Knowledge for Development

Science and Innovation in Family Poultry Value Chain Development: Lessons for African countries

Author: Robyn Alders

Date: 15/10/2012


Scientific innovations and appropriate regulation in the family poultry value chain, even in their simplest form, would bring significant benefit to the producers and their flock. Essential to raising the output of family poultry production systems is the recognition of who owns and takes care of the birds. It is also important to understand flock size as a balance between local feed resources, household subsistence needs and disease prevalence.

To achieve a positive outcome and secure production, science and policy must thus facilitate the regional production of appropriate poultry feed from locally available resources, the identification of helpful traits in indigenous breeds (for disease resistance in particular) and, the valorisation of ecosystems services that birds provide at the village scale.

Successful scientific and regulatory innovations in biosecurity practices, preservation of fresh eggs, cold storage of meat, vaccination campaigns and participatory epidemiology are making their way to small producers but are still not widespread. Radio, mobile phone and branding of indigenous poultry products are marketing tools that will help the family poultry value chain. Still, structural hurdles remain considerable, at the traders’ level; namely ethnic affinities and networks, transport routes, cage sanitation or within the country’s legal and institutional framework e.g. extension and advisory services and livestock census forms. These issues must be tackled by scientists and policy-makers.   

(Photo: Guy et Monique Laurent 2005)


Robyn Alders, International Rural Poultry Centre, Kyeema Foundation, Brisbane, Australia and Maputo, Mozambique

Faculty of Veterinary Science. University of Sydney, Camden, Australia


Family poultry remains critically important, with estimates suggesting that more than 80% of the world’s poultry stock is kept in small numbers, from as few as one up to about 20. It plays a key role in many households in countries in Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific for food and nutrition security, livelihoods and conservation of indigenous breeds. This review will focus on “family poultry” in Africa, with particular attention to extensive and small-scale intensive poultry production.

In the African context, poultry can include a wide range of birds including indigenous and commercial breeds of chickens, Muscovy ducks, mallard ducks, pigeons, guinea fowl, geese and turkeys. Of all of these birds, chickens are the most frequently commercialised and, therefore, the most studied from a value-chain perspective.

Poultry and people have had a shared history in many parts of Africa and are frequently an essential part of the fabric of societies across a broad range of cultures. Value chains include the social and cultural aspects of the food system and value-chain analysis also looks at the institutional environment in which food is produced, processed, marketed, retailed and consumed. The formal rules (public legislation and private standards) and the informal rules (social and cultural aspects) and their enforcement impact on the value chain and the wider innovation system performance.

Figure 1: A representation of a generic family-poultry value chain.

As presented in Figure 1, a wide range of actors play a role in family poultry value chains and should be considered if science and innovation are to contribute to their improvement. Poultry services include a range of inputs including research, training, veterinary, extension and advisory services.

Compared to the commercial poultry industry, family poultry has received limited investment; either from research or extension or finance and development agencies over the past century. However, family poultry persists because it is inherently low-input and extremely cost-efficient. The development and introduction of appropriate interventions focussing on the factors limiting productivity within the different production systems and efficiency of their associated value chains must be tailored according to country and local conditions.


Family-poultry producers include the men, women and children of households that raise poultry. The demography of producers varies across the various family-poultry production systems with women and children being more likely to own and care for extensively raised village poultry and men more likely to own and provide labour in small-scale intensive poultry production. The reason for producing poultry also varies from the need to provide petty cash and household food to a primarily commercial venture. Understanding who owns and takes care of poultry is critically important as men, women and children each have different linguistic, cultural and educational backgrounds and varying access to services.

The household flock size is often a balance between available local feed resources, household off take requirements and disease prevalence. It is the ability of poultry, especially the indigenous breeds, to survive in low-input systems that make these production systems so resilient and an excellent example of ecologically sustainable animal production that combines well with mixed farming and agroforestry. Several innovations that are currently benefitting family poultry producers (e.g. the production and feeding of maggots to birds) have come from building on indigenous knowledge, which has been shared among wider audiences.

