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Village Poultry and Poverty Alleviation

John Cassius Morêki
Animal Production Division,
Private Bag 0032, Gaborone, Botswana
(E-mail: [email protected])


The poultry industry of Botswana comprises two important production systems. These are a commercial sector that uses exotic breeds of chickens and improved housing and nutrition (high-input, high-output system); and the village system, which mostly uses indigenous Tswana chickens (low-input, low-output system). The chicken population in Botswana is estimated to be approximately 23 million (20 million commercial and 3 million village chickens). An eight-month study was conducted in 15 villages and involved 1 000 rearers of village chickens. Data were collected using a formal questionnaire and through informal interviews. The study showed that chickens accounted for 94 percent of the poultry species reared, while pigeons and ducks made up the remaining 6 percent. It was found that, in rural areas, most people (especially women) said they kept chickens mainly for meat, as a source of income, for greeting visitors and for healing rituals. Chickens were sold to meet family needs and the average price per bird was 17.57 pula (P), equivalent to US$3.74. The money from the sale of chickens was used to pay school fees, buy school requisites (pens, uniforms and books), pay for health services and pay contributions to burial societies and to the church. The money was also used to purchase small ruminants (sheep and goats), which were later sold to buy cattle to provide draught power and milk. This indicates that village chickens play an important role in alleviating poverty in the rural villages of Botswana.


Village chickens comprise the major part of the poultry industry in many developing countries (Spradbrow, 1997). The term "village or family poultry" refers to small flocks raised by individual farm families in order to increase their food security, obtain income and provide women and children with employment (Sonaiya, 1999). Village poultry is kept by nearly all rural, many peri-urban and some urban households, and provides protein and generates extra cash (Branckaert and Guéye, 1999). The population of scavenging village chickens in the developing world is estimated to be around three billion (Roberts, 1997; Spradbrow, 1994). In Botswana, the village chicken population is estimated to be three million (Moreki, 1997) and these are reared by approximately 65 percent of agricultural holdings (Division of Agricultural Planning and Statistics, 1995). Women, assisted in some cases by children, are the main owners and managers of village chickens (Branckaert and Guéye, 1999; Fattah, 1999).

The rearing of chickens is popular in rural villages of most resource-poor countries, as a means of providing supplementary food in the form of proteins, extra income and employment for family members (Bagnol, 2000; El Zuber, 1990; Khieu, 1999). Chickens are regarded as valuable gifts and are eaten as a delicacy on special occasions (Guèye and Bessei, 1997; Kemp 1998; Musharaf, 1990). They act as "recyclers", processing waste food into valuable protein in the form of meat and eggs. They also play a role in traditional healing rituals and religion (Alders, 1996; Nel, 1996). For instance, in Viet Nam one type is used for making traditional tonics for use by old and sick people (Tu, 2000). The manure is used to improve the fertility of the soil (Aini, 1990; Østergaard, 1995). Village chickens are therefore an important vehicle in rural development and play a significant role in the nutrition of the rural poor (Chitukuro and Foster, 1997; Nwosu, 1990).

According to Nel (1996), the absence of a backyard chicken in a rural household is a sure sign of poverty. Future prospects for rearing village chickens are believed to be good, because of traditionally high demand for their meat, which is perceived to be flavoursome and of higher quality than that of exotic breeds (Crawford, 1992). Birds are sold or bartered to meet household needs. In order to assess the contribution of village poultry to rural communities in Botswana, an eight-month study that covered ten administrative districts was undertaken (see Figure 1).

Poverty in Botswana

Botswana has a total area of 582 000 km2 and a population of approximately 1.5 million. Approximately 70 percent of the population live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for a living. A study on poverty in Botswana by the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) showed that about 38 percent of households were living in poverty in 1993/94 and that the proportion of people living in poverty was higher in rural areas than in urban villages. The study also revealed that female-headed households constituted a high proportion of households that were either poor or very poor (BIDPA, 1997).

