(Gloria Nantulya, my colleague at Farm Journal Foundation, co-authored this blog)
For anyone who has ever spent much time in rural Africa or Latin America, chickens are a ubiquitous part of the landscape--they’re on the side of the road, in the town square, or in the backyard. Rather than raising chickens and other livestock in large scale, climate-controlled, confined facilities or on feedlots as has become the norm in the United States and other developed countries, smallholder farmers in developing countries typically let their poultry and livestock forage on their own on and around their farm, eating insects, grass, waste grain and any other food that might be discarded and thus lying on the ground and available to eat. Because of the high reproductive rate of chickens relative to other livestock species--the average indigenous hen bears 13 chicks per brood about three times a year--and low production costs, poultry farming provides a valuable source of income and has a huge impact on the livelihoods of rural households and their food and nutrition security.
"Dorothy" the hen receives a vaccine. In Uganda, it is traditional for newborn grandchildren to receive a hen as a gift from their grandparents.
In these areas, chickens are almost always the first livestock acquired by smallholder farmers. In Uganda, for instance, according to the most recent (2008) livestock census report by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, over 50 percent of households raise chickens (nearly all as indigenous breeds), averaging about 12 chickens per household. This rate is higher than the share of Ugandan households which own other livestock types, such as goats (about 40 percent) or cattle (25 percent).
In that country, it is traditional for grandparents to gift a new-born grandchild with a hen of his or her own. That practice is known as Entandikwa, which means ‘startup capital’ in the local dialect. As that child grows, the hen, her immediate offspring, and the generations that follow will provide an income to support this child and help give them the education, better nutrition (the hen’s eggs and eventually meat may provide the main sources of animal protein in the child's diet), and health care needed to attain a healthy and productive life. In addition, chickens not only occupy a central role in negotiations for a bride, but a chicken meal is an important status symbol for a household hosting a visitor, so it has great value to the households as a whole as well.
Here is Gloria's story of her beloved hen, Dorothy, and the lives that Dorothy has saved. In September 2012, Gloria received a young hen as a gift while visiting her family’s home in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, a bird she quickly became personally attached to. Rather than consent that the bird become the main dish in the next family dinner, Gloria insisted that it be taken to her father’s home village of Bulangira in eastern Uganda and given to her father’s aunt. Within a few months, the hen, now dubbed Dorothy, had birthed a 12-chick brood, 5 of which were female. Dorothy and her female offspring continue to lay eggs and generate income for Gloria’s cousins.
Dorothy and her first brood of chicks. The flock now boasts about 40 egg-laying hens.
That income allowed the family to buy its first goat in April 2013, which turned out to be pregnant at the time of purchase, so they soon had two goats. In April 2014 each of the two goats delivered two kids, and now the number has increased to six, while Dorothy continues to live on. Even with the small number of broods per year that indigenous chickens typically produce, the chicken flock that started with Dorothy now boasts between 30 and 40 egg-laying hens, with most of the males slaughtered for food or traded/sold to generate additional income. The sale of eggs and chicken meat from this flock alone could generate up to $400-$500 per year, and some is of course retained for home consumption.
The income generated by Dorothy's eggs allowed Gloria's family to purchase their first goats.
In October 2013, USAID’s Feed the Future initiative established an innovation laboratory at the University of California at Davis focused on improving genomics for poultry. Their goal is to improve the disease resistance and heat tolerance of Africa’s indigenous chicken breeds, particularly to Newcastle’s disease, which has a mortality rate of up to 100 percent in unvaccinated flocks that are infected. Dorothy and her offspring have been fortunate enough to receive regular vaccinations against Newcastle’s disease. The UC-Davis work could raise the productivity of chicken flocks across the continent by simply reducing their vulnerability to this disease, which claims about 40 percent of the domestic poultry flocks every year in sub-Saharan Africa.
In this context, the answer to the age-old question “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” is clear. In Bulangira, Uganda, Dorothy the hen comes first.