DHAKA, Bangladesh — Think of it as Amazon, but for cows, goats and sheep. And this holiday season, the sales are skyrocketing.
Every year, farmers in Bangladesh, home to about 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population, rear millions of animals for sacrifice during the festival of Eid al-Adha, the commemoration of a sacrifice made by the prophet Abraham. Families crowd markets to pick out the prime animals for their celebrations.
But this year, amid a surge in coronavirus infections across the country, buyers and sellers have increasingly shifted that interaction online.
Farmers had worried that an estimated 12 million animals for sale, worth billions of dollars, would be affected after the government announced a pandemic lockdown in the weeks before the festival.
At the last minute, the government eased restrictions to allow for holiday shopping to inject some life into the economy, much to the protest of health experts who said crowded cattle markets could become infection hot spots. In an effort to reduce some of the crowds, officials set an ambitious target: sell 25 percent of the sacrificial cattle online in virtual cattle markets.
Since the push began this month, all sizes of farms, local cooperatives, and even individual villagers have been uploading their flocks. Some of the more experienced online vendors have had a leg up — posting well-lit photographs of their cattle with slick tags, and even publishing the vaccination status of the animal.
For others, tech-savvy intermediaries have stepped in to help with photograph and video services in return for a commission. One platform even has a section of webcam footage where prospective buyers can watch the animals live.
Others offered a more personal touch.
“If you want, you can watch the cows directly from the farmer’s house through video call,” wrote one seller, advertising a cow weighing 670 pounds and with an 84-inch chest.
On Tuesday, before the eve of the festival in Bangladesh, nearly 390,000 animals had been sold through hundreds of online merchants and platforms, according to the government’s livestock department. That was far short of the target, but an increase of at least 10 times the online sales estimated in local news media for last year.
Cows and buffaloes were the pick, followed by goats and sheep.
Rafiqul Ranju, who runs a small transportation service in the infamously congested capital, Dhaka, said, “The main problem is the heavy traffic around the city areas — it has been very difficult to deliver the animals on time.”
A major lift for online sales came when several private and government entities partnered to introduce a service called Digital Haat this month, bringing more than 50 merchants with access to nearly 500 cattle markets onto one website. The platform is banking on the rise of digital payments in Bangladesh to bolster its efforts.
To help small-time farmers, Digital Haat provides detailed instructions on how to market their stock. First: Clean the animal, and photograph it in front of a wall with a measurement marker to show its exact height, or next to a shepherd to give at least a sense of size. Then: Make sure all the limbs are visible. And if the animal is vaccinated or has had a health check, upload the certificate.
“Take a picture of the animal in a beautiful place,” the instructions say. “Photograph the teeth in such a way that you can see how many have grown properly.”
But whether or not the guidance was followed seemed to matter little, as evidenced by the record sales and a scroll through the posts of some of the animals recently purchased.
Goat 191, weighing 48 pounds, shown grazing on fresh greens in a short video: sold. Bull 0505, weighing approximately 750 pounds and filmed from every angle in his shed in a video set to happy music: sold.
And then there was Cow 103, coming in at 727-760 pounds. In the three photographs uploaded, the animal’s limbs and teeth are not visible. But the owner stands proudly alongside in his undershirt. Cow 103 also sold.
Digital Haat aims to be an equalizer, hosting experienced vendors as well as smaller cooperatives and farms.
Kamrun Nahar, a 36-year-old from Gaibandha, a small town north of Dhaka, said she had sold two cows through one of the merchants listed on Digital Haat.
“I think these online platforms gave us a great opportunity to sell animals so easily — we now don’t need to go to the market, don’t need to hire a car or run after people to manage the animals,” Ms. Nahar said. “Without extra costs, we now can sell right from home.”
The purchase of sacrificial animals for Eid al-Adha has traditionally been a family affair, with several members going together to the market to haggle, offer their opinions and try to avoid being ripped off. The involvement of government agencies and established trade associations in the online platforms seems to have eased some — but not all — of the reservations about not conducting negotiations in person.
“The response we’ve got on the digital cattle markets so far is huge,” said Shah Emran, the general secretary of Bangladesh Dairy Farmers’ Association, a group involved in setting up Digital Haat. But, he noted, trust was still an obstacle.
“The buyers ask more questions about the sellers than the animals,” he said, with some wary of putting their trust in merchants on a new platform.
Sheikh Abdus Sobhan, a resident of northeastern Dhaka who said he was in his late 50s, logged on to Digital Haat on Sunday, after his evening prayer. He selected a cow and called the merchant to finalize the deal. But he was told the animal was already sold. The merchants sent him two other available cows online, which Mr. Sobhan checked and approved.
“After confirming the booking, they sent their representatives around midnight to get the cash advance,” Mr. Sobhan said on Tuesday. “They finally delivered the cows this morning.”
His biggest concern, he noted, was whether they would actually deliver the cows advertised.
“But by the grace of God,” he said, “we got the same cow that we had seen on the website.”