Table of Contents


See also the “Animal traction: the use of draught animal power” chapter.


1. Overview

Donkeys can play a vital role in the economy. As a result of the droughts the number of donkeys used for cultivation and transport has increased dramatically. In the southern part of Africa donkey use is on the increase and liable to remain at high levels for the foreseeable future.

Donkeys are utilised throughout the country for a variety of reasons – such as transport on farms, rural villages and everyday water and supplies collection, and ploughing. Recently their value in guarding sheep and goats has reduced the need for other forms of predator control 1.

Donkeys are pretty optimal because:

  • Kilogram-for-kilogram, they produce more work than oxen
  • Kilogram-for-kilogram, they eat and drink much less than oxen, and eat particularly low quality vegetation.
  • They are outstandingly easy to train and handle.
  • They have a fairly low center of gravity and pull from a point not too high from the ground.
  • Their hoofs, being without points, do minimal damage to soils.
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Friendly towards humans
  • Willing to work
  • Can turn in a small space
  • Easy to train
  • Need little supervision in work
  • Can utilise poor food well
  • Need little water
  • Not affected much by external parasites
  • Less impact on soils than cattle or machines
  • Can survive well in tsetse areas
  • Can survive droughts better than cattle
  • Comparatively cheap to buy
  • Strong relative to size
  • Live/work long years in good care
  • Milk good for humans, especially babies
  • Useful for calming, training and guarding other kinds of animal
  • Work better in pairs with a friend
  • Suffer from being alone
  • Noisy when frustrated or lonely
  • Friends are not easily separated
  • Uncastrated males are aggressive towards other donkeys
  • Skin easily wounded
  • Tendency to wander long distances if not supervised
  • Tendency not to move out of the way of traffic
  • Need shelter from cold and damp
  • Produce only enough milk for own young, no extra
  • Comparatively small in size
  • Mature slowly
  • Breed slowly
  • Manure more fibrous than nutritious 
Source: P Jones 

What is the difference between a donkey and a mule?

A mule is a donkey-horse hybrid: the mother a horse, the father a donkey. The disadvantage of size in a donkey can be overcome if mules are bred. Mules are just about as strong as horses, but have the disease resistance and willingness to work that donkeys have. The great disadvantage of mules is that they are not fertile, and only extremely rarely can breed further mules.

Although donkey transport has been in place in South Africa for over 400 years, the animal responsible for its success and sustainability has been ignored – and worse. Using sound economic-based research, it can be shown that one donkey can bring in a profit of more than R3000.00 a month if it is used for less than 10 days a month, using current income and cost factors.

The very worst kind of cart for donkeys is the one most common in South Africa: two wheels, giving balance problems, and one shaft, giving hitching problems (hitching is the way the animal is connected to what it operates). It is important for donkey health and efficiency to overcome these problems.[See note on donkey carts towards the end of heading 2]

Carts have been designed so that they are safe for passengers, but ergonomically efficient - so a single human student (who weighs about half of the 150 kg that is the weight of an average donkey) can pull the single donkey cart with 2 students on board, with ease! Two students can pull the 4 wheel cart with six students on board with no real effort.

Contact Prof C McCrindle for more information. Write to her at cheryl.mccrindle [at]

 1. Dr Peta Jones (see heading 2) adds: "Not all donkeys make good livestock guards because there are significant behavioural differences between individuals. Also, a donkey’s behaviour may be unpredictable during oestrus, or when ewes are lambing or rams are working, as donkeys are able to sense behavioural changes in these animals".