Free-ranging extensive poultry production tends to be the most ecologically sustainable, as the birds live off locally available feedstuffs, use available water resources including water that has already been used by the household and provide manure which enriches the soils in food gardens. Poultry also contribute to pest control, play essential roles in cultural traditions and the preservation of biodiversity through the maintenance of indigenous breeds. The sustainability of small-scale intensive and semi-intensive poultry production is currently being addressed by research on: the identification of locally available feeds that can be produced in sufficient quantities; composting of waste; and use of “cafeteria” feeding where birds are provided with separate sources of protein, carbohydrate and calcium enabling them to choose the type of feed required to supplement what is consumed.

The inclusion of education on family poultry production (extensive, intensive and semi-intensive) in formal educational curricula at primary, secondary and tertiary levels can have major benefits. Currently, if tertiary educational institutions include poultry in their teaching, it frequently refers to intensive poultry production.

The “Zulu Chicken” project provides an excellent example of how working with family poultry producers can have positive impact beyond improved food security.

Case study: Improving the “Zulu Chicken” - Umzimkhulu Village Chicken Improvement Project

‘Village chickens’, also named ‘indigenous foragers’ or ‘Zulu chickens’ are a common sight on rural homesteads across South Africa. Although these birds are so common, families seldom eat them and almost never eat the eggs. The main reason is that the birds’ mortality rate is high and few eggs are produced. So it is difficult to increase the average family flock of about five hens and one or two cocks. Yet with a little money, time and attention, it is possible to improve the productivity of these chickens – providing not only a ready source of meat and eggs for families, but extra birds for sale and barter.

The Umzimkhulu village chicken improvement project, led by Ed Wethli, was launched in May 2010 in conjunction with the provincial department of agriculture and KwaZulu Natal Poultry Institute (KZNPI). Wethli understood that village chickens have the genetic potential to respond favourably to better management and so aimed to transform village farmers from passive to active chicken producers using basic chicken management skills. A total of 14 participants – 10 of whom were women – were chosen from three villages in Umzimkhulu. They began by attending a one-day workshop at the KZNPI at which they learnt the basics of record keeping. This was followed by a one-week course, during which they were taught a range of management and husbandry techniques:

                Disease control – how to reduce mortality from Newcastle disease, fowl pox and other poultry diseases.

                Parasite control – how to reduce the effect of parasites such as fleas, lice, ticks and intestinal worms.

                Improved housing – how to construct simple structures with nests where the birds can spend the night.

                These reduce predation and make management easier.

                Protection of chicks – methods of reducing mortality, especially during the first four to five weeks of

                a chick’s life.

                Supplementary feeding – young chicks require a balanced diet. Farmers are encouraged to grow

                suitable crops for their chickens.

                • Management of eggs – how to ensure that more eggs are available for family consumption as well

                 as for sale.

                • Selective breeding – how to recognise superior, healthy cocks and hens, how to breed them and why

                 it is essential to cull inferior types. Participants are strongly discouraged from using exotic breeds –

                 local chickens are best for local conditions.

                • Record keeping – how to keep simple records of vaccinations, egg-laying, hatchlings and other details.

                • Marketing – if a household starts producing enough chickens, there might be an opportunity to sell these

                 to consumers or city butchers.

After the course, regular on-site visits were made to the farmers. Six months later, every aspect of chicken production had improved. The average flock size had increased from 19 to 29 birds per household, mortality had been reduced in 62% of households, and disease control showed an 82% improvement. Just over a third of the participants had started collecting eggs and many were using selective breeding. A year later, towards the end of 2011, the situation looked even better, with an average of 43 birds per household. But the best news of all was that participants were eating much better! Before the project started, each household would eat one chicken every three or four months; now they were eating an average of one or two a month. By the end of 2011, each household was now also eating an average of eight eggs a month. In addition, the extra chickens were bringing in cash. It was estimated that an average family with five hens and one cock could produce 10 chickens from each hen every year, or 50 chicks a year. Before the project started, families were lucky if a hen raised one or two chicks from a brood of 12.

