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Poultry, women and development: old ideas, new applications and the need for more research

J. Rushton1 and S.N. Ngongi2

The authors can be contacted at:
1 VEERU, Department of Agriculture, University of Reading, Earley Gate, PO Box 236, Reading RG6 6AT, UK;
2 c/o via Fusignano 104, Vitinia, 00127 Rome, Italy.


Les volailles sont probablement l'espèce animale la plus importante pour bon nombre de familles rurales pauvres. Dans ces familles, la responsabilité de leur élevage revient généralement aux femmes. Le développement de l'aviculture est donc souvent considéré comme un moyen permettant à la fois de lutter contre la pauvreté rurale et de toucher les groupements féminins. Toutefois, la plupart de ces programmes de développement sont axés essentiellement sur des interventions techniques. L'article insiste sur l'opportunité d'élargir cette approche étroite pour y intégrer la dynamique des bandes de volaille, la commercialisation et les implications sociales. Un modèle conceptuel incluant la collecte de données, leur analyse et la diffusion d'informations, y est présenté.


Las aves son probablemente la especie animal más importante para muchas familias pobres del medio rural. Dentro de estas familias, las mujeres suelen ser las encargadas de su explotación. Por consiguiente, el fomento de la avicultura se considera a menudo como un medio para hacer frente a la pobreza rural y llegar a los grupos de mujeres. Sin embargo, muchas de estas iniciativas de desarrollo se concentran sobre todo en intervenciones técnicas. En el presente artículo se argumenta que esta estrechez de miras debería ampliarse para incluir la dinámica, la comercialización y las repercusiones sociales de los grupos de aves. Se presenta un modelo teórico que incluye la recopilación de datos, su análisis y la difusión de información.


Poultry are probably the most important livestock species for many poor, rural families worldwide. Most are kept under scavenge-based conditions, where their small size and ability to survive on minimal inputs make their man-agement an easy activity for any household to pursue. It has been reported by many authors that the management of rural poultry is largely the responsibility of women but, despite this, research into rural poultry development is usually narrowly focused on technical aspects with very little attention being paid to the wider socio-economic issues.

This article proposes and examines a systems analysis approach to address this problem with the aim of improving rural poultry development planning. The methodology as outlined in this article could be applied to any type of poultry system, from a low input/output to a semi-intensive unit.
The article is divided into three sections: a classification and description of rural poultry systems; an assessment of the implications of technical interventions; and a proposal for a method to assess the changes needed to improve rural poultry production.


The authors have classified rural poultry systems on the basis of management and degree of commercialization,  i.e. scavenge-based; free-range; and semi-intensive. This classification is not original (Kekeocha, 1984), but will aid the presentation of the analysis that follows.

Scavenge-based poultry systems

This form of production is characterized by low inputs, with birds allowed to wander freely and scavenge for all or most of their food. The size and the composition of flocks vary widely. In some areas, supplementary feeding is practised; however, this is not widespread and is often subject to the seasonal availability of surplus grain. Housing is generally not provided, but the birds may be housed in the family dwelling at night or encouraged to roost in trees near the homestead.

The production levels of scavenging birds are usually considered to be poor, especially when compared with those of commercial chickens. They normally produce an average of 10 to 12 eggs about three times a year with an average hatchability rate of 80 percent (Spadbrow, 1993). Chick mortality rates are characteristically high and an estimated 70 percent of chicks die before they reach the age of six weeks (Dessie, 1996) owing to a combination of disease, predation and scant feed resources. Furthermore, offtake rates are low in this system and the principal market for the produce is the household and gifts for friends. Flock sizes are small with an average of five to ten birds and little investment is made in terms of time, management or money. In general, these systems have poor access to markets.

Free-range poultry systems

Free-range poultry are provided with feed, night-time housing and occasionally water. While not confined to a pen during the day, they are expected to scavenge for a large proportion of their feed.

Most of the feed used is produced at home and, in some cases, is directed at vulnerable groups, such as hens with a brood of young (authors' personal observation, Zimbabwe). Night-time shelter is often ineffective as protection against such predators as snakes. While water is sometimes made available, it is not usual to have water drinkers that serve the needs of young chicks.
While the mortality rate in this system is lower than in the scavenge-based one, there are still considerable losses, mainly owing to poor nutrition, poor access to water and disease. However, predation is less of a problem than in the scavenge-based system and offtake rates are higher.
Producers of free-range poultry have reasonable access to markets and the sale of eggs and birds is common. The main input purchased is feed, with veterinary care as a minor input. Flock sizes are similar to those of the scavenge-based systems, but some capital investment is made in terms of housing and human investment to manage the feeding and offtake.

