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Smallholder poultry development in Africa


Nearly every rural household in Africa has a few chickens. They may be confined to a backyard, allowed to roam free, perhaps With some form of night shelter or even kept under the bed as in some parts of Somalia. They provide eggs and meat for the family and an additional source of family income. Why then, when so many people in Africa are short of animal protein, has the smallholder poultry keeper been so neglected by governments and development organisations?

It is not that poultry have been neglected. Most countries have attempted to improve productivity by large-scale development projects where high yielding stock has been imported, together with the well-balanced compound rations required for feeding and the vaccines and drugs required for disease control. However, once the development project has ended, the schemes frequently collapse. For small-scale farmers who form the food production base such schemes are obviously irrelevant. They need to improve their own management systems, making the best use of locally available resources.

It may be that the development potential of these small rural flocks, in many cases between 5 and 10 birds, has been neglected because chickens are hardly counted in terms of wealth ranking compared to cattle, sheep or goats. No doubt this is partly because they are small. There is a saying that money spent on livestock development is proportional to the size of the animal. It is probably also due to the fact that they are usually the responsibility of women and children and this is hardly likely to increase their value in the eyes of men. And in any social system, little value is attached to something of which nearly everyone owns at least a few. If five chickens provide five eggs a month, the value to family nutrition is negligible. If those five chickens can produce 30 eggs a month everyone in the family benefits and if the flock size is doubled, there may well be eggs to sell at market providing income, particularly for women.

Disease is the main constraint to improved productivity. Mortality from Newcastle Disease, the most widely prevalent poultry disease in Africa, can be extremely high, for example 50 % in Togo and Sudan, 70 % in Nigeria, 80 % in Comoros and 90 % in Zaire. Because mortality is so high, development schemes to improve productivity by introducing one higher productivity imported cockerel in exchange for several local cockerels have been largely unsuccessful. Farmers have every reason to be reluctant to part with several local cockerels in exchange for one, improved, exotic bird. If the improved bird dies, and it will probably have less disease resistance than the indigenous birds, the farmer is without a cockerel.

Vaccination helps to control disease but it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to provide the necessary refrigeration for the vaccine. Where chickens roam freely into the scrub scavenging for food, it can be quite difficult to find them. However, there are some highly successful vaccination schemes. Burkina Faso vaccinated 1.7 million birds in 3 500 villages in the 1988-89 campaign. 1700 voluntary village vaccinators have been trained and they work with the guidance of a veterinary team which considers the needs of breeders, traders and consumers. Considering the ease of on-farm application is essential. Combined vaccines providing protection against Newcastle Disease, Gomboro and fowl pox or-fowl cholera and which can be provided in pellet form are far more likely to be used, especially if they are made heat resistant. Farmers will be able to go along to their nearest veterinary office and buy or be given the vaccine pellets which they can then take home to give to the poultry.

There are two further, quite different approaches to disease control. One is to study the undoubted effectiveness of some local traditional remedies and the other is to understand the genetic resistance that some indigenous birds seem to carry. Importing ideas and practices from temperate zones in the north should not overshadow the potential that Africa already has.

Indigenous breeds not only show greater disease resistance than imported exotic birds but can generally tolerate a higher fibre diet. In times of drought, when cereals are scarce, this is a particularly important characteristic. A good diet is necessary for any animal to achieve maximum productivity and chickens are no exception. In fact with chickens, the owner gets an immediate reward-more eggs. But food sources that avoid conflict with human nutrition are desirable. Perhaps that is why, in Mali, Togo and Ghana for instance farmers carry or graze their chickens or their way to the farm site, tether them while they farm and bring them portion; of anthills. On a larger scale, agri-industrial waste can be useful. Brewers’ grains, a by-product of the beer industry can provide a nutritious and presumably enjoyable feast for poultry. Palm oil sludge sounds less appetising but chickens should do well on its high energy content. In Cd’Ivoire, fishmeal is processed from the fish heads and tails discarded by the smokehouses and in Uganda fishmeal is made from the tiny fish that live in the freshwater lakes Pigeon peas and lupin can provide valuable sources of protein, and millets cassava and sweet potato can provide energy. No doubt in Africa, as in the rest of the world, resourceful farmers conduct their own feeding experiments. However. these are likely to be more successful if the extension service provides information gathered from the shared experience at countries operating under similar conditions.

Some of the possible feed resources are limited by the presence of toxins. The majority of these toxins are found in plant protein supplements and the important ones are gossypol, tannin and aflatoxin. Simple methods of detoxification are needed and it is encouraging to find that soaking high tannin sorghum in wood ash extract or water overnight can reduce tannin level by 80 % and 40 % respectively. Although it is possible to grow gossypol-free cotton it is felt that such cotton has decreased pest resistance. It has been widely understood that feeding cottonseed cake to poultry inhibits weight increase but in Uganda it has been found that, provided it does not form more than 20 % of total feed and that it is not fed during the first week, cottonseed cake can make a useful contribution to broiler diet.

Most smallholder chickens scavenge for food. The extension service in Somalia is teaching women that if they throw a few handfuls of food to their chickens in the early morning before they start the day’s work and a little more when they return in the late afternoon, they will get more eggs. The women are taught to mix the ingredients that are available to them -perhaps maize, cowpeas, mangoes, sesame cake-and that when they give the chickens water they should always give them a feed. It is essential for extension workers to develop trust with the farmer but this can easily be jeopardised. If disease attacks a flock for example, the extension worker is likely to be considered the culprit and training needs to be given in handling this situation.

Extension advice is essential to ensure maximum success for development projects. The Malawi government introduced the Black Australorp to improve productivity and a Black Australorp or its cross is to be found in every village and every part of the country. However, there have been problems. It is only natural to slaughter the biggest bird when visitors are to be fed. This means that the Black Australorp may well have been eaten before the main objective of cross breeding has been achieved. While this undoubtedly improves family nutrition, it is a very short term success. This and other management problems can be overcome with extension advice. In Somalia it has been found more effective to sell improved birds to farmers, rather than to give them, because farmers are more likely to protect their own investment.

It is important that research and development should take an interdisciplinary approach considering breeding, nutrition and disease control, particularly in relation to management practices.

It was to discuss these principles that some 50 specialists from 21 African countries (anglophone and francophone) and several international organisations attended an International Seminar organised by CTA in Thessaloniki, Greece, from 9-13 October 1990. After consideration of the results of the Working Groups, delegates agreed that such interdisciplinary research programmes should be designed and executed by cooperation between scientists and institutions from Africa and Europe. In order to provide a cost-effective means for the coordination of effort, the nascent African Network on Rural Poultry Development should be given the clear objectives of identifying research and development priorities, funding sources and cooperation opportunities, coordination of training programmes for research and development personnel and the dissemination of information and documentation of results.

If each country in Africa can improve its smallholder poultry productivity there could be an improvement in the stability of the rural labour force, an increase in family income and, most important of all, more food for the family to eat.