“If the family eats one chicken every two weeks, they still have 25 chickens which can be sold at R60 each, which means R1 500 per year,” says Wethli. “That’s excluding any bartering or egg sales.”

Clementine Chiya, the project vice-chairperson, says she had not realised how productive the chickens could be. Her flock has doubled from about 30 birds to 60, including chicks. “We now collect eggs every day and I slaughter a chicken every Sunday. I don’t normally sell chickens, but if someone wants to buy one, I sell it for R50-R60. This project has improved my life,” she says.

Clementine gives her flock a little extra food, mainly yellow maize and eggs. The course participants were taught to boil and chop up unhatched eggs – shells and all. This is put down in the evenings to encourage the hens to come home to roost and to give the chicks extra nutrition.

Feeding and caring for the chickens is designed to cost as little as possible and be completely sustainable. “The farmers should provide a basic chicken house and pay for the few low-cost inputs, such as vaccines (about R100 a year) and possibly some chicken feed to reduce chick mortality,” says Wethli. “But selling three to four birds can cover these annual costs. “It’s hoped that these farmers will continue their good work, encouraging other farmers in the area to become involved and contribute towards rural food security.”

Taken from Joubert (2012)

Family poultry production received considerable bad press during the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 pandemic in the early part of this century. Subsequently, epidemiological studies traced the movement of this virus and demonstrated that this highly fatal disease requires a high density of and frequent movement between susceptible flocks. Family poultry production in much of rural Africa does not provide such conditions. In addition, sustainable and appropriate biosecurity measures need to match the production system involved. Biosecurity measures used for intensively raised birds are not appropriate for extensively raised birds. Initiatives that involve family poultry producers in discussions on appropriate biosecurity measures in Indonesia have yielded excellent results as demonstrated in the case study below.

Examples from Indonesia on Best Biosecurity Practices for Family Poultry

Indonesia’s VBEC programme (VBEC for Village Biosecurity, Education and Communication) began in August 2009 with a qualitative and quantitative socio-cultural assessment in six pilot villages to allow better comprehension of community understandings, beliefs and practices with regards to poultry keeping, poultry disease and its movements. During this process, the role of the Participatory Disease Surveillance and Response officers or local livestock services staff was to provide technical assistance and improve awareness about how viruses move and how diseases may be prevented, helping community members to develop their own technically sound approach to control and prevent disease.

The approach was ‘bottom up’, where the local community took the initiative of working together to implement a series of highly pathogenic avian influenza prevention and control activities that were realistic and in line with local conditions. The resulting action plans were agreed in each village with the involvement of a district livestock services staff member to ensure continuity, feedback and technical soundness. Information, education and communication activities targeted existing community groups such as Posyandus (village integrated health services), religious and devotional groups, self-help and women’s groups, churches and mosques, elementary, junior and high-school students, and other miscellaneous community gatherings. In villages where commercial poultry producers exist, specific technical extension messages are provided including technical discussions covering management issues, poultry anatomy and practical biosecurity pertinent to the levels of production systems present (FAO, 2010).

Another project focussing on cost-effective biosecurity for non-industry commercial poultry operations in Indonesia has made excellent progress by involving all key stakeholders in poultry health activities (ACIAR, 2010).

Processing, Marketing and Trade

In most rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, consumers prefer local eggs because of their brown shells and dark-yellow yolks. Regional differences are also important; for example in Southern Mozambique, frizzle-feathered chickens are believed to have more power in traditional ceremonies, and they are usually sold for twice the price of an ordinary chicken. In areas without refrigeration, people prefer to buy live birds. In a limited number of cases, small-holder commercial poultry producers sell their birds through cooperatives or franchises that process chilled or frozen carcasses or commercially package eggs. The improved packaging of eggs greatly reduces breakage and the use of plastic trays that can be washed and re-used improves sanitation. Incentives to invest in improved processing of chicken meat in many African countries have been handicapped by cheap imports of frozen chicken.