Semi-intensive poultry systems

Semi-intensively produced poultry are provided with feed and water. They are kept in fenced-in areas that normally have some type of shelter. Many producers have specialized in meat or egg production and hence have an interest in improved poultry strains. Flock sizes can vary according to the type of product, with some producers keeping as many as 200 broiler birds, while egg producers may keep as few as six.

The provision of feed is a high priority, since the birds are not allowed sufficient area to scavenge. In addition, mortality and loss rates are relatively low compared with other systems, since the risks of predation, theft and loss caused by poor nutrition are much lower. Health management is also important, particularly where it is not possible to change the area in which the birds are allowed to roam.
Semi-intensive production units have good access to markets and most of their produce is sold. However, they do rely on external inputs such as feed, medicines and occasionally labour. In some cases, the external inputs extend to the purchase of day-old chicks from commercial breeders.

Shared characteristics of the rural poultry systems - management by women

As has already been mentioned, women are largely responsible for the management of rural poultry (Dessie, 1996; Kuit, Traore and Wilson, 1986; Spadbrow, 1993; Johnston and Cumming, 1991; Ellis, 1992), but there are few data on the ownership patterns of chickens held in these systems. In many rural areas, however, women are reported to have discretionary powers over the money received from the sale of eggs and live chickens (Dessie, 1996). The proceeds from these sales, while significant to many rural women, are low and usually considered as "petty cash".

With such a scenario, interventions to improve poultry production are often seen as a way to reach poor, rural women to improve their livelihood.


W9980t33.GIF (82327 bytes)

Conceptual model of the interactions at the flock, household and market levels
Un modèle conceptuel indiquant les interactions au niveau de la bande de volailles, du ménage et du marché
Modelo teórico que muestra las interacciones en los planos de la bandada, el hogar y el mercado


W9980t34.JPG (40772 bytes)    W9980t35.JPG (40801 bytes)



Ways and means to improve rural poultry production have been researched - such as housing (Matthewman, 1977), feeding (Smith, 1990; Kekeocha, 1984), breed introduction (Creevey, 1991) and disease control (Copland, 1987). However, relatively small changes, which are often ignored or assumed to be unimportant, can have far-reaching implications: for example, changes to flock structure and numbers; the demand for household labour and capital; and poultry input and output markets. Such changes can often limit or in some cases jeopardize the expected benefits from technical interventions.

Project proposals that intend women to be the main beneficiaries of technical interventions should examine how these three interrelated changes will affect them and how much control they can exercise. The following sections examine the different types of change.

Flock changes

Increases in flock size will almost certainly imply higher investment costs in areas such as supplementary feed, health care and housing. Few projects recognize feed as a constraint to rural poultry development. However, in scavenge-based and free-range systems, supplementary feeding will probably become more important when the size of flocks increases. Research in Sri Lanka (Gunaratne et al., 1993) and Ethiopia (Dessie, 1996) suggests that scavenged feed will not sustain large flock sizes.

With increased flock sizes there will also be a greater need for disease control. This will require the additional purchase of inputs such as vaccines and other prophylactic products. In scavenge-based systems, where producers have poor access to information and markets, these inputs will be new and will require the assurance of effective extension services and assured availability.
Disease prevention and control will greatly benefit from the provision of appropriate housing. However, building and maintenance of good-quality housing often requires a significant cash outlay even when local materials are used. This applies particularly to scavenge-based systems.

Labour requirements

An increase in flock size and its subsequent output will invariably place an extra demand on household labour. For interventions that require extra labour it is necessary to quantify the amount, its seasonality, who will provide it, and how it will be rewarded. For scavenge-based and free-range systems, labour demands can only be defined with a clear understanding of intrahousehold dynamics of poultry management and ownership. If it is recognized that the people identified have very little free time, an analysis of their labour demands will be required to assess whether they will compete with existing activities. If conflict occurs, the opportunity cost of abandoning an activity will have to be assessed. Finally, it is important to determine whether extra labour inputs are likely to be sufficiently rewarded and, if so, to ascertain whether the additional benefits from the improved enterprise will be enjoyed primarily by those who provide extra labour. These benefits may be in the form of eggs and meat, as well as cash.

