With a growing appetite for chicken in Africa, BBC Africa’s Kim Chakanetsa investigates why the continent does not produce enough birds to feed itself.
If you have eaten a handful of spicy chicken wings in Angola recently or perhaps polished off a lemony “yassa poulet” in Senegal, there is a good chance your chicken travelled some distance before finding its way on to your plate.
It depends where you live in Africa, but chickens are increasingly migrating – in freezers – from Brazil, Germany or other European Union countries to the continent.
Imports of chicken to sub-Saharan Africa tripled between 2004 and 2014, according to figures from the US Department of Agriculture. Here’s a look at reasons behind the huge increase and what can be done to help fatten up the continent’s poultry industry – in four points:
1) Why chickens not cows?
Africa has a growing population, which is projected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050, and with that has come an increased demand for the consumption of meat, of one variety in particular.
“Chicken is the first choice of meat for most Africans,” says Kevin Lovell, chief executive of the South Africa Poultry Association.
The higher cost of beef and some of the religious restrictions around pork in parts of Africa help explain the preference for chicken, he says.
As more people move to the city, their dietary patterns begin to change and they are more likely to choose meat from a local fast food joint, or one of the global chains that have proliferated across the continent in recent years.
The fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken now has more than 700 outlets in Africa, operating in 13 countries.
“The production of meat has not caught up with the demand… driven both by the rise in the population but also by the urbanisation phenomenon,” explains Calestous Juma, a professor of International Development at Harvard University.
And the growth really is phenomenal. By 2030, 50% of Africans, numbering more than half a billion, are expected to be living in cities, up from 36% in 2010, according to World Bank estimates.
2) Hungry birds
Many Africans will be familiar with the “road runner” chicken, which can often be found in the backyard roaming freely.
These birds tend to feed themselves and are known for being tough but tasty.
As a means to feed the family or make a small income these low-input birds tend to do the job.
However, when it comes to intensive farming, a steady supply of chicken feed which is made up of maize and soya is vital.
But weak agricultural systems in Africa mean that feed often has to be imported at a high cost, hampering farmers’ efforts to ramp up their grain production.
Napoleon Oduro, is a Ghanaian poultry and egg farmer with a 500-bird farm, a few hours outside of the capital Accra.
He tells me that the imported feed he relies on costs him $25 (£20) for a bag of 50kg (110 lb).
And with each bird eating about 2.5kg of feed per month, he says costs can quickly become prohibitive.
3) Breeding a “super chicken”
It is not just the high cost of feed, but the fact that most African chickens need more of it than their fellow birds in developed markets.
African farmers do not have the same access to broiler chickens, birds which are specifically bred and raised for meat consumption.
“Many agencies that work in Africa try to come up with what they call locally adapted breeds but it is always a half answer because those birds will never convert animal feed into food as efficiently as the modern improved Western breeds,” says Mr Lovell.
Prof Juma puts this down to a lack of research facilities, which makes it harder to support breeding programmes on the continent.
He cites Kenya, where about 80% of the poultry production is based on less productive traditional breeds, as a prime example of the problem.
However, there is some good news on this front.
The African Chicken Genetic Gains project is on a mission to bring “more productive chickens to African smallholders”.
Led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and backed by the deep pockets of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it aims to improve the genetic makeup of African chickens.
The initiative, which is initially being rolled out in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania is part of what the Microsoft founder has called his “big bet” on chickens, which also includes a promise to donate 100,000 of the birds to families and communities in the world’s poorest nations.
Top tips from African chicken farmers:
“I started off seven years ago with 400 broilers and 300 layers but I realised that maintaining broilers was more expensive. Raising feed is also tough, my chickens can consume 300kg of food a day! But from my business I sent my three kids to school and bought a car.
Tip: “If you want to start small, start with broilers, they are cheaper and in six weeks you will be selling. And if you are rearing broilers and layers ensure they are kept separately.”
“Finding a market is a challenge, there are big international companies that flood the market with cheap chickens and stifle local farmers from growing. The cost for feed is high and occasionally thieves break into my pens.”
Tip:“You can sell your chickens at four weeks, but it is better to wait for six weeks, the meat is better, the chickens heavier.”
“My local chickens get attacked by eagles and diseases regularly. Getting treatment is not easy. Poor rainfall makes it hard to grow feed. It is available for sale but expensive. But from my business I have sent my two boys to college and two girls to secondary school.”
Tip: “To protect your chicks from eagles I dye them sky blue to disguise them.”
“In 2011 I started with 50,000 chickens, my farm has now grown to a company that employs not less than 400 people. We face many challenges – banks are not interested in lending and with the credit crunch, costs for raw materials for our feed have almost doubled.”
Tip: “Be ready to spend more on chicks from reputable hatchery even if your neighbour’s farm is selling cheap chicks.”
4) Import dilemma
One of the major obstacles for farmers in Africa is the flood of imports from Brazil, Europe and the US.
Those working in the African poultry sector put this down to a preference for white meat in Western countries.
“In Europe, in particular most people want to eat breast meat and they will pay a lot more for breast meat in a supermarket than they would for dark meat [wings, thighs and legs] and that difference allows the company to make a profit and sell the dark meat for less than it costs to produce it,” says Mr Lovell.
“When it gets to South Africa, Ghana, Angola or wherever else in Africa, that causes a problem because the local farmers can’t compete.”
In an attempt to bolster local production, various governments across Africa, including those of Botswana, Nigeria, Namibia and Swaziland, have attempted to address the issue by imposing import restrictions.
Botswana, with more than three decades of strong import restrictions on poultry behind it, now produces enough chickens to feed its own people.
But it also has the most expensive frozen chicken in the region, according to recent research, with critics calling for the government to open up market up to competition to bring prices down.
Mr Oduro has the same problem over prices: “Customers will say that what we produce here in Ghana is expensive as compared to the imported chicken.”
But the Ghanaian farmer criticises the government for a lack of intervention, saying that it has failed to invest and support his sector for many years.
“We are not against imports, we are crying for a policy that will make the Ghanaian farmer competitive.”