The albumen quality of duck and hen eggs declines very rapidly when eggs are stored at ambient temperature, especially in hot climates. Research has shown that losses can be reduced by oiling them with oil on the day they are laid, which maintains albumen quality for several weeks at ambient temperature (Torrico et al., 2011). Additional studies into low-cost means of storing raw eggs such as evaporative cooling and the use of water glass (sodium silicate) solution would be beneficial.

Marketing networks exist among many family poultry producers and these are sometimes based on ethnic groups. For example, men of the Frafra ethnic group from the Upper East Region of Ghana, are the dominant force in the village poultry trade, even in Accra. The robustness of the family poultry trading network is based on strong demand for family poultry products. Analysis of such networks to determine their strengths and weakness would be invaluable before planning any new market interventions.

Efficient marketing is therefore an essential prerequisite for successful small-scale poultry enterprises. Marketing techniques used for other commodities can be applied to family poultry. For example, broadcasting market information by radio or sharing text messages via mobile phone can help rural farmers to get fair prices for their poultry products. Another option is the official branding of indigenous poultry products, which may work in areas where the number of producers, traders and consumers support the development of high-quality products.

Traders who purchase live chickens from different households and move them over long distances or who hold birds for many days can face high losses, especially from Newcastle disease (ND) or heat stress. In the majority of cases, the traders either transport birds themselves (e.g. using bicycles) or hire transport (e.g. local buses, bush taxis and occasionally trains, dedicated trucks or vans). In very few cases have poultry health or public health services worked with traders and transporters to share information in relation to disease transmission or poultry welfare issues. Once traders know of producers who are controlling ND through regular vaccination, they prioritise these sources as vaccinated birds are less likely to die en route to market. An example of village traders in Tanzania is highlighted below.

Village chicken traders in Singida, Tanzania

There are two existing associations representing the traders:

  • The Association of Chicken Traders for Dodoma Majengo Market, which covers the trade in village chickens;
  • Association of Chicken Dealers of Mungumogi Market in Singida. 

In 2004, when asked about their main business expense, the traders indicated transport costs and market fees, but mentioned that loss through ND mortalities was the most significant. By 2009, following the introduction of regular ND vaccination campaigns, ND was no longer seen by traders as a major constraint.

Singida is a point of concentration for village chickens being collected by medium-sized traders that market them as far as Dar-es-Salam. The Mungumogi Poultry Association buys chickens that are then transported by lorry to Dar-es-Salam. In 2009, between 2,000 and 2,500 birds were taken by lorry to Dar-es-Salam three times a week.

Until the HPAI H5N1 pandemic, little attention was given to disinfecting bird cages and markets to improve the marketing and trade of family poultry. During the peak of the pandemic, donors frequently provided support for the purchase of commercial disinfectants, the use of which could rarely be continued when donor support was removed. Further applied research into cost-effective decontamination procedures such as the use of sunlight, black plastic sheets and bags that generate high internal temperatures, wood ash and smoking would provide useful alternatives to small-scale traders, transporters and processors.

Improving Service Delivery

Historically, there has been a tendency for veterinary services in African countries to focus on ruminant species with limited attention given to poultry. If poultry is addressed, the services usually focussed on intensive poultry production in peri-urban areas. On many occasions, veterinary advice is provided to farmers through extension services linked to commercial suppliers of poultry stock and inputs.

Livestock and poultry extension services have tended to be biased towards male producers and traders. Women and children raising village poultry in small numbers have rarely been targeted by extension services. However, positive results have been achieved when these groups were accessed by using a range of approaches from the teaching of family poultry production modules in primary schools to short extension sessions with women waiting at maternal and child clinics.