Figure 1. Map of Botswana showing ten administrative districts

The districts with the largest proportion of people who live in poverty are Central and North East districts, which together account for one-third of Botswana’s population. In these districts, 56 percent of the inhabitants live in poverty. However, the poverty is much more severe in Gantsi and Kgalagadi and the Kweneng West districts, which have the weakest local economies in the country. They are home to the majority of Botswana’s rural area dwellers, the majority of whom are Basarwa or San people. Lastly, Gaborone has the lowest rate of poverty, with only one-fifth of its inhabitants living in poverty (BIDPA, 1997).


An eight-month study, in which 1 000 rearers of village poultry were interviewed using a questionnaire (Figure 2), was conducted in 15 villages of Botswana. The villages were Etsha, Gantsi, Hukuntsi, Kanye, Malolwane, Marapong, Masunga, Maun, Mochudi, Mokgomane, Motokwe, New Xade, Parakarungu, Tlokweng and Tsabong. They were categorized as urban, rural or remote rural villages. Additional data was collected through informal interviews (i.e. key informants, group interviews, direct observation, village walks). A questionnaire was also administered to groups of students from primary and secondary schools.

Figure 2. The 15 villages studied

Results and discussion

The results of the study are presented in this section and include a description of the village-chicken-rearing system.

Composition of village chickens in Botswana

There were seven species of poultry kept, including chickens, ducks, pigeons, turkeys, peafowl, geese and guinea fowl. Chickens predominated (94 percent) in all the villages, followed by pigeons (3 percent) and ducks (2.5 percent) (Table 1). Pigeons were mainly kept by boys as ornamentals and were sometimes sold to generate income. Other poultry species of minor importance included guinea fowl, peafowl and geese.

Table 1. Poultry species reared





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Gender analysis and ownership of village chickens

Eighty two percent of the poultry rearers were women while men constituted the remainder. This suggests that village chickens have more bearing on the lives of women than of men. During the survey most of the men were not at home - they were either working outside the villages or caring for large stock such as sheep, goats and cattle. In Botswana, chickens are generally regarded as livestock that women raise, mainly because they are perceived to be of less commercial value than other kinds of livestock (e.g. cattle and goats).

Reasons for keeping village chickens

The rearers gave many reasons for keeping village chickens. However, the majority indicated that they kept chickens mainly for meat, for their eggs, as a source of income, for greeting visitors, because they provided a sanitation service and, to a lesser extent, for healing rituals. Most poultry rearers in Etsha said that they used village chickens (except the naked neck type) in healing rituals.

A few rearers said that they used chicken manure to improve soil fertility. The use of manure in fertilizing soils is consistent with the findings of Østergaard (1995) in the Republic of Korea and Aini (1990) in Malaysia. Other reasons for rearing chickens (listed according to importance) included: for ornamental purposes, for heralding the break of the day, because it was customary, as a hobby, for pest control, for bartering, because they were easy to keep, as a means of paying debts, for recycling waste and for exhibition at shows and trade fares. The practice of using feathers to make pillows appeared to be uncommon. The multiple uses of village poultry reported in this study are inconsistent with earlier reports by many researchers in Asia and Africa (Aini, 1990; Sonaiya, 1997).

Housing and shelter

Sixty-five percent of the rearers in the study villages said that they did not provide housing for chickens. Consequently, birds slept on tree branches, piles of bricks/blocks, old vehicles, bush fences, walls, under roof overhangs or on top of huts, thus exposing themselves to the risks of predation, climatic hazards and theft. When shelters were constructed, locally available material such as old tins, iron sheets, plastic bags and thatch grass was used. Gantsi (township) had the highest proportion of rearers (87 percent) that provided their chickens with housing, followed by Etsha (72 percent), Parakarungu (60 percent) and Maun (58 percent). The four villages that had the highest number of rearers that did not provide shelter for their chickens were Mokgomane (92 percent), Motokwe (90 percent), New Xade (88 percent) and Malolwane (78 percent). Although all family members were involved in constructing shelters, it appeared that men and boys were the major contributors.

The risk of predation was constant as most poultry rearers confined birds at night but allowed them to scavenge during the day. The mother hen and chicks were highly vulnerable to predators because they were not confined at night. Eggs that were laid in areas away from buildings were often stolen or eaten by dogs and snakes. The risks of predation and theft were more common with birds that were not confined at night than with those that were.