If women are responsible for the management of poultry, changes that result in increased labour requirements might face obstacles. Women's duties are usually vital for the maintenance of the household, and in many cultures it is unlikely that other household members will carry them out. Therefore, rural women with a full daily schedule might not be able or willing to increase this workload. The question here is whether the proposed changes are feasible given the cultural reality, and not whether the cultural reality is correct or desirable.
In semi-intensive systems, changes in labour requirements might involve the employment of extra staff, but, since these systems are more commercial, the implications to the dynamics of intrahousehold labour are likely to be limited.

Capital requirements

In this discussion, capital includes physical infrastructure such as housing and human capital such as poultry man-agement skills. For improvements that require the former, the control of household cash resources and access to credit by the poultry "manager" should be determined, otherwise it is unlikely that an intervention requiring capital will succeed. It is also important to determine whether the poultry "manager" has access to sources of information and training. Issues relating to access to credit and information markets are discussed in another section.

Market level

Changes at the household and flock levels also have implications for the local input and output markets.

Output markets

Improvements in the production output of rural poultry will almost certainly affect the meat and egg markets. For scavenge-based systems, the output market is principally the household, which has limited ability to absorb extra production, while for free-range systems the output market is principally the local village, with better but still limited ability to absorb extra production. Access to markets is often affected by poor or seasonally impassable roads. Abbott and Makeham (1990) state that inadequate transport facilities are mainly responsible for the slow increase in marketing activity in many areas.

The lack of information on market prices also constrains women's effectiveness in the market place (Jazairy, Alamgir and Panuccio, 1992). In remote areas, a significant increase in output is likely to depress prices, but this may be partially compensated by an increased volume of output, depending of course on the distance of the producing community from the markets.
Ellis (1992) and Spadbrow (1993) commented that in many developing countries, particularly in Asia, there are large markets for indigenous birds and their eggs. However, this only indicates that such markets exist, but it does not mention their accessibility. They may only be available to the semi-intensive poultry keepers, who generally have better access to transport infrastructure and information.
Markets will need to be assessed for their accessibility, size and seasonality. The latter may indicate the need to implement interventions only at certain times of the year. The following data would also be required in this assessment:

A full discussion on how to overcome marketing problems is not possible in an article of this length, but some type of marketing organization might be needed to facilitate the collection and transport of birds and eggs to urban markets (Ellis, 1992). Another option to improve marketing would be to encourage existing private mar-keting channels that could be achieved by developing infrastructure and possibly transport systems. Where a poultry project is not able to influence the marketing systems, it will be important to determine whether such constraints are critical to project success.

Input markets

Input markets for rural poultry development can be split into three areas: physical inputs such as feed and medicines; information and training; and credit.

Physical inputs. As has been outlined above, a change in flock structure and size may require extra inputs of feed and veterinary products. For semi-intensive systems with good market connections these extra inputs should not prove to be a major constraint. The main problems for these producers would be the fluctuating world market prices for grain and the need to secure access to good-quality veterinary products.
Unfortunately, in scavenge-based and free-range systems, the use of supplementary feed is often too expensive, with supply being irregular and the quality variable. The alternative would be to use a ration of locally produced farm mix. However, this requires information on the type of mixes that are appropriate for the area and may also involve considerable labour.
The reliable supply of veterinary medicines requires effective veterinary services and easy access to such goods. In many countries, although a reasonable infrastructure for the supply of veterinary medicines may exist, they are not always available because of import restrictions.

