There is a growing number of small-scale farmers in Zambia who work and farm, and appear to do both successfully. Although it is not an easy way to operate the reassuring cash flow of the monthly income gives them the back-up they need before their farms become financially viable.
Lusaka-based Joshua Sichinga (37), a self-employed accounting consultant, has taken his village chickens from a backyard hobby to a commercial enterprise.
Joshua used his savings to start up a free-range poultry farm in Chongwe, a town about 45km east of the capital of Zambia, Lusaka where his family has access to 7ha of land, through the system of customary tenure.
“The demand for free-range chickens is definitely climbing and the profits are reasonable,” says Joshua. Free-range poultry is standard fare on the menus of local hotels, restaurants and family tables, he explains, which gave him some market assurance.
Joshua plants the small-holding at Chongwe to maize, soya beans and vegetables for family food supplies, so starting the poultry venture put some profit into the farm.
The cash flow from Joshua’s consulting business helped to cushion the initial financial turbulence faced by many start-up businesses. And healthy demand on the local market put some strength into the business which soon began to generate money and start paying back the initial investment.
Joshua bought 40 Kuroiler chickens from local suppliers a year ago and now has 192 birds, 34 of them roosters and 158 hens. This core flock produces 50 day-old chicks on a weekly basis, which sell for about K15 each.
To fast track expansion, Joshua bought in 30 Kuroiler eggs from Kenya. Unfortunately, only six eggs hatched, giving him three roosters and three hens, now breeding.
There are currently 33 Kuroiler chicks that are separately reared. His intention is to replace local village chickens with Kuroilers which he feels is a better type of chicken for his purposes.
In the next six weeks, Joshua predicts that weekly demand will meet the supply he should be able to roll out of 350 day-olds a week. With 156 hens 80% of which are laying and with a hatching success rate of 65% he should get 480 chicks. Any chickens not sold will be kept back for breeding..
GET THE BASICS RIGHT
Growing crops on the farm had given Joshua an idea of the hard work involved in any kind of agricultural enterprise. The addition of the poultry project means that he had to put in long hours and work on weekends, juggling his consulting and the farming.
“Getting the fundamental principles right was the key to making the business sustainable,” he explains.
He chose to put the chickens onto pasture, because of the low overheads and start-up costs. The infrastructure, an enclosed shelter with brick walls and a tin roof, can house about 300 chickens. The birds are enclosed inside standard chicken mesh fencing and the diet is primarily one of maize and soya beans.
The choice of the Kuroiler chicken breed as foundation poultry stock makes a lot of sense to Joshua. “The breed’s good meat to bone dress-out and high egg-yielding capacity has made it a preferred choice for free-range farmers,” he says.
Good lighting and ventilation in the chicken house and protection from disease, pollution and weather are other important basics.
Hygiene is paramount and the chicken house is properly washed down and sprayed between cycles. A staff of two full-time farm labourers take care of the hygiene and maintain a disease-free environment.
“Paying attention to cleaning and spraying the shed has helped keep mortalities low,” says Joshua.
An incubator with the capacity to hatch out 1 230 eggs is an important part of the infrastructure, largely because it helps to grow numbers quickly Joshua explains.
“I would like to invest in another incubator with greater capacity,” he says.
I-Farm, a co-operative involved in helping small-scale poultry farmers increase production and access markets, has been very helpful to his operation.
“Taking all these steps at the right time and creating a hygienic place for the free-range chickens has helped us to show profitability in the last two years,” he says.
When Joshua looked at what was on the menus for local restaurants and lodges, he realised there was a gap in supply to local chicken farmers who sell poultry to the local hospitality industry and to urban households.
“I realised that I could fill this gap and sell free-range chickens to local poultry producers,” he says.
Joshua uses social media, especially Facebook and Whatsapp, to advertise and grow his customer numbers. “Marketing for a start-up like ours can be very expensive but thankfully social media has saved me significant amounts of money on marketing costs.”
Word-of-mouth also works for this business and Joshua says he is often surprised by the number of new customers who stop at the farm.
Additionally, customers who sell free-range chicks at the farmer’s market in the area have pushed up sales.
On marketing gaps, Joshua says there is a niche for free-range organic chickens. “There are customers who would prefer to buy organically fed chickens. It’s something we need to look at.”
While the first 18 months into business has been rewarding, there have been challenges, says Joshua. Free-range poultry farming exposes the chickens to predators like birds and snakes and there is greater vulnerability to theft.
Keeping the flocks free of disease, especially when there is a lot of water around, is an ongoing task. This year we’ve had one of our wettest rainy seasons, and that made it hard to keep the chickens free of disease,” Joshua says.
Vaccines are a big part of cost and fairly daunting for start-ups. “This is possibly something for government to consider in its expanded farmer support input programme,” he says.
Buying in the high yield breeds is expensive and therefore an avenue often closed to small-scale farmers. “Because local breeds have not improved, growth in the sector is stifled,” Joshua explains. Despite the difficulties, he sees free-range poultry as a good opportunity with potential for expansion.