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Importance of Indigenous Chickens to Rural African Communities

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Publication Number: P3394

Humans have raised poultry for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that domesticated chickens existed in China at least 8,000 years ago and subsequently spread to Western Europe and other parts of the world by both land and sea (Alders et al., 2018). Domestic chickens first appeared in Africa many centuries ago and are now an established part of African life (Alders, 2004).

Smallholder farmers in many developing countries typically raise indigenous domestic chickens under a traditional scavenging system (Magothe et al., 2012; Destra et al, 2013). Indigenous chickens are popular in these areas because of their tolerance to common poultry diseases and to fluctuations in both feed quality and availability, allowing for little or no input costs (Desta and Wakeyo, 2012).

While efforts have been ongoing for several years to introduce more efficient, exotic and crossbred types of poultry, indigenous chickens remain predominant throughout many African villages. This is because local farmers have been unable to afford the high input requirements (housing/shelter, commercial diets, and strict disease control/vaccination programs) associated with more genetically efficient breeds (Tabler et al., 2018).

Indigenous Chicken Production

Multiple scholars and policy makers around the world have recognized the importance of small-scale, scavenging chicken production in the national economies of developing nations across Africa and its role in enhancing food security and improving the nutritional status and income of many smallholder farmers (Melesse, 2014). In addition, indigenous chickens fulfill a wide range of functions, from generating income to strengthening the fabric of social communities (Alders and Pym, 2009). They also enhance food security in indirect ways such as improving nutrient use and recycling in the environment, contributing to mixed farming practices, enabling access to healthcare and education, and empowering women (Wong et al., 2017).

Currently, global livestock production systems are under scrutiny because of the projected environmental and food-system impacts of increasing livestock production to meet the growing demand for animal protein around the world (Delgado, 2003). However, meat and egg production from indigenous chickens is one of the most environmentally efficient animal protein production systems available (Melesse, 2014), and chickens are, by far, the most important poultry species globally (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2014a).

In addition, chickens have socio-cultural and religious significance (Kondombo et al., 2003; Muchadeyi et al., 2004; Thekisoe et al., 2004) among rural communities in Africa, and there are few religious taboos associated with consuming chicken meat and eggs. For example, it has been reported that chickens for many socio-cultural functions or sacrifices are chosen for their sex or plumage color (Melesse, 2014). Native chickens are used in village medicine and in funeral ceremonies in agrarian communities (Kondombo et al., 2003). Despite their poor performance in terms of meat and egg production, they are a vital part of a balanced farming system (Padhi, 2016).

The FAO (2014a) characterizes chicken production systems as seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Characteristics of the FAO four family poultry production systems.1


Small extensive scavenging

Extensive scavenging


Small-scale intensive

Farming system

Mixed, poultry & crops, often landless

Mixed, livestock & crops

Usually poultry only

Poultry only

Other livestock





Flock size

1–5 adult birds

5–50 adult birds

50–200 adult birds

>200 broilers

>100 layers

Poultry breeds


Local or cross-bred

Commercial, cross-bred/ local


Source of new chicks

Natural incubation

Natural incubation

Commercial day-old chicks or natural incubation

Commercial day-old chicks or pullets

Feed source

Scavenging; almost no supplementation

Scavenging; occasional supplementation

Scavenging; regular supplementation

Commercial balanced ration

Poultry housing

Seldom; usually made from local materials or kept in house

Sometimes; usually made from local materials

Yes; conventional materials; variable quality

Yes; conventional materials; good-quality houses

Access to veterinary services/supplies










Reliable electricity supply





Cold chain





Access to urban markets


No, or indirect




Live birds, meat

Live birds, meat, eggs

Live birds, meat, eggs

Live birds, meat, eggs

Time devoted to management/day

<30 min

<1 hr

>1 hr

>1 hr

1Adapted from FAO, 2014a.

Constraints to Commercial Expansion

Unfortunately, small-scale poultry production in Africa is also fraught with risks. Major challenges include high flock mortality due to predation and regular disease outbreaks (particularly Newcastle disease); poor genetic potential of indigenous breeds; poor quality, quantity, and availability of feed resources; absence of an organized marketing system; and lack of a successful vaccination program due in part to an unreliable cold-chain supply of vaccine. However, vaccination rates remain low today despite the recent development of a thermotolerant I-2 Newcastle disease vaccine designed to overcome the need for a cold-chain. For example, in 2018, only 26 percent of Tanzanian households had recently vaccinated for Newcastle disease (Campbell et al., 2018).

In Africa, about 94 percent of the total chicken population is indigenous poultry, supplying most of the meat and eggs consumed in rural areas and approximately 20 percent of the poultry products in urban areas where small commercial production is found. However, only 3 percent of indigenous poultry growers raise more than 40 birds each (RIU, 2012). The majority of these households produce 5 to 10 chickens over a period of 12 to 18 months. While the output of village poultry is lower than that of intensively raised birds, it is obtained with minimum inputs of housing, disease control, management, and supplemental feeding (Alders et al., 2018), somewhat offsetting the lower production numbers.