As family poultry production received limited attention from the official livestock health services, the true extent of the constraints faced by the sector is rarely recognised. Mortality rates and losses among family poultry are high, because of disease (e.g. outbreaks of ND can kill 50-80% of village chickens on an annual basis in endemic countries) and predation and malnutrition (see box below).. Small-scale farmers are used to birds regularly dying from disease and continue to use a range of salvage strategies (e.g. sale and home consumption) to reduce their financial losses. Advances in rapid field tests for avian influenza have greatly contributed to disease diagnosis but there are few reliable rapid tests for other poultry diseases. The application of participatory epidemiology techniques helps to identify priority syndromes to help diagnostic laboratories focus their activities. Additionally, participatory epidemiology enables official services to work in collaboration with producers and so benefit from local knowledge.

Inadequate cold chain (refrigeration) facilities, for storing biological products such as vaccines and antibiotics, are a major problem for animal health services worldwide, especially in developing countries. The cost of the purchase and transport of the biological product and associated labour costs are all wasted when the product loses its potency because of inadequate storage.

Improving village chicken production by controlling Newcastle disease

Newcastle disease (ND) is one of the major constraints to production of village chickens. Outbreaks of the disease regularly cause 50-100% mortality in countries where it is enzootic.

Since 1984, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has supported collaborative research on control of ND in village chickens, reflecting the importance of ND in partner countries and the lack of appropriate vaccines. It built on earlier experience of disease control and research in Australia and partner countries. 

Research phase

Investigations into the control of ND in Southeast Asia and Africa involved:  

  • laboratory testing of live thermotolerant NDV4-HR and I-2 ND vaccines;
  • field testing vaccine administration routes such as eye-drops, drinking water, oral drenches and feeds such as cooked white rice and wheat;
  • development of effective extension material through participatory socio-economic and anthropological studies; and
  • attention to cost-recovery and cost-saving issues. 


The initial focus was development of an ND vaccine for use in difficult rural conditions where cold storage is often absent or unreliable. The NDV4-HR and I-2 ND vaccines performed well. In freeze-dried form, these vaccines retain their activity for two months at temperatures up to 28°C. The I-2 wet vaccine – vaccine that has not been freeze-dried – remains active for two weeks at temperatures of up to 30°C when not refrigerated.   In Asia, the NDV4-HR vaccine was initially mixed with wheat and feed pellets to vaccinate village birds that roosted in trees. This method provided 60% protection against ND in vaccinated flocks, but proved expensive because of the need to revaccinate birds at short intervals. In Africa, no suitable vaccine feed carrier has been identified. Maize, the common grain in most of Africa, contains a chemical that de-activates live ND vaccines. Studies in Mozambique demonstrated that village chicken farmers prefer to administer the vaccine via eye drop because the method provides the best protection and is less expensive because of a longer re-vaccination interval.  

Simple training

Training male and female village chicken farmers to become community vaccinators is made easier because live thermotolerant vaccines are relatively easy to use. Once out of refrigeration, the vaccines can be transported wrapped in damp cloth in covered woven baskets. The dose is the same for birds of all ages. Overdosing with these vaccines is not dangerous to the birds, so if vaccinators are not confident that the first drop entered the eye, they can administer a second drop.   Community vaccinators and their supervisors also receive basic training on supplementary feeding, appropriate housing and commercialisation of surplus poultry.

Availability of vaccines

NDV4-HR is a patented commercial vaccine that can be purchased when foreign exchange is available. For countries where foreign exchange is not readily available, ACIAR provides free-of-charge non-patented I-2 master seed, which makes possible local production of ND vaccine suitable for village chickens. Attention must be given to social and economic aspects of the work, however, to make ND control sustainable. The basic objective is to improve food security and to alleviate poverty in rural and peri-urban households. Sustainable food security is linked directly to sustainable livelihoods, so an ND control programme must be adapted to the local context.  

