By Dan Kiprop Kibet

Indigenous Chicken“Small scale farming is a way of life in Africa full of challenges and equally full of huge opportunities” (Xinhua).

The unprecedented population surge in Kenya has left the country with near 43 million people and continues to steadily increase. This has led to competition and depletion of land and natural resources. In many parts of the country, available land is shrinking, either due to urbanization or cultural land dividing traditions. For many families struggling to make ends meet, the sale of their land is viewed as the only option. Most households in urban areas nowadays must depend on ¼ acre plots to meet their daily needs in times when unpredictable climactic conditions are making it even harder to farm. The depletion of farm land has caused harsh economic times that result in a rise in food prices, farm inputs, and animal feeds. These factors have made the production of enough food unattainable, aggravating hungry and poverty-stricken households. However, small-scale farmers in urban areas can better utilize their land through sustainable agricultural methods.  These methods are often low cost, practical, and can contribute to their daily food needs. One of the best opportunities for small-scale farmers can be through indigenous poultry production.

 The four main benefits of raising indigenous chickens are:

  • They are easy to establish for low-income families.
  • They are more prolific and unproblematic to rear on small plots of land.
  • They are more genetically diverse, well adapted, and more resistant to local pests and diseases.
  • They are vital for future food security, leading towards self-employment and self-reliance.

The chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a fowl that is said to be one of the most widely domesticated animals in recorded history. Charles Darwin considered chickens descendants of a single wild species, the red jungle fowl, which is found in the wild from India through Southeast Asia to the Philippines. Genetic analyses have shown that every breed of domestic chicken can be traced to the red jungle fowl. Scientists estimate that they were domesticated roughly 8,000 years ago in what is now Thailand and Vietnam (Encarta DVD, 2008).

The indigenous chicken forms a very heterogeneous population; they exhibit wide variations in size, plumage, color, comb type, and skin color (Ndegwa et al.1991).  Encarta describes them as diurnal in habit (more active during daytime), highly gregarious, meaning they are able to live together as a flock, and roosters are polygamous and able to guard a large number of hens. The fecundity, or ability to reproduce, of the species is an important characteristic, especially because their eggs and meat are prized as food. They are better adapted to living on the ground, where they find most of their natural diet, consisting of worms, insects, seeds, and plants, while their four toed-feet are designed for scratching.

In Kenya, indigenous poultry are the most popular and common farm species. According to recently released census results by The Kenya Poultry Farmers Association (KEPOFA), the poultry population stands at 32 million, of which 6 million are commercial hybrids and the rest are indigenous birds. They contribute significantly to the socio-economic and nutritional needs of an estimated 21 million people, many living in rural areas of Kenya.

In these rural villages, indigenous chickens are kept under free-range systems where they are allowed to scavenge during the day and are housed at night. They are provided with little or no supplementary feeds and thus suffer from nutrient deficiencies. These chickens suffer from a high rate of mortality due to predators such as eagles. Disease attacks and loss of eggs are also a challenge. Rural farmers hardly sell or slaughter their chicken except during festival seasons or when an important guest visits.

Though some challenges exist, raising indigenous chicken is preferable to the commercial breeds for small-scale chicken production. For example, the broilers are more expensive to buy, susceptible to diseases, and require high maintenance for their development. Thus, they can be extremely difficult for a small-scale farmer to manage. Broilers are best raised in confined conditions where disease can be managed through sterilization, but the indigenous birds can be raised free-range as they are less susceptible to the harsh weather and environmental conditions of Kenya. This forces the farmer raising broilers to purchase expensive feeds rather than relying on nature’s abundant feeds, like worms and insects.  Although the commercial chicken grows faster and can be finished within six weeks, there is a high initial start-up cost and a greater risk.

Over the years, the indigenous poultry industry in Kenya has seen tremendous growth due to the high demand for their products, especially in townships throughout Kenya. The increase in demand has been attributed to an increase in prices of red meat as well as health consciousness among meat lovers. Meat and eggs are considered complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids needed for humans as well as important fats, minerals and vitamins our bodies need.

