An Innovator’s ‘Big Chicken Agenda’ for Africa

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Increasing the quantity and quality of food in Africa will be critical to improving the continent’s human development. And a key element in giving Africa a more secure food supply will be boosting science and knowledge on the continent and making sure it is focused on Africa’s needs and situation.

One pioneering scientist is looking to the humble chicken to tackle two big problems in Africa: food security and household incomes. By pumping up the weight and productivity of African chickens, she hopes to eradicate hunger and boost household incomes.

Kenyan scientist Sheila Ommeh (http://www.awardfellowships.org/participants/success-stories/108-sheilaommeh.html ) is showing how local knowledge can give farmers the edge when it comes to improving Africa’s animal stock. An animal geneticist, she is trying to create a disease-resistant African chicken that can also produce plenty of eggs.

Her pioneering work is about trailblazing “a big chicken agenda in Africa,” she explained to TrustLaw, a global hub for free legal assistance and information on good governance and women’s rights.  She grew up in an area – Mount Elgon in western Kenya – where raising chickens was the primary source of both income and food. Her family raised chickens and the income from this helped to pay for her schooling.

Raising chickens is common in rural Kenya, and many of the people doing it are women.

Based on her experience, she saw how virulent diseases kill chicken flocks and destroy family incomes and disrupt lives – diseases like Newcastle (http://www.avianbiotech.com/diseases/newcastle.htm) and Gumboro (gumboro.com).

She works at the International Livestock Research Institute (ilri.org) based in Nairobi, Kenya. The ILRI “works at the crossroads of livestock and poverty, bringing high-quality science and capacity-building to bear on poverty reduction and sustainable development” and conducts research in Africa, South and Southeast Asia and China.

“I’m really passionate about giving back to the community an improved chicken that will really help their lives,” she explains.

Another project she is working on is the development of a drought-tolerant chicken. This chicken could prove very helpful in parts of Africa suffering from drought and hunger, like in the Horn of Africa.

Women are considered to be the majority producers of food in Africa yet just one in four people working in agricultural research in Africa is a woman, according to TrustLaw.

Ommeh has a PhD in chicken genetics and is a staunch believer in seeking out solutions to Africa’s problems within Africa: “In my view = it’s about time Africa looked for solutions in Africa for Africa,” she told a group of British Members of Parliament.

She will continue her research by looking at native African chickens. She is worried indigenous African chickens are being wiped out by cross-breeding and the introduction into the continent of exotic breeds, which are making African chickens more susceptible to viruses.

Her goal is to produce a disease-resistant breed of chicken weighing four kilograms and laying 250 eggs a year. This would be a big increase on current average weights, and a trebling of the yield.

“Definitely the incomes of these households will increase and that will (create) a rippling effect that will trickle up … And we hope that in 10 to 15 years the poverty issue in Africa will not be so serious,” Ommeh said.

“Chicken is a small livestock but I believe it has the capacity to have a big impact.”

For female scientists working in agriculture, African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) (http://awardfellowships.org/) is seeking researchers looking to boost their technical and leadership skills. It is hoped that supporting more women researchers will have the effect of turning research priorities towards the needs of smallholder farmers, who make up the majority of  farmers in Africa.

Resources

1) Artificial chicken: The contest to create artificial chicken meat offers a US $1 million prize. Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jan/21/artificial-chicken-food-prize

2) Poultry Hub: “Poultry Hub can help you learn more about the amazing world of poultry and your place in it. Poultry is one of the world’s most technically advanced agricultural industries, offering rewarding career paths to talented young people in hundreds of countries.” The Hub includes the excellent “anatomy of the chicken” learning resource. Website: http://www.poultryhub.org/organisations/rural-industries-research-anddevelopment-corporation-rirdc-chicken-meat-program/

3) Poultry Research Centre: From the University of Alberta, the website offers resources and contacts on poultry sciences. Website: http://www.poultryresearchcentre.com/

4) Chickens: Basic information on chickens and their origins. Website: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Chicken.aspx

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