Management of village chickens

All the household members helped to feed and water village chickens, but women and girls did this far more often than men and boys. Eighty-two percent of the women said that they were responsible for feeding and watering village chickens. Men were less involved in feeding village chickens because they had paid employment or were occupied with other farm activities such as herding cattle. It would appear that men, who care for and control larger animals, leave women with the authority to oversee the raising of chickens and to make decisions, probably because this is an activity of less social prestige and less commercial value.

Feeds and feeding

Chickens were commonly left to scavenge in backyards or on the outskirts of villages. Birds were given cereal supplements (especially maize and sorghum), bran and kitchen waste. Other feedstuffs included maize products such as maize meal, melon seeds, sunflowers, brewer’s grain, millet, mixed fowl feed and beans. Twelve percent of the rearers said that they fed mixed fowl feed (sorghum, maize and sunflower) to the birds, which was purchased from stores. Bran was widely fed, especially to chicks, and was obtained from primary schools and milling plants found in the villages. Bran was usually given wet or dry in various containers or on bare ground. Less than 1 percent of the rearers said that they fed compounded feeds (e.g. growers’ and layers’ mash) while 1 percent said they did not provide birds with feed - their chickens depended entirely on scavenging.

Birds were fed at different times depending on feed and labour availability. They were fed once, twice or three times a day or not at all. They were fed mainly in the morning, before they roamed the village outskirts in search of food, and late in the afternoon to encourage them to return home. Once-a-day feeding was common during periods of feed shortage, especially in summer. The common feeding method was by broadcasting grain on the bare ground. Less than 1 percent of the rearers provided feed ad lib.

Breeding and productivity of village chickens

Breeding in village chickens is uncontrolled. Because males and females are always together, chicks are hatched all year round. This indicates that birds are sold throughout the year. The rearers reported that they cross-bred commercial chickens with birds of the Tswana type to improve egg production and growth rate. In summer, chick mortality was higher than in other seasons because of the high risk of predation and increased disease incidence. To reduce the risk of predation, chicks had to be confined and fed during high-risk periods, especially spring and summer. Hatchability was lower in summer than in other seasons because of high ambient temperatures, the birds’ lower nutrition status and high relative humidity. The combination of high temperature and high relative humidity resulted in deteriorating egg quality, hence low hatchability. Consequently, the poultry rearers were likely to increase their consumption and sale of eggs during this period.

The most prolific breeding time for village chickens was in autumn and winter because of low incidence of Newcastle disease (ND), low predation rates and an abundance of feed. These findings suggest that changes in management practices could result in higher output from village chicken enterprises.

Tswana hens produced three or four clutches in a year and the average clutch size was 14±1.69 eggs. Average hatchability was estimated to be 80 percent. About 7±1.25 chicks reached sexual maturity and the chick mortality rate was approximately 35 percent. This high chick mortality could be attributed to high predation rates and high incidence of disease (especially ND) in spring and summer. Other causes of mortality were bur-bristle grass (bogoma), climatic hazards (hail and storms), accidents caused by vehicles, and drowning. Some birds were stolen while those that strayed into neighbours’ gardens or homes were likely to be killed. Sexual maturity is said to be reached at 6±1 months.

Genetic composition of the village chickens in Botswana

The five common genotypes of chicken found in the villages were: naked neck, dwarf, frizzled, rumpled and feathered feet. Some genotypes (naked neck, dwarf, frizzled) are tolerant to heat (an important attribute in hot climates), and these could be incorporated into breeding programmes. The frizzled genotype appeared to be in danger of extinction. It was found in only one village (Marapong), while other genotypes were found in all the villages studied. Naked neck and dwarf genotypes were poorly represented in Etsha and Parakarungu. Naked neck and rumpled birds were said to produce more eggs than other genotypes. Hatchability for naked neck birds was also said to be higher than that of rumpled birds. Despite the fact that rumpled birds were heavy, many rearers did not keep them because of the lower hatchability of their eggs. This may result in the extinction of this type in the future.

