, sanitation and improper meat. There should be a quality assurance. All in all, we have to catch up with the modern technology. Also, although we have a huge cattle population, it is underfed. The average weight of cattle should be 700 kilograms but when it comes to the Ethiopian case, the average the weight is 250 to 300 kilograms. There is a lot to be done during the breeding process. Our animals are used agriculture activities and so they are fatigued. The meat will be hard to chew.

What are you doing currently?

I retired last year. From time to time I go and consult them on different issues. I worked in the enterprise for 17 years. My wish is actually to see the improvement of the enterprise. Apart from that, I also want to do consultation works on nutrition especially in preparation of sausages like mortadella. This is monopolized by stingy people and I want to introduce this widely. If there is nothing to do, I will sleep.