Poultry breeding programs to empower small scale farmers and save indigenous poultry genetics in Zambia
Being a scientist in a rural province of Zambia allows me to experience life as both a researcher and a farmer. I ask many questions about various issues within the local communities and try to find answers; not only through logical scientific explanations and theories, but also through exploring indigenous knowledge from rural communities. It is a kind of mixed-bag experience. It is important to consider natural resources and how climate change will impact the very interactions between humans and the environment. Zambia has approximately 18 million inhabitants sharing a total surface area of 762,610 square km divided into three distinct Agro-Ecological Regions. Each of these regions experiences unique agricultural challenges, particularly concerning water sources. Regions I and II cover the Southern and Eastern areas, experience less than 1000mm of annual rainfall, while region III, includes the Northern parts, receives more than 1000mm yearly. This is important as nearly 90% of small scale farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture. In the past ten years, the rain pattern has been affected by climate change. Under these problematic and changing conditions, indigenous chickens adapted to the climate have great socio-economic importance.
Climate change has brought more challenges to small scale farmers in rural communities practising rain-based agriculture. As such, rearing of small livestock such as poultry has become cardinal for rural livelihoods in SSA because they are sources of household incomes, food and nutritional security. Nearly 80% of households rear poultry, of which 70% is by women in the region. The trends and practices by Zambian rural poultry farmers are similar to what is obtaining in SSA. Poultry is mostly reared under semi-intensive and free-range systems, making it cheaper because of low inputs.
In Zambia, the national average live weight for indigenous chickens is between 1.3 and to 2.0 kg and could fetch up to $8 each. The past decade has seen an increase in consumer demand for meat and eggs from the indigenous chicken because of health attributes and good taste. The meat is lean and of attractive colour. Subsequently, there has been a steady price increase in the last five years.
To sustain the demand and populations of indigenous chicken, policies, and research innovations that promote indigenous livestock are essential in SSA. Failure to do so may lead to the extinction of these breeds. There are clear trends evident that the avian species are at high risk of extinction. Below is a quote from the second report on the world status on biodiversity by FAO 2019.
“Only 14 of the more than 30 domesticated mammalian and bird species provide 90% of the human food supply from livestock. There are about 8,800 breeds of which 7% are extinct and 17% at risk of extinction.”
Among the Avian species, chickens have shown the highest numbers of breeds at risk and extinction. In 2014, 62% of the chickens’ strains were of unknown status, over 33% were at risk, and 3.5% were extinct. This stat shades a dark cloud in agriculture. Biodiversity and the future of rural inhabitants who depend on poultry are in danger. We may witness over 8000 years of domestication of chickens disappear before our very own eyes. Therefore, two questions beg for answers; how has research and development in animal breeding impacted biodiversity? Can research innovation help promote conservation of the indigenous genetic resource and reduce the adverse effect?
Research innovations are essential at this stage. Over my PhD, I plan to facilitate linkages and connect gaps between existing structures to develop a community-based breeding program (CBBP); bringing working breeding policies and programs to the rural communities to promote the conservation and sustainable utilisation of animal genetic resources. World over, the rural communities are the custodians of breeds of indigenous livestock. Therefore, a bottom-up approach is appropriate, and with this project, we hope to empower local villages.
The CBBP will be a low-input breeding system, initiated and managed by individual smallholder farmer groups who have the same interest in developing, improving and sharing the genetic resources. It is a mitigation measure implemented at the community level and aimed at promoting the in-situ conservation of animal genetic resources to ensure the genetics of local indigenous breeds that are suited to the challenges of the Zambian environment are not lost.
In conclusion, rural communities have relied on various breeds of indigenous livestock for many decades. The loss of animal genetic resources is an enormous subject which demands concerted effort among the public, private and rural communities. As a researcher, I will explore the genetic and social-economic potential of the CBBP among rural farmers. Over the years, I have keenly observed the farmers’ handwork and commitment. However, climate change has let them down. The CBBP is an applied breeding innovations that will mitigate the impacts of climate change on indigenous chicken breeds. This is what AgR4D is for me.