Diseases and health control

The common diseases of village chickens were Newcastle disease, fowl pox, coccidiosis and infectious bursal disease (saakhubama). Of these diseases, ND was found to occur frequently and caused major losses. The majority of rearers indicated that they did not know at what time of year ND occurred, while 20 percent said it occurred between summer and autumn (April to January). However, it appeared that ND occurred mainly between September and January (i.e. spring and summer). Newcastle disease had different names in different locations, such as dihamba in Etsha, muchachapansi in Parakarungu and mokorobalo or korobela and/or leroborobo in all the villages. The common local name for ND is mokorobalo.

Control of diseases

In order to control diseases, the usage of traditional remedies predominated in all the villages, especially in the remote areas where drugs and vaccines were not easily accessible. Only 2 percent of rearers said that they used vaccines to control diseases, while 13 percent used drugs. Commonly used veterinary drugs included Terramycin and Oxyphen. Both human and veterinary medications were used in the treatment of diseases. For instance, blue stones, which are used by humans to treat wounds and tinea, were also used to control fowl pox scabs. Medicines for humans, including remedies for colds and influenza, were also used. The exudates of onions and garlic were administered, too. Potassium permanganate was a common remedy used before and during disease outbreaks. However, there were divergent views on its efficacy in controlling and treating diseases.

The little use made of vaccines could be attributed to the fact that most of them are delivered in large quantities (1 000 doses), while the average household flock size is 14 birds. Lack of a cold chain also contributes to the scant use of vaccines. Lack of housing makes catching birds for vaccination difficult, thus contributing to a high incidence of ND. As each household keeps few birds it would be necessary for the rearers to share the cost of vaccines and carry out vaccinations at the same time. The advantage of this is that vaccine would not be wasted and the majority of chickens would be vaccinated against ND.

Parasites and control measures

The common parasites of poultry reported by the rearers were tampans, mites, fowl lice and ticks. As for diseases, traditional remedies also predominated in parasite control. The common remedies and/or preventive treatments used for parasites included ashes (cold and hot), paraffin, automobile oil, household cleaning fluid, Cape aloes, potassium permanganate and boiling water. Boiling water and ash are poured in the shelter or roosting places. A commercially produced chemical dust is applied to shelters and birds infested with parasites such as mites and tampans. Rubbing or smearing the birds with paraffin or automobile oil is said to be effective against parasites. Potassium permanganate is administered orally, or birds may be bathed in a solution of it. According to the rearers, oral administration of potassium permanganate renders birds’ blood bitter or unpalatable, thus helping to control parasites. Bathing birds in a solution of household washing detergent is also claimed to be effective.

Marketing of village chickens and eggs

There is no organized marketing for village chickens and eggs. Chickens are sold alive to meet family needs and most sales take place at the home. Sixty-five percent of the rearers said that they sold or consumed most of the cockerels and kept most of the young hens for breeding. The average prices for adult male and female birds were 17.97±2.92 pula (P) and P17.17±3.83 respectively. The average price for a dozen eggs was P5.28±0.16, while the average retail price for eggs from commercial layers was P6.31. Eggs were expensive in Mochudi (P8.16/dozen) and cheaper in Malolwane (P2.52/dozen), while chickens were expensive in New Xade (P23.13/bird) and cheaper in Marapong (P12.24/bird). Eggs were rarely sold or given to children to eat as they were used mainly for hatching.

The sale and consumption of eggs is likely to increase in hot months, when hatchability is low. It appears that the population of village chickens increases significantly during the harvest season because of an abundance of feed supplies, low disease incidence and low parasite populations. The rearers reported that parasite populations and disease outbreaks decreased significantly during autumn and winter. Consequently, the consumption and sale of birds by the rearers is likely to be high at the end of the harvest season, when schools reopen and during festive periods such as Christmas as most people who live in urban areas return to the villages to spend time with their families. Outbreaks of ND, which usually occur in August-December, could also contribute to high sales and high consumption rates because rearers fear that the disease may decimate their chickens.

The poultry rearers reported that they used the proceeds of chicken sales to buy food for their families. The money from such sales was also used to pay school fees, purchase school requisites (pens, pencils, uniforms and books), buy additional birds, and pay contributions to burial societies and to the church. The income was also used to buy large stock (goats and sheep), which would later be sold to buy cattle.

