A chicken in every pot

2009-02-07 00:00

There is a photo of an elderly woman standing in front of her thatched house with a good number of multicoloured local chickens pecking around her. The woman is Barack Obama’s grandmother, but this is a common scene in rural Africa as well as in other developing countries. These village chickens make up 75% to 90% of the total poultry population in some of these countries (the percentage is a lot less in South Africa because of the extensive commercial sector, but they are nevertheless ubiquitous in rural areas).

Sikhebe Majozi has a large flock of around 60 chickens. His wife walks in their yard in the Msinga area of KwaZulu-Natal, feeding them as they come home to roost at night. Their chickens have no house to sleep in so they overnight in trees. To help them when nesting Majozi puts tin and plastic drums in the trees. There are a lot of the drums and they look like a new type of fruit.

These village chickens (also know as scavenging, indigenous, family, traditional or just local chickens) are an extremely important, but underutilised, protein resource for rural families, especially these days when food is so expensive, food security has become the buzz word and when there are so many village people who are sick. Besides the chickens being used for eating, and sometimes selling, they are also important in the socioeconomic life of rural communities, being used as gifts and for traditional and ceremonial activities.

Village chickens are the true “free range” chickens in that they wander around wherever they choose. They find most of their own feed, they are good at hatching and mothering young chicks and they have the ability to survive under harsh conditions. They cost the farmer nothing to keep alive, but their productivity is very low.

Entire flocks are often decimated by Newcastle disease. However, there are steps that can be implemented which would considerably improve the production levels of these chickens and which require little monetary outlay, only some time and attention. For example, vaccinating chicks against Newcastle disease, introducing internal and externalparasite control and reducing chick mortality and selective breeding.

Village chickens have a genetic potential to respond favourably to better management conditions. What village farmers need is to be transformed from passive to active chicken producers using basic chicken-management knowledge and skills. Of course, sustainability is a key consideration.

Such productivity improvements offer the potential to uplift the nutritional levels and living standards of rural people, especially the women who, with the children, are mainly responsible for looking after the chickens. Growing vegetables is recommended for people who suffer from HIV/Aids. However, while this is commendable the importance of proteins in a diet is often neglected.

The Mdukutshani Rural Development Project works with dozens of rural farmers in the Tugela Valley in KwaZulu-Natal. Majozi is one of these farmers. These farmers have successfully implemented some of the methods that have been suggested to improve chicken rearing, which includes introducing a record-keeping system.

Unfortunately, this project is probably one of only a few similar projects. What is required to get a nationwide campaign off the ground is for the Department of Agriculture to get involved, particularly with regard to vaccinating against Newcastle disease. The department should also provide its officers with appropriate training. This would be in line with the recommendations of the recent report “Who Will Feed the Poor? The Future of Food Security for Southern Africa” by the Southern Africa Trust.

Neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania are producing a heat-stable Newcastle disease vaccine, which does not require a cold chain and is thus more useful under rural conditions than the conventional vaccines. These countries have national vaccination programmes in place which have resulted in significant improvements in village chicken productivity. We need something similar here. Training and extensive work among villagers is also essential. In addition, this work would be of benefit to commercial poultry producers in that the chances of their flocks becoming infected by diseases prevalent in village chickens would be considerably diminished.

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