THE growing interest in indigenous foods by many Zimbabweans could be the break that local free-range poultry farmers have been waiting for in a market that has been dominated by hybrids.
Over the past five years or so, numerous traditional food eateries have been opened, while hotels have been putting traditional dishes on their menu. This has served to push demand even in supermarkets as some people prefer to cook for themselves at home instead of spending a small fortune on one meal.
Such is the rising popularity for meals that include free-range chicken, guinea fowl, turkey, rabbit and duck meat to go along with traditional starches such as isitshwala samabele (sorghum) and brown rice.
While almost every household in rural areas has always kept free-range chickens for food and a few have sold a bird here and there to help raise money for use around the home, commercial free-range chicken production is a fairly new concept in most areas.
This has led to the rise of organisations such as the Zimbabwe Free-range Poultry Producers’ Association that seeks to help farmers take up free-range farming as a way to grow financial and food self-sufficiency in line with tenets of Zim-Asset.
ZFRPPA secretary general Ms Beauty Jiji says free-range poultry farming can empower women and youths to produce enough to feed themselves and the nation thus creating employment as well as food self-sufficiency.
“Free range birds are natural, healthy and tastier than broiler chickens. So while broilers and layers are easier to produce, free-range products can competitively enter the market if given the chance,” she said.
Free-ranging is simple and economically viable when it comes to feeding and Ms Jiji’s organisation has been recruiting and training farmers on rearing free-range birds and other animals such as rabbits, goats and cattle. Farmers have also been taught cheap and easy ways to prepare feed for their birds.
Free range chickens can feed on a normal diet of grass, worms and bugs as they are allowed to freely roam about and access sunshine for long stretches of time each day. Enough time to source their daily protein is a requirement to ensure optimal growth.
There are, however plenty of others foods that free-range birds can feed on, which include small grains such as millet, sorghum and ground maize as well as fish meal, cotton seed, sunflower cake, maize germ and bone meal.
These are foods that farmers can grow and prepare on their own at minimum cost, and therefore, are affordable to rural farmers. Experts say farmers can actually produce enough small grains to feed themselves as well as their chickens thus reducing their food bill while reaping their nutritional benefits.
While most members of ZFRPPA are still producing on a small scale, Ms Jiji says there are some members who now have more than 3 000 birds and have sourced markets for their produce.
The problem however has been maintaining a consistent supply once a market is found.
“We have the opportunity to supply the local market. Last year we got a deal to supply a local supermarket but we could not go back because our farmers failed to consistently supply the agreed number of chickens every week,” said Ms Jiji.
She said there is need to change the mindset of women and youths who are practicing free-range farming so that they understand how commercial production works.
“Once we have organised ourselves, we can then start to produce seriously and be able to meet demand consistently,” she added.
Of the farmers that are already doing well, Mr Menfred Mukumba of Kemcote plots just outside Harare has been running a thriving free-range chicken production business for almost a year. Not only is he rearing chickens for meat and eggs, he has also brought in a hatchery into his business and is now selling day old free-range chicks to other farmers.
“I started with 100 bushveld chickens in August 2016 which we were rearing on a six hectare piece of land we got. After six months, I started getting eggs. I realised l needed to incubate my own eggs so I brought in an incubator. Now, we get 35 to 40 eggs every day,” he said.
“We started getting full feed in the incubator in April so we now hatch between five to six crates every five days.”
Mr Mukumba says he does not yet have the capacity to rear all the chicks he incubates so he has been selling the day old chicks to other farmers.
He has hopes to grow his current flock to about 1 500 hens by next year.
ZFRPPA vice president Mrs Shirly Chingoka says if all farmers target to increase the number of birds they are producing, they can reach their ultimate goal of producing enough to supply both the local and export markets.
“Our main target is to produce enough organic birds to supply the export market because the interest is already there, what is lacking is access to finance and the expertise to work on a commercial basis,” she says.
Mrs Chingoka says China and Europe are potential markets for Zimbabwean free-range products and government should help farmers tap into these markets.
Poultry meat production is not only low in Zimbabwe but in most Southern African countries whose industries are still dominated by commercial broiler farming. The situation is however slowly changing.
In South Africa, free-range chickens account for roughly five percent of the chicken meat produced yearly.
Analysts say there are currently no standards or guidelines on the production of the free range chicken meat in South Africa so many farmers pretty much follow their own rules and definition of what “free range” means.
The situation is different in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda where free-range poultry production is thriving as they do not have as much broilers and layers in production as most Southern African countries do.
In Kenya, free-range poultry production has provided “village-based food and income-generation opportunities to landless and marginal farmers, especially women” for many years.
According to research by Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, there are about 22 million indigenous chickens kept in the country under the free-range system, mainly in the rural communities.
The sector is very important as it is estimated that the indigenous chickens make up 76 percent of total poultry population and produce about 55 and 47 percent of total meat and eggs respectively.
ZFRPPA says if the government comes up with measures that places free-range poultry production high on its agricultural turnaround strategy, Zimbabwe can begin to see growth in the free-range production industry.
This could make everything from production to marketing for farmers, especially in the rural areas, easier thus creating a fluid value chain for optimum production.
Veterinary science experts from Zimbabwe and other developing countries are calling for the conservation of livestock diversity and the promotion of indigenous breeds which are disease-resistant and suitable for poor farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation 2007 world report on the global inventory of farm animals, indigenous livestock breeds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are at risk of extinction.
Poultry breeds with small populations are in general more vulnerable than those with large populations, experts say.
And free-range poultry production could be one main response to the loss of genetic diversity.
It could help conserve native breeds and help increase the breeding female populations or at least stabilise them.
— Zimpapers Syndication