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Community-Based Promotion of Rural Poultry Diversity, Management, Utilization and Research in Malawi

Timothy N.P. Gondwe, Clemens B.A. Wollny, A.C.L. Safalaoh, F.C. Chilera and Mizeck G.G. Chagunda
Department of Animal Science, Bunda College of Agriculture, University of Malawi,
PO Box 219, Lilongwe, Malawi. (E-mail:[email protected])


Rural poultry constitutes over 80 percent of the total poultry population and is raised and utilized by about 80 percent of the human population, primarily situated in rural areas and occupied by subsistence agriculture. Different poultry species are raised, mostly indigenous to the area, except chickens, where traces of Black Australorp breed can be identified. Most of the species are known by vernacular names that describe their phenotype. Some phenotypes need help to ensure that they do not disappear from the rural areas. Despite its importance, rural poultry has received little attention in terms of improving its management, productivity and diversity. Several constraints such as Newcastle disease outbreaks, predation, poor housing, feeding and mating systems were identified in earlier studies.

A community-based project on improving and sustaining food self-sufficiency through promoting integration, multiplication and intensified utilization of rural poultry has just started in villages in Mkwinda and Mitundu Extension Planning Areas (EPAs), Lilongwe Agricultural Development Division. These villages surround Bunda College of Agriculture. The project aims to operate through open-nucleus breeding centres established in rural communities and managed by a committee of farmers. The farmers and other community-based stakeholders are participating fully in all aspects and the community committees make all the decisions. Two breeding and multiplication centres have been established, one from each EPA, with an additional facility at Bunda College to conduct complementary trials. Breeding farmers from within the community will multiply and distribute breed stock to other farmers. Different species and strains of poultry (chickens, pigeons and ducks) will be raised and performance evaluated at the centres. The above average performing birds will be selected as breeding stock for farmers. Distribution will be through the traditional stock-sharing system. The project plans technical interventions such as Newcastle disease vaccination, feed supplementation and early weaning. Village committees and breeders will be trained in rural poultry management to sustain the programme afterwards.

The project is in the early phase of implementation and aims at increasing flock sizes and flock integration among rural households; improving productivity through selection and evaluation; reducing mortality; and improving the nutritional, social and economic contribution of poultry biodiversity to rural human communities. These communities include malnourished children, the aged and female-headed households. It is thus intended to improve food security and the management of poultry genetic resources.


In Malawi, about 86 percent of the population lives in rural areas, where most people practise smallholder subsistence farming (NSO, 2000). The majority of the people are resource poor, and over 60 percent are food insecure (NEC, 1999). These farmers grow different crops and are the custodians of more than 80 percent of the total national livestock population (Go, 1998). Their annual per capita income could be as low as the equivalent of US$74 (Gondwe et al., 1999), mainly derived from crop production. The most dominant species are poultry species and more than 80 percent of the national poultry population is kept in rural areas. Chickens constitute the majority (83 percent), followed by pigeons (14 percent) and ducks (2 percent). Most of these are indigenous, except chickens, where traces of Black Australorp breed can be found. This breed was introduced through a cross-breeding programme that has existed for over 40 years and is an attempt to improve the local chicken (Go, 1998). In most households, women and children are caretakers of traditional poultry kept under a free-range extensive system.

Malawi has an annual animal protein consumption of 6.0 kg per capita, which is well below the average for Africa (12.0 kg). This low protein intake causes high maternal mortality and is why over 50 percent of children in rural areas are malnourished (NEC, 1999). Poultry in rural areas could play a role to contribute to the nutritional status of the people in these areas. The government has attempted to improve local chicken production through cross-breeding with the dual-purpose breed, Black Australorp. The programme seems to be failing because of technical constraints, the complexity of farming systems and the different uses to which farmers put their indigenous poultry, which the cross-breeding programme did not take into account. The Black Australorp seems not to adapt well to the harsh village-scavenging environment. Against this background, efforts were made to initiate studies and improvement programmes for rural poultry, taking account of the existing diversity, the role of poultry for society, and the prevailing farming systems. The paper describes a community-based project that aims to contribute to food self-sufficiency among smallholder farmers through promotion and improvement of poultry species in an integrated system without changing the cultural and farming system.

Project research area and background studies

The project has been initiated by the Lilongwe Agricultural Development Division (LADD), specifically in villages of Mkwinda and Mitundu Extension Planning Areas (EPAs). These are villages that surround the Bunda College of Agriculture. In these villages, researchers have already conducted studies on the evaluation of poultry biodiversity, on-farm and on-station species characterization and flock monitoring (Gondwe et al., 1999). A catalogue of local names for poultry in Chichewa was established (Table 1). Most of the names were descriptive and based on phenotype: feather plumage, legs, tail feathers, head, other features or simply colour.