Beneficial outcomes

ND control programmes in countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania have increased numbers of chickens, household purchasing power, consumption of chicken products, women’s decision-making power, contributed to HIV/AIDS mitigation activities and wildlife conservation initiatives. Sustainable ND control programmes can only be achieved when all stakeholders are involved in the development of a national control strategy. Experience has shown that sustainable ND control has several essential components:  

  • coordination of activities with all stakeholders;
  • appropriate vaccine and vaccine technology;
  • extension efforts, including manuals, pamphlets, posters, flip charts, songs, plays and radio programmes, and approaches that target veterinary and extension staff, community vaccinators and farmers;
  • simple evaluation and monitoring systems for technical and socio-economic indicators; and
  • economic sustainability based on commercialization of the vaccine and vaccination services and marketing of surplus chickens and eggs.

ND control technology made freely available by ACIAR has been used in Angola, Bhutan, Cambodia, Cameroon, Ghana, Malaysia, Malawi, Mozambique, Myanmar, Senegal, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia supported by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the European Union, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank (Alders, 2004)

A major constraint for small-scale intensive poultry producers is the lack of quality control of commercial poultry ration. Many small ration producers do not have facilities to monitor nutritional content and veterinary laboratories also frequently lack the necessary equipment and reagents. This means that producers who buy improperly formulated ration will only know they have a problem when the production of their birds falls.

Livestock census forms used in many countries also reflect limited interest in poultry. Poultry are frequently recorded simply as “number of poultry” with no data recorded on the respective numbers of the different types of poultry being raised by producers. Without this specific information, it will be difficult for government ministries to adequately serve poultry producers, traders and consumers.

A key issue hampering poultry and other animal health services in many countries is the loss of a chain of command because of decentralisation of government activities. While human health services have generally managed to retain their chain of command (to ensure that human health activities can be well coordinated), animal health services have frequently not benefitted from the same regulatory framework. For instance, in order to implement animal disease control activities, the central authority must coordinate with each district authority. The time and financial resources required for this coordination can mean that endemic animal diseases remain uncontrolled and that new diseases can spread without containment.


Sustainable food security is of major concern locally, nationally, regionally and globally. While cost-efficient and ecologically sustainable small-scale poultry production may not hold the answers to all of the problems linked to food insecurity and limited livelihood options, it does provide both producers and consumers with options that are low-cost and relatively carbon-neutral with potential for optimizing the markets for high-value indigenous breeds and related products. Governments and researchers would be well advised to thoroughly review family poultry value chains to identify priority issues for science, technology and innovation interventions that can contribute to improved efficiency of the chain whether for the provision of eggs, live birds, fresh-chilled, frozen or other value-added poultry products. Building technical, entrepreneurial and management skills will provide a foundation for sustainable family poultry production as it can contribute to sustainable livelihoods in rural areas.

Further reading

ACIAR. 2010. Cost effective biosecurity for non-industrial commercial poultry operations in Indonesia. Annual Report June 2009 to May 2010. Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, Canberra, Australia.

Ahlers C., Alders, R.G., Bagnol, B., Cambaza, A.B., Harun, M. and Mgomezulu, R. et al. 2009. Improving village chicken production: a manual for field workers and trainers. ACIAR Monograph No. 139, 194 pp.

Alders, R. 2004. Poultry for profit and pleasure. Diversification Booklet No. 3, Agricultural Support Systems Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.

FAO. 2004. Small-scale poultry production. Technical Guide. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. pp 41-57

FAO. 2010. Village-based Biosecurity: Empirical experience from South and West Sulawesi. Report to the Indonesian Directorate of Animal Health. Food and Agriculture Organization, Jakarta.

Joubert, R. 2011. Improving the ‘Zulu chicken’. Farmers’ Weekly (South Africa), 9 March 2012.

Taylor, N.M. and Rushton, J. 2011. A value chain approach to animal diseases risk management – Technical foundations and practical framework for field application. Animal Production and Health Guidelines. No. 4. Rome.

Torrico, D.D., No HongKyoon, Sriwattana, S., Ingram, D. and Prinyawiwatkul, W. 2011. Effects of initial albumen quality and mineral oil-chitosan emulsion coating on internal quality and shelf-life of eggs during room temperature storage. International Journal of Food Science & Technology 46 (9): 1783-1792.

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