Information and training. One of the most important methods of spreading information is "over the farm fence". However, extension still remains the most significant means by which farmers receive information on new technologies. The issues here can be split into two areas, the type of management system and the gender of the poultry "manager".
In scavenge-based systems, farms are often dispersed and road access is generally poor. Therefore, reaching a large number of these producers will be a definite achievement for any extension worker. These producers are also unlikely to visit towns to buy poultry inputs, and they are therefore not exposed to commercially oriented extension messages. For free-range producers the situation is not so serious, although they do not enjoy the same access to information and technology as the semi-intensive producers.
In addition to the problems that rural poultry producers experience in having access to extension services, it is widely acknowledged that these services have generally failed to reach women, the most important gender group of rural poultry producers (Malena, 1994; Fong and Perrett, 1991). In this context, it is also worth considering the differences in access to extension services that may exist between a woman relying on scavenge-based production and her counterpart using a semi-intensive system. The latter is unlikely to be demanding extra information for her poultry enterprise as she may be unaware of potential improvements. Based on the fact that she has experience in running the enterprise as a business, it is very likely that she would be keen to find new methods to reduce costs and increase outputs and profits.
The importance an extension service message to any proposed intervention is obviously dependent on the type of intervention and quality of the extension services in the area. In order for extension agents to reach women producers, they need to understand the role women play in the household, so that they can tailor the information to meet their needs. To improve delivery to isolated communities, group presentation would be appropriate. For example, farmers could be grouped according to their resources to facilitate introducing the relevant technologies and thereby also reduce the need for individual contacts. Group approaches can be relatively inexpensive since a large number of people are contacted at little cost. In order to ensure effectiveness, the size of the groups should be limited so as not to hinder discussions and demonstrations. Depending on the gender relationships of the community, there might also be a need to segregate by gender.
It is clear from the above that it is more problematic for extensionists to reach producers in the scavange-based production units because of their often remote locations and the lack of demand for information.

Credit. The importance of granting credit to promote livestock development is well recognized (Ehui, 1996). Rural poultry development is no exception, since the availability of credit is often essential to purchase feed and veterinary medicines and to build better housing.
Poultry farmers in semi-intensive systems use purchased feeds and medicines and house their birds. From this it can be concluded they have access to credit. However, the same cannot be said for the scavenge-based or free-range producer, whose systems are therefore frequently constrained.
To determine whether and why credit constraints exist would require a specific study to be undertaken in the project area. An understanding of the existing credit markets will often be crucial to the success of technical interventions that require access to credit markets but are unable to influence them.

General considerations in poultry development

Although not the only factor that determines the socio-economic position of women, income greatly influences their status. It is evident that the status of self-employed or wage-earning women is higher than those confined to domestic and subsistence activities (Hilhorst and Oppenoorth, 1992). Increasing women's incomes through improved poultry production would therefore also increase their status. Men may feel threatened by this process and it is doubtful whether women would continue to maintain the traditional control they seem to have over the system. In fact, it has been reported that when such changes take place men will often take control (Hillhorst and Oppenoorth, 1992; Agbede, Teguia and Manjeli, 1995). If this happens, it will be necessary to determine who will receive the additional benefits and how labour patterns will change. These issues are important for the sustainability of any technical interventions aimed at increasing women's income.

Households with scavenge-based and free-range systems will have little experience of poultry development, which could indicate a high probability of intrahousehold conflict caused by change. Households with semi-intensive systems are likely to have had some experience of these problems and may therefore be better able to manage and adapt to change. However, intrahousehold conflict is an issue that may require further analysis if it is thought that the response to a good technical intervention could be jeopardized.


The above analysis is a systems approach to poultry development which takes into account the conditions and market mechanisms required to make a success of rural poultry production. To achieve a systems approach requires data collection at all levels: flock, household and market. To be successful the methods used need to be participatory and should be supported by relevant analysis models. Although implications at the flock, household and market levels could be analysed separately, it is important to note that the three systems interact and influence one another. A summary of the type of approach needed for effective poultry development is presented in Figure 1.

The proposed combination of inside and outside knowledge and experience in planning rural poultry development can be applied to any of the rural poultry systems identified. However, this in-depth analysis is only justified for scavenge-based and free-range systems, since they are likely to face greater problems on account of poor market access.


Many efforts to develop and improve rural poultry production limit their activities to technical interventions in the belief that it is these that constitute the principal constraints. However, such an approach fails to take into consideration other important factors such as the role of women, cultural constraints and markets. This article calls for a greater recognition of the wider context required to allow technical interventions to succeed. Research is needed on flock projection models that take full account of the extra resources required for greater levels of offtake, marketing opportunities and data collection methods; however, an analysis of this kind needs to be presented to the target groups for discussion and improvement. The key in assessing the implications of proposed interventions, therefore, is not the development of the models themselves, but the systems approach that underpins this development and the ability to share information. This two-way holistic approach is argued to be the most viable in determining how best to develop the rural poultry sector and achieve the much sought after inclusion of women in the development process.


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