Inadequate Extension support has been cited as a major constraint to commercialization of the indigenous poultry industry. Extension outreach is critical for delivering new knowledge about rural poultry production and helping smallholder farmers apply this new knowledge. Unfortunately, a shortage of qualified Extension workers; weak linkages between research, Extension, and smallholder farmers; lack of infrastructure (such as roads and bridges); lack of facilities (such as meeting places and access to technology); and inadequate collaboration among various stakeholders hamper outreach efforts.

FAO (2014b) has reported that widespread, isolated rural areas and a lack of resources and infrastructure can result in limited veterinary and Extension services. Where these services do exist, they are often focused on crop or ruminant production (Bagnol, 2009). This limits poultry farmers’ access to critical information, particularly concerning biosecurity, which is a major concern for small-scale producers (Alders et al., 2014).

Extension’s reach is often hampered by a lack of consideration of gender issues. Because of cultural attitudes, discrimination, and a lack of recognition for their role in food production, women often enjoy few to no benefits from Extension programming or training in new technologies. FAO (2016) data indicate that women farmers receive only 5 percent of Extension agricultural services in 97 total countries; that only 15 percent of the world’s Extension agents are women; and that only 10 percent of total agricultural aid goes to women.

Considering their socio-cultural traditions and high illiteracy rates, rural women in isolated areas would benefit greatly from increased numbers of Extension training programs. Women face greater difficulties than men in accessing services designed to increase productivity. Therefore, greater efforts should be focused on increasing the number of Extension workers and programs dedicated to working with women and poultry. This would boost productivity, increase food security, strengthen rural communities, and promote transfer of knowledge and skills to rural women living in remote, isolated areas (Tabler et al., 2019).

Empowerment of Women

African women comprise approximately 70 percent of sub-Saharan agricultural workers and also account for about 80 percent of food processors (Wakhungu, 2010). Women commonly make more management and investment decisions about chickens than about other livestock, although this may vary by region (Campbell et al., 2018), and more women care for chickens (84 percent) than actually make decisions about their production (66 percent).

In many developing countries, chickens are often the only livestock under the independent control of women (Bagnol, 2009; Thieme et al., 2014). Poultry products are often the main source of income for female-headed households, whereas male-headed households often have multiple income streams (Muchadeyi et al., 2004; Aklilu et al., 2008). Ninety percent of income under the control of women is channeled back into their households or local communities, in contrast with only 30–40 percent for men (OECD, 2009). Women use their income to purchase a larger quantity and variety of foods, to seek medical care, and to provide schooling for children (Meinzen-Dick et al., 2011).

In addition, women are underrepresented in higher education research, management, and decision-making positions. Only 24 percent of African agricultural researchers are women, and only 14 percent of these researchers hold leadership positions (FAO, 2016). Because of the current bias toward men in the agriculture sector (Wong et al., 2017), much of the training, communications, and Extension programming/materials are directed at men; while women, who are often responsible for village chicken production, may not receive the information they need (Guèye, 2000; Bagnol, 2012) to increase production and improve village food security.

According to Mayoux (2009), when an activity becomes lucrative, men, who previously were not involved in the activity, take over from women. This indicates that poultry development interventions may not automatically result in an improvement in the situation for women or the household if increased economic benefits incentivize men to take over flock management (Alders et al., 2018). Sambo et al. (2015) indicated that, in larger chicken production operations, men tended to be in control, even though women contributed a significant portion of the labor. Therefore, Alders et al. (2018) reported it is critical that poultry development projects include an explicit gendered lens to avoid eroding women’s control over this important livelihood activity. Ensuring a gender-sensitive approach at all levels of poultry intervention projects is necessary if women are to benefit from poultry-raising activities (Guèye, 2000; Bagnol et al., 2013).


Even though attempts are underway (and should continue) to introduce more efficient genetics into poultry improvement projects, the importance of indigenous breeds of village chickens to the rural economy, food security, and community fabric across much of Africa remains high. Village chickens play vital roles in rural households and are often used to pay for school materials, uniforms, and education fees; hospital visits and medicine; and staples such as sugar, salt, oil, or other household items. Chickens are also a source of high-quality animal protein and play a significant role in socio-cultural village life in rural communities and also in the empowerment of women. The importance of village chicken production systems to the livelihoods of women, children, the elderly, and the chronically ill cannot be overstated.

Village chickens and production systems have survived for thousands of years and have adapted to harsh environmental conditions. While constraints to achieving maximum potential impact from these systems are great, many of the concerns can be addressed with improvements in management strategies that include, among other priorities, gender-sensitive training and enhanced Extension assistance/materials. Inherent low production performance of indigenous breeds of village chickens can be improved through management/husbandry practices, better healthcare/vaccination programs, and supplementary feeding programs. Village chickens are a rich source of genetic biodiversity that should be used to promote sustainable development and improve tropical adaptability and disease resistance.

Increased Extension efforts, particularly related to training women in village poultry husbandry and providing training materials, are critical to the success of chicken production in rural Africa. Increases in the productivity of village chicken flocks will help reduce poverty, increase women’s empowerment, and improve household food security and protein intake in rural communities across Africa.


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Department: Poultry Science
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