Free range chickens, or “village chickens”, as we have always called it – are hugely popular among Zambian consumers because of their distinct taste. These chickens are also what gives small-scale poultry farmers like Lutaka Muyumbana (43), of Mpongwe in Copperbelt Province, the chance to run a successful business.
The local poultry industry may have taken a dip, but Muyumbana is defying the odds by breeding improved free range chickens – a demand still largely unmet in the market. Zambia’s consumption of free range chickens is estimated at 16 million chickens per year, against annual production of 4 million. In addition, there is increased demand from regional markets like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola.
“I decided to venture into breeding free range chickens to exploit the huge potential market that was far from being met by local production,” says this father of five.
Some of Muyumbana’s first challenges were low fertilised egg production and poor growth of local free range breeds. Muyumbana’s experience as a management consultant helped him raise productivity on his farm, and he started searching for breeds which fit his farming profile.
His attention was drawn to an Indian poultry company located on the outskirts of New Delhi. Kegg Farms had developed a dual-purpose bird, the Kuroiler. It was as hardy as the Zambian variety, but produced more eggs at a faster rate. It is aptly called the ‘bird of hope’ – it helped lift millions of rural Indians from poverty. And the Kuroiler also seemed to be the answer to Muyumbana’s prayers.
Muyumbana was enticed by the Indian company’s annual production of 14 million birds in less than two years – a phenomenal growth rate of 22%.
But actually acquiring the breed proved to be difficult. The company sold a minimum of 5 000 chicks per order at a cost of US$1.26. Adding duty tax and VAT put it out of Muyumbana’s reach.
So he turned to Kenya, where he heard a similar breed could be found. In 2015 he travelled there and procured 200 so-called Kari birds from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), who bred the chicks.
The Kari breed develops faster, is highly resistant to disease and has high productivity. It reaches a weight of about 1.5kg in more or less five months, while other indigenous breeds take seven months or more to reach the same weight. A hen can produce between 200 and 300 eggs a year.
From the initial stock of 200, he selected 92 females and 15 males to establish the parent stock. This has now grown to 126 females and 20 males. Muyumbana also bought an incubator from China with a capacity for 12 672 eggs.
To take care of the chicks in the early days, he constructed a poultry house of 12m x 5m and divided it into two for two flocks of birds. This was done on only half a hectare on his newly acquired 15 hectares of traditional land in Mpongwe’s Kanyenda area. Muyumbana says the key consideration for building the poultry houses was to protect the birds against the elements, predators and disease.
The chickens started laying in July 2015 and a month later Muyumbana was selling day-old chicks of the improved free range chicken variety from East Africa. “These chicks are highly resistant to diseases and have a high egg productivity. I can claim to be the pioneer of the Kari breed in Zambia and anyone with the breed today either got it from me, or somebody who earlier bought from me,” Muyumbana says.
Constrained by infrastructure for keeping matured birds, Muyumbana specialised in supplying day-old chicks to retail stock breeders. These include small to medium scale farmers who raise mature free range chickens for retailing. Others copied his model of raising day-old chicks for sale.
A small number of customers included households who raised the chicks for consumption. These households rely on small-scale, low-cost, poultry production systems, where day-old chicks can rapidly mature. This helped the families to supplement their dietary meat requirements and raise income.
“We deliver to our customers and created pick-up points for those we cannot reach. In the interest of controlling disease, we restrict customer visits,” he says.
Currently he produces between 1 000 and 1 500 chicks per month. The unit price is K13. “I have a dedicated personnel of four people who are hands on to monitor the hatcheries, handle the eggs and to other production tasks. These workers have helped the business grow, and we can sustain this growth going into the future,” Muyumbana says.
Muyumbana’s advice is to get quality chicks, start with the proper construction of poultry housing, organise feeding and control disease. He benefited from poultry training offered by local consultants in the management of free range chickens, and provided the same training to his staff.
“The structured training course in poultry management helped to mitigate some disasters experienced by new entrants, such as losing an entire brood,” he says. “The training also helped to guide us in sourcing vaccines and acquiring vital market knowledge.”
They started producing their own foliar liquid fertiliser to help cut costs. Muyumbana aquired red earth worms from the Kenyan institute where he found the Kari chicken breed. He prepared garden beds where the red worms could feed on chicken manure and produce the liquid fertiliser. The plan is to produce the fertiliser for a hydroponic fodder system that could help to bring down his feed cost.
With plans to expand, Muyumbana was scouting for capital to invest in infrastructure to accommodate the breeding of mature birds. The current high bank interest rate – hovering above 35% – made Muyumbana shy away from finding finance there and he is using income from his day job as an accountant to bankroll expansions.
Muyumbana recently teamed up with other industry players to form a co-operative. It could be an important vehicle to help raise capital for its members.
POTENTIAL AND OPPORTUNITY
Muyumbana sees an opportunity for linking local producers of free range chickens to larger supermarkets. “Currently we have little in the way of linkages with multinational supermarkets, and transforming that situation through a government response will encourage many more small producers,” he says.
He commended the recent measures by government to restrict the import of poultry products as a step in the right direction to create a vibrant industry. “Policies like this will benefit a poultry farmer like myself to grow into a large-scale producer.”
He also saw potential in the growth of his business as Zambians, encouraged by positive agriculture policies, returned to the old-time homestead where there is always a flock of free range chickens scratching around the yard.
“There is nothing new about raising free-range poultry. It was part of the lives we had in the past, and we are able to supply households with chicks to have their own free-range chickens,” he says with a smile.
Muyumbana uses Facebook and word of mouth as major marketing channels for his birds. “The Facebook page Small-scale Farmers (Farming as a Business) has several hundreds of followers nationwide. This helped me to reach most of my customers,” he says.
The increase in the number of customers assured him that sticking to cost-effective marketing approaches will help the business channel other resources into expansion.
Muyumbana says he would have been among the top five producers of day-old chicks in Zambia, if he had taken the time to compile a proper business plan. “I thought having the idea will mean the business will just flow. The reality is we had to go back to the drawing board to get the business on a strong footing,” he says.
Besides developing a solid business plan, a venture such as raising free-range chickens needed more management skills. This forms an essential component of innovation and value creation.
“I need to move to a point where I can combine this with agro processing – producing sausages and other meat products. Yes, a financial injection will help us there, but what is more valuable is knowledge to drive this business,” he says.