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Realising climate gains from smallholder chicken farming in Africa

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Chickens are among the few domestic animals that have a low environmental impact and carbon footprint

© IFAD / Guy Stubbs

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There is hardly a document on African climate change issues that does not portray livestock husbandry in a negative light - responsible for emitting substantial quantities of greenhouse gases. While it is true that some livestock play a role in generating greenhouse gases, this is not the case across the entire sector. Chickens are among the few domestic animals that have a low environmental impact and carbon footprint, and research is moving forward to develop climate-smart poultry production for African smallholders.

Aware of the huge challenges that climate change and variability pose to agriculture, experts and policy-makers are increasingly exploring approaches that can withstand the effects of climate change, contribute to productivity growth and contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Small-scale chicken production ticks all the climate-smart agriculture (CSA) boxes, though to date it has been overshadowed by a focus on the challenges and opportunities of crop agriculture and soil-water conservation in the context of watershed management.

In rural sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), chickens are among the most widely reared livestock, providing valuable disposable income for poor households in general, and for women and youth in particular. They thrive in a range of environments, are efficient in converting feed into high-quality food, and have smaller environmental footprints than most other livestock. At the same time, chickens are believed to be susceptible to shifting weather patterns although, with the right breeds, it should be possible to enhance their potential to adapt to a changing climate.

More productive poultry

However, the overall production and productivity levels of the smallholder chicken industry in SSA are very low. Typically, a hen produces at most 45 eggs per year and takes more than six months to achieve a market live-weight of less than 1.5kg. This is in marked contrast to the developed world where, on average, a hen produces more than 300 eggs per year and meat birds attain 2 kg body weight in less than 40 days.

Of late, research attention has increasingly been directed to improve local chicken breeds so they become more productive and adaptable to different agro-ecologies and farming systems. One such action research initiative is the African Chicken Genetic Gains (ACGG) project, a five-year multi-partner, multi-country initiative led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), with investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project has been involved in increasing smallholder chicken production and productivity growth as a pathway out of poverty, as well serving as a platform for testing, delivering, and continuously improving tropically adapted chickens in the tropics.

Adapting chickens to a changing climate

ACGG and its partners have registered encouraging results in terms of testing indigenous and exotic chicken breeds and enhancing access of smallholder farmers to more productive, agro-ecologically appropriate, and vaccinated chicken strains. The project’s genetic innovation work proceeded on the basis of farmers’ preferences in different agro-ecologies. The chicken strains that ACGG made available to farmers were found to have resulted in significant productivity gains both in terms of live body weight (an average of 200 – 300 per cent increase over the indigenous ones) and egg production (an average of 100 – 160 per cent gain compared with the indigenous ones) for more than 6,000 farm households. ACGG has thus successfully demonstrated the viability of the science that underpins genetic innovations to improve farm-level chicken productivity in ways that are adaptable to a changing climate.

It is therefore high time that action research on chicken productivity be seen from the prism of addressing the concerns of CSA. Furthermore, there is a strong case for greater appreciation of the climate credentials of the myriad practices of the chicken value chain in the context of smallholder commercial poultry systems, and the discourse on CSA should firmly embrace this sub-sector. In addition, an action research agenda on poultry could encourage chicken breeding programmes in Africa to factor in explicitly CSA parameters of adaptation, including heat/cold tolerance, so that this important sector remains viable in a changing climate.

This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.

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