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Donkeys as a source of sustainable draft power

Chris Garrett explains the value of donkeys as source of sustainable draft power across the world

Chris Garrett

There are an estimated 112 million working equids in the world today, donkeys alone accounting for just over a third of that number and generating a daily global income of between $300 and $500 million[1]. In this article, Chris Garrett explains the value of donkeys as source of sustainable draft power across the world.

What do all these donkeys do?

Ever been to India? Stayed in one of those modern high rise hotels? Believe it or not those are built using donkeys to carry the materials up to each floor. They also work in the brick kilns and the farms, they take the kids to school and the produce to market, they are the taxi, the wheelbarrow, the dumper truck and the tractor that 600 million people in the world depend on.

When we want a cup of tea we fill the kettle from the tap, but for countless millions they take the donkey up to 15 kilometres to the nearest water supply. In some places the donkeys get the bidons draped across their backs and take themselves. Someone at the river will see them, fill the bidons (at least two, often four, with 20 litres of water in each), put them back on the donkey, give it a slap to send it on its way home.

They are used to guard the flocks and herds of livestock against predators, as the donkey, unlike the horse, lives in small family groups in the wild, and is naturally quite prepared to fight to defend its ‘family’. Although they work well with and for humans, their loyalty, hard work and intelligence are all too often met with maltreatment and abandonment.

Photo credit: Laura Higham

Age of mechanisation

I have seen for myself the system whereby a resource-poor country is given aid, in particular by replacing villages donkeys and mules by mechanical alternatives. The village is now dependant on that machine, and there are various reasons why that is dangerous.

  • Everyone needs it at the same time.
  • Often there is no skilled maintenance of the machine and it may stand for weeks between periods of heavy use.
  • Many of the machines supplied are of poor quality and prone to unreliability and breakdowns.
  • When it breaks there are no easily available parts.
  • No skilled people to fit those parts.
  • No money to buy the parts needed.
  • The running costs of the machine, and the dependence on resources not available locally, including fossil fuels.
  • The machine will inevitably end up in the care of the most influential people in the village, which can mean that those outside the elite group suffer.

Benefits of draft animal power (DAP)

In a system where everyone has their own power source, whether that be cattle, horse, mules or donkeys, everyone is not only independent, but are in a position to offer assistance to family, friends and neighbours in need.

Draft animals are normally far more economic than machines: the fuel for them is part of the crops they help produce, often a part that is less valuable, or even has no other value. They not only provide the power source to grow the crop, but their waste also fertilises it. Most reproduce annually (little longer for donkeys) – their offspring a valuable asset that can be kept on farm as replacements or sold off, providing a good cash injection that can be used to develop the farm, or to keep the family through hard times.

Having started my career in a world where the horse was mainly used for recreation, I have seen many changes, not least in the last few years, including the resurgence of draft animal power (DAP) in many so called ‘developed’ countries. In Europe and the USA, people are turning back to DAP and finding not only a better, more natural way of life, but also that they can be profitable, modern farming techniques.

21st century machinery is now available for DAP farming. Those that need a power source can often be run on hydraulics powered by a small engine mounted on the vehicle, others can be driven using power taken from their own wheels. With investment in training people to handle the animals, make good quality harness, provide good health care, and the developments made in providing good quality, well balanced and lightweight cultivation and transport hardware, we increase profits and provide real jobs for people.


My brief does not allow me to expand on the above any further in this short article, however I hope that it will encourage you to investigate further, and or contact myself or my colleagues at The ROpS department of The Donkey Sanctuary to learn more.

Chris Garrett is Lead Harness for the Research and Operational (ROpS) department of The Donkey Sanctuary. He became a qualified saddler and harness maker in 1992 and practiced his trade in the UK until 2004 before emigrating to France. In 2000 he became a contract trainer for an international horse charity before joining The Donkey Sanctuary in 2008 where he has worked full time ever since. Chris is developing systems of harness that are comfortable, efficient, and, most importantly that can be made with materials available to nearly anyone wherever they may be in the world. Along with the rest of the technical team in the ROpS department he is engaged in making training available on line to those who request it. Currently residing in New Zealand all the harness developed for this is thoroughly researched and tested before release, either in New Zealand, or in Europe, or both.

[1]Figures arrived at by comparing the known number of people in the world dependant on donkeys and average minimum wage in participating developing countries –using data from FAOSTAT, Somerville et al, 2018, The Brooke Theory of Change and Bongaarts 2001.

Photos by Laura Higham