Monitoring studies determined the prevalence of different types of poultry within species in the area (Table 2). From these, it was noted that there were relatively few examples of phenotypes Kansilanga, Tsumba and Kameta in flocks. Traces of Black Australorp breed were identified but constituted an insignificant proportion of the total chicken population.

But Simboti and Kachibudu were missing among the flocks. These phenotypes need special attention if they are to be saved from extinction. Few examples of Kawangi were seen in duck flocks, while phenotypic diversity distribution was equal in pigeons. The proportion of pigeons and ducks in relation to chickens was low and needs to improve. The same trend is being observed from current monitoring results.

Distribution of flocks by age groups was in favour of old birds (over 52 weeks) in chickens and ducks and growers (20-30 weeks) in pigeons. This showed that farmers keep their birds for a long time. The proportion of chicks and ducklings less than ten weeks old was small. This suggests high mortality rates caused by diseases and predators. This age group is vulnerable and needs care. In pigeons the number of squabs is low since this is the group that is mostly consumed. Growers, mature and old pigeons are used for breeding. Inbreeding within flocks is probably occurring because of the lack of a cockerel-exchange system and record-keeping.

The major constraints to poultry production were outbreaks of Newcastle disease among chickens in the months of September to December every year; predators that fed on pigeons, chickens and ducks; and poor housing and prolonged weaning periods for chickens and ducks. There is also haphazard sharing of breed stock among relatives, friends and others, within the village rather than between villages.

Table 1. Catalogue of local names of poultry in Chichewa



Phenotypic description

Basis for the name



Without tail feathers

Physical appearance


Naked neck


Feathers on legs


Dwarf with short legs


Frizzled (with rough feathers)


Feather hill on head


Black with white spots resembling a predator on chicks called Kawando (guinea-fowl type)



Greyish, ash-coloured


Came from India (exotic)



Bought from veterinary centres (BAs)



White in colour



Black in colour


Coloured like a chick predator



Black with white stripes around neck (zebra type)





Greyish, ash-coloured


Large with feathers on legs

Physical appearance

Source: Gondwe et al. (1999)

Table 2. Flock structure and distribution of different types of poultry in Mkwinda EPA, LADD



Percentage of population










































Approach to the community-based project

This project is designed to promote diverse breeding of poultry species in rural areas while at the same time putting necessary intervention measures in place to deal with identified constraints. Unlike other projects related to poultry, such as the Bangladesh (Jansen, 2000) and Egyptian models (Kolstand and Abdou, 2000), the current project concentrates on indigenous poultry species of chicken, pigeon and duck. The goal is to improve meat and egg production and sustain diversification within flocks utilizing the existing free-range system. All management decisions are taken and implemented by the community and accompanying research is based on full farmer participation.

Breeding and performance testing

There are two breeding centres established in the Chatenga and Chinungu villages of Mkwinda and Mitundu EPAs, respectively. These sites were identified upon agreement by traditional chiefs, from the surrounding areas, in prior consultation with government extension officers from the EPAs. Clubs were formed to run the centres and the activities of the project. These include assisting in constructing traditional poultry houses, working out the administration of vaccines and the associated logistics through a contributory system and later running the stock distribution and sharing system from the breeding centres. The breeding centres are therefore fully under the control of the rural people through the club committee. The construction of the Chatenga centre is under way and almost complete. An additional centre to provide facilities for complementary on-station research has already been established at Bunda College.

At these centres, indigenous chickens, pigeons and ducks will be stocked for multiplication and improvement. Each bird will be individually identified through numbered wing and leg bands. All birds will be raised under the traditional free-ranging system. Supplementation will consist of traditional maize bran. The birds will be under performance evaluation for meat, egg production, hatchability, mothering ability and adaptation. Young cocks will be evaluated for growth traits until they start crawling (reproductive maturity, at 20 weeks), and the top 10 to 25 percent will be recommended for breeding purposes and distributed to farmers. Selection will eventually be based on an index, taking into account different traits of use at village level. The hens will be evaluated for egg production, hatchability and mothering ability, among other traits.

Some farmers with high flock diversity have been selected as breeders and fertile-egg producers. To date, ten farmers have been chosen. They were selected in consultation with field extension staff from Mkwinda EPA. The process for Mitundu is currently ongoing. The farmers will have their birds individually tagged and evaluated at the breeding centres. There will be sharing of breed stock between the breeding centres and fellow farmers.

The organization of an open-nucleus breeding system for rural poultry is outlined in Figure 2. Production farmers will obtain superior breed stock from breeder farmers and from the breeding centres. Breeders will obtain top young evaluated cockerels from the breeding centres.

There will be cockerel exchange among breeding centres and breeder farmers, based on a six-month cycle, established to reduce the chances of inbreeding.

Farmers interested in having their birds tested must bring six-week-old cocks to the breeding centre, where they will be evaluated until they reach 20 weeks of age. Depending on the performance, the birds will be recommended for use in breeding or for consumption.

