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Knocking the poor back down
Backyard poultry farmers lose livelihoods
Jos, Nigeria – The road out of poverty is no longer straight and smooth for small-scale urban farmers in the egg capital of Nigeria.

Located on the cool Jos Plateau, this city has an ideal climate for poultry production, supporting 2 000 mostly small-scale producers, who ship eggs all over the country. But bird flu has torn through backyard hen houses, causing hardship among those who count on profits to feed their families, pay for education for their children or provide small pensions.

"I don't know where it came from. All I know is that another farm in the area became infected and then mine. I lost 7 000 chickens," says a dejected Pius Ilonah, 52. "Since then, friends have been donating food and some money to my family. We don't have any savings or any other source of income and are just managing."

Two of his children are in high school and two in university, well on their way to good jobs and a better life. Now, the dream may be over.

"We are waiting for the government to give us whatever they will give us so we can restart," he says. "I would borrow money but the bank wants my land as collateral. I need 1 000 layers as a starting point, which would cost 800 000 naira (US$6 000). That's a lot of money. Who is going to lend me that?"

Government veterinarians explain another problem that small-scale egg farmers like Mr Ilonah are going to have resuming production. Encouraged by the government in the 1970s, thousands of urban Nigerians started small backyard poultry businesses as a way out of poverty. Whole residential neighbourhoods built rudimentary hen coops, often cutting corners on bird health, hygiene and biosecurity. When a livestock disease as virulent as the H5N1 avian flu virus arrived, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

"You can see his coops don't have proper ventilation. And this neighbourhood has too many backyard operations. It is too crowded for good animal health," says veterinarian Dr Ezek Pam. "In order to be recertified, he'll have to move."

Good farm practice

In an industrial park on the outskirts of the city, Sherifat Sheriff runs a model poultry farm with 5 000 laying chickens in clean, well-ventilated facilities located in a large compound behind high walls. The hen houses are screened so no wild birds can enter. Her 10 farm labourers wear face masks, and overalls that they must remove whenever they go off site. Only visitors on business may enter – before family members would come and go – and they must dip their shoes in disinfectant at the gate to prevent the virus being tracked in.

"Since I started my business in 1993 I've been very careful and haven't been wiped out by any disease," says Ms Sheriff. She explains that, unlike for the Ilonahs, egg farming is only one economic activity for her family. Her husband is an engineer, and one of their children is in university overseas, the others in elite local high schools.

Fears are being expressed that the bird flu crisis, not only in Nigeria but all over the world, will force poor small-scale producers out of business, with large-scale producers taking up the slack.

State of play

As of April 2006, 750 000 poultry had died of bird flu or been culled in Nigeria out of a total poultry population of 140 million. So far, animal health authorities have depended on a compensation scheme for affected farmers to encourage reporting of outbreaks, then cleaning out the affected area. An extensive public communication campaign advises producers on how to protect their flocks.

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FAO/ S. Nelson

Pius Ilonah outside his empty hen coop.

FAO/S. Nelson

A good climate and industrious citizens made Jos the egg capital of Nigeria.

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