Furthermore, the indigenous poultry industry has a recognized potential to generate higher income and transform living standards if appropriate interventions are developed and implemented. The Kenya Economic Report (KPPRA) identifies poultry as one of the leading livestock enterprises that can contribute the most towards the attainment of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 1 (MDG1). The indigenous poultry industry in Kenya, therefore, is posed to play a strategic role in on-going socio-economic development under Vision 2030, which is a long-term national development plan to transform Kenya into a rapidly industrializing middle-income by the year 2030.

Chicken houseTo find out more about the indigenous chicken, I recently visited one small-scale farmer near Nakuru Town, Ngata. Nakuru town is located 160km Northwest of Nairobi. Peter lives on the outskirts of Nakuru Town in a rapidly expanding area. Most small-scale farmers in the area grow maize or keep livestock, but not Peter. He has decided to diverge from the norm and invest in an indigenous chicken operation. He says that it is a more rewarding venture than growing maize or keeping livestock in ¼ acre plots, citing the prevailing hardships experienced by agricultural production today.

Peter feeding chickensWith a starting capital of 500 Kenyan Shillings (roughly five dollars and 81 cents) two years ago, Peter bought two hens, a cock, and some eggs. Today, Peter owns a flock of chickens worth 75,000 Ksh. (roughly 872 dollars). Peter says he has been selling chickens since he started keeping them. “It is much more efficient because of my proximity to town and the high demand of my products by  local consumers,” he says. Given that most indigenous chicken sold in the town is sourced from rural farmers, Peter has found an opportunity to fill the gap.

He sells a live chicken at 500 Ksh. while an egg fetches 15-20 Ksh. During the holiday season in December, his chickens can fetch an even greater profit; therefore he makes sure he has ample supply for December.  His immediate customers are hotels and nearby neighbours. On a good business day, he sells 3-5 chickens and a tray of eggs.  About 98% of his income comes from this investment, he says as he receives a phone call from a customer who needs to buy some eggs. With a flowing income, Peter is able to buy other basic needs for his family. He notes, “The more I sell my chickens; the more they multiply.”

Having grown up in a rural village where keeping indigenous chickens and farming was common, Peter says that he saw the economic and nutritional importance of investing in indigenous chicken as a source of food and income. He believes that because he supplies chicken products to neighbours and hotel businesses, he contributes to the employment opportunities in town in addition to providing nutritional value to the community. These sentiments are echoed by Mr. Chemjor Wendot, an expert in animal nutrition and a leading proponent of indigenous chickens in Kenya. Wendot asserts that indigenous chickens in Kenya play a key role in community development and sustaining livelihoods. He emphasizes that there is need for the industry to be enhanced further through improved feeding and proper management skills disseminated to poultry keepers.

Peter raises his chickens in a semi-intensive system with an area measuring eight meters by ten meters inside a wire mesh enclosure eight feet high. He says that the birds spend most of the day within the restricted area and are only allowed to move outside for an hour a day to scavenge, an inborn trait. He calls the scavenging “chicken exercise.” This system, Peter says, makes it easy to manage the chickens, requires a low level of labor, and enables him to control any loss of eggs as well as mortality rates and pests and diseases. Peter also gets ample time to do other chores.

Peter’s poultry house is constructed using locally available materials and considers factors such as ventilation and the direction of the wind. As we take a tour inside of the house, Peter provides the birds with perches and bedding raised two feet high and treated with old, used oil as a repellent against ecto-parasites. The floor is neat, as Peter cleans it on a daily basis. He applies the chicken manure to the garden to boost the soil fertility and grows kale to sell for human consumption and as a supplementary feed for the chickens. Growing the kale and vegetables together is an example of the perfect symbiosis between animals and plants that far too often is avoided in today’s agricultural practices.

To achieve optimum production, Peter feeds his birds high-nutrition feeds including kale, milling waste, green grass, kitchen waste, sunflowers, cereals, and omena-fish meal and kienyeji mash, a local home-made feed. While scavenging in the evening, the birds go for insects, wild seeds, and maggots, as well as ticks from around the cows’ pen, acting as a biological pest control. Water is provided ad libitum (at one’s pleasure), but Peter observes that the birds drink less than 20 liters a day.  Peter says he has found a way to decrease his dependence on the rain-fed agriculture that is associated with many large and small-scale farmers in Kenya.