Figure 1. Flock distribution by age groups in Mkwinda EPA: chicks, ducklings and squabs (1-10 weeks); grower (>10-£20 weeks); grower/layers (>20-£30 weeks); mature (>30-£52 weeks); old (>52 weeks).

Breeding centres and breeders will have their birds vaccinated against Newcastle disease. Other farmers in the villages will also be encouraged to vaccinate their birds. This will be facilitated by field workers from EPAs, but coordinated by the club committee. Vaccines will be shared at cost recovery through monetary and egg contribution to a revolving fund run by the committee. Early weaning will be encouraged with chickens to increase the laying cycle. The hens will be forced to abandon their chicks at the sixth week to induce laying. Promotion of feed supplementation and protection of chicks from day and night predators is planned.

Research component of the project

In direct collaboration with the community farmers the project conducts research to characterize indigenous poultry, aiming to develop appropriate technologies and interventions. An on-farm monitoring study is in progress where a flock census is taking place. Every household in Mkwinda and Mitundu EPAs has been asked to provide information on:

flock structure (distribution by age, type and sex over time);


egg production and related traits;

mortality and its causes;

sociocultural factors and effects;

contribution of different poultry species to human diets and income generation; and

testing of interventions.

A meat preference and acceptability test trial with farmers is taking place. Meat from chickens, ducks and pigeons of two different age groups is being evaluated.

There will be attempt to generate genetic parameters (h2, genetic correlations) for chickens by tracing the pedigree through the hen. Hens from the centres will have their chicks traced up to several hatches and generations. Because flock species are under a free-ranging system, it is not possible to trace pedigree through the cockerels that will be distributed to farmers. These cockerels will join others in the flocks, where mating will be random. However, hens and their hen offspring will be followed. There is a hen pedigree recording system at the Bunda breeding centre and this will be expanded to the village breeding centres and farmer breeders to increase the number of records. Through individual identification, individual records will be collected.

Farmers will be given training in rural poultry management, supplementation, housing, disease control and record-keeping. Breeders will receive training in the creation of local multiplication centres, the cockerel-exchange system and periods of exchange, and early weaning. The committee will be trained in management issues. Some farmers will be selected and trained to be technicians for the administration of the vaccines. This training will equip farmers with techniques to use after the project phase, and this will help ensure sustainability.

The farmers are at the centre of the project and are involved in making decisions concerning project activities. This has started well, through an observed participation in the formation of committees, the selection of sites, the construction of structures and the administration logistics for Newcastle disease vaccine. Farmers will also be responsible for sales and their proceeds at the breeding centres (culled stock, breed stock and excess birds and eggs) and the security of the centres (through community police). The project targets resource-poor farmers in rural areas and includes: families with malnourished children under five; female-headed, poor households or families; old people without external support, but capable of carrying out minor activities such as keeping poultry; and others below the poverty line.

The project has involved the extension workers from the Ministry of Agriculture at EPA level as front line staff. These workers will also be involved in training and will have an extension advisory role. It is expected that non-governmental organizations dealing with the promotion of food security in rural areas will be interested in collaborating.

Expected output from the project

It is expected that breeding and multiplication centres for breed stock will produce seed stock for different species of birds that will be distributed among farmers in the villages. This will directly contribute to improved village poultry production, resulting in an increased animal protein intake among smallholder farmers. The project incorporates poultry production within existing farming systems and this will ensure a sustainable contribution to food security. Farmers will be equipped with technologies that will address current constraints and hence improve their poultry production. Applied technologies will be developed for researchers and extension workers to assist the farmers effectively.

The smallholder resource-poor farmers will therefore benefit from the integration of different species nutritionally, socially and economically. This will also lead to sustainable conservation, better management and improvement in the utilization of indigenous poultry genetic resources.

Figure 2. Interaction between farmers, breeders and evaluation centres in the villages

Sustainability of the project

The active participation of farmers will make the programme sustainable after the initial funding phase. The project is taking place in the villages, using traditionally kept indigenous species and the existing farming systems. Farmers are also decision-makers and in control of the breeding centres. Acquisition of breed stock (live birds and fertile eggs) from breeding centres and breeder farmers will include traditional stock-sharing systems, locally known as chipazga or chakhola. This ensures that farmers have access to the species they need. The contributory vaccination programme will be simple and affordable by all farmers through cash payment or any other method of payment agreed by the community.

Farmers will be in control of bird sales at breeding centres and the vaccine revolving fund. The training component will also contribute to the sustainability of the programme.

The cycle of operations between the breeding centres, breeder farmers and production farmers includes activities of a cockerel-exchange programme, which works with indigenous species that are already adapted to the local environment.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the funding received for this project (SADC/UNDP/FAO RAF 97/032), which is under the project on Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources in the SADC region.


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