Peter has managed to group his chickens into a few groups; laying hens, brooding hens, chicks, and the rest of the flock. The laying and brooding hens are provided with laying boxes comprised of old basins, used car rims, and sacks filled with soft materials for increasing comfort. Peter says that he observes his chickens and monitors each one’s progress and feeding habits. Peter says this as he spreads maize to a group of chicken outside. I could hear the hens clucking and soon chicks hurriedly ran in for a meal. Peter tells me that he assigns many chicks to a mother with good mothering abilities in order to control their habits. Indigenous chickens are known to spend half of their lifetime caring for their chicks. With Peter’s system, he is able to get many hens laying again after weaning them from their chicks. He is planning to acquire a locally-made incubator for the rising number of chicks.

Chicken eggsAccording to his observations, Peter says that many of his hens lay 12-15 eggs, but it depends on the breed and if they sit on the eggs for a period of 21 days. Peter sorts eggs by desired quality and allows hens with good hatchability and mothering ability to sit on them. With Peter’s creativity, he can manipulate the chickens’ laying habits by placing eggs in advance on their laying nests or particular spots they like most, encouraging many hens to lay and brood. It is a method used to get more eggs and increase the flock, therefore making more sales all year-round. This practice sheds light on the concern that the poor performance of indigenous chicken is not due to genetics, but a lack of good management (Mengecha et al., 2008).

Studies carried out at National Animal husbandry research centre (NAHRC) Naivasha indicate that, at the traditional farm level, average egg production of indigenous chickens is about 40 eggs per year (Ndegwa et al., 1998). A similar report by the ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Development, and Marketing (1994), gives a range of 40-60 eggs.  Under improved conditions, this number can be raised to as high as 150 eggs (Ndegwa et al., 1998).

Indigenous chickens are associated with broodiness—a maternal instinct that affects egg production. Mr. Chemjor Wendot says that broodiness may be important to small-scale farmers to increase their flock, but needs to be controlled. Peter controls broodiness by separating hens in different cages for 3 to 4 days. He says broodiness then disappears. In rural villages, based on traditional understanding, farmers stop broodiness by immersing the hen in cold water or by plucking out their vent feathers. These measures, however, seem to be harsh and may actually cause stress and stop egg production completely. Monitoring the breeding system of chickens is essential, so Peter follows a strict programme whereby inbreeding is avoided. Inbreeding causes underperformance. Peter assigns a rooster to eight hens and always uses cocks with different genetic traits, mostly cross-bred ones. He says he looks for cocks of fast maturity, disease resistance, and body weight as optimal factors for selection. For example, to get more eggs, Peter goes for a lighter breed, while for meat, he uses a heavier breed. Peter has plans to have each group in its own area for improved feeding, organized breeding, and proper record keeping.

Peter has implemented control measures in advance to combat pests and disease outbreaks. He prioritizes the health of the chickens. He says that upon hatching (or whenever a new chicken is joining the flock) vaccination must be done. The vaccines are made from a concoction of local herbs such as the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), aloe vera, sisal (Agave sisalana), and hot pepper. Peter says he prefers these herbs because they are easily available and good in terms of disease prevention with no side effects to his chickens.

Peter finely crushes the vaccine plants and soaks them in water for 2 to 3 days. Then, he mixes them with drinking water to administer the vaccines to the chickens. Because it is important for each chicken to drink the vaccine, he withdraws water troughs for some time before introducing the vaccines. According to him, this is to make the chickens thirsty and drink the vaccines. “The earlier the control, the better,” he says. Some of the diseases to watch out for include fowl typhoid, coccidiocis, and Newcastle.  Peter sometimes combines the traditional methods with modern medicine to deal with cases of disease. Other control measures he finds useful are proper sanitation, fumigation of the house, culling the flock, and burying the carcasses. But with proper housing, good husbandry practices, and feeding a balanced diet, Peter says he is able to reduce occurrences of poor health, pests, and diseases while reaping a gain from his investment.

Hens sitting on eggsThe success of Peter’s indigenous chickens can act as a model for many small-scale farmers in both urban and rural areas. He offers hope for the opportunity to utilize land, however small, in order to sustain livelihoods. Peter’s investment no doubt provides a picture of a bright food future. It is a move towards the eradication of hunger and poverty levels of many households in a time when human population and the demand for food rises as agricultural land diminishes. Training farmers on the many improved management and marketing opportunities available can harness the promise of indigenous chicken production.



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