Constraints in village poultry rearing

The five major constraints identified by the rearers (listed in order of importance) were diseases, lack of funds to build shelters and purchase feed, lack of technical support, lack of shelter and predation. The destruction of gardens by village chickens, which often resulted in quarrels with neighbours (reported by 6 percent of the chicken rearers), echoes the findings by Oh (1987) in Malaysia. Other constraints mentioned were the inadequate supply of veterinary requisites, inadequate feed supplies, parasites and poor growth rates.

The predominance of traditional remedies in the control of diseases and parasites could be ascribed to the long distances that the rearers had to travel to purchase medication and vaccines that required a cold chain. This suggests that the use of thermostable vaccines such as Australian V4 and I2, which are suitable for the village environment, should be promoted. Inadequate technical support from the extension and veterinary services also contributed to high mortality rates. It was apparent that the extension service concentrated on commercial chickens while ignoring village chickens, probably because of the low status of the latter. The rearers indicated that they wished to be trained in poultry husbandry through seminars, workshops or field courses.

A comparison of inputs and outputs of two villages systems

The main inputs and outputs of typical farms in each of the village systems are shown in the following "black box" models. The main feature of village chicken rearing is that of a low-input, low-output system, with very low capital value. Inputs vary widely depending on the availability of resources, but are usually below the value of outputs. Outputs are reduced to zero when diseases, especially ND, strike. The high risk of disease means that the rearers are likely to minimize inputs. Other outcomes from the system, such as increased family security (sales can be arranged to meet emergency needs) and food for guests are important to many rural families.

Figure 3. Black box model of a typical village-chicken enterprise showing approximate annual inputs and outputs

Figure 4. Black box model of a relatively productive village-chicken enterprise showing approximate annual inputs and outputs. Capital items are within the box and the opportunity cost of family labour is assumed to be zero

Figure 3 shows a village chicken enterprise with minimal inputs. This is typical of many households, where the main benefits of rearing probably include improved financial security and the occasional supply of meat, for visitors or rituals. Most eggs are used for breeding and only a few are consumed or sold.

The enterprise illustrated in Figure 3 is not indicative of the potential of village chicken rearing. A more productive enterprise is shown in Figure 4, in which it is supposed that 79 birds are consumed and 71 are sold in a year, while 37 birds are kept for breeding. A chick mortality rate of 35 percent is assumed. The enterprise starts with two hens and one cock, and a total of 184 birds are added to the original stock at the end of the year. On the assumption that the household is composed of five people, about 19 kg of meat will be consumed by each household member in a year. In some cases the use of manure for garden vegetables can be significant. It is assumed that no eggs are incubated during periods of low hatchability (September to January), but they are sold and consumed by the rearers instead.

The data in Figure 4 are based on farmer estimates of egg production and chick survival rates. The resulting outputs are much higher than those indicated by the information on sales and consumption provided by the rearers, but appear to be quite feasible if mortality is controlled. As rearers keep no records of consumption or sales (or mortality), it is possible that village chickens contribute more to family income, nutrition and cementing relationships between families than rearers realize or admit.

The most important feature of village chicken enterprises appeared to be that they were "doable" and within the means of every family. Chickens were also used in healing rituals, although the practice appeared to be uncommon. They therefore represent an important asset and opportunity to many poorer families and probably provide some financial security and emergency resources (food and cash) for many women who are household heads with little other income.

Unlike the commercial enterprises, the village poultry system does not receive financial assistance from the government and extension support, thus it is highly cost-effective with respect to national funding. However, the village chicken population may have some drawbacks for poultry rearing generally in Botswana villages, because of views on poultry rearing that arise from the low-input, low-output traditions. As a result of a general lack of disease control (Ahmed, 1990; Spradbrow, 1994), village flocks constitute a serious risk to more commercial rearers in villages.


Village poultry production in Botswana could play a major role in providing supplementary food, income and employment for rural dwellers. There is a need to improve health delivery services to rearers and evaluate traditional remedies widely used by them to control diseases and parasites. Village chickens form an extensive gene pool that could be exploited by breeders through selection. Because of indiscriminate breeding, it has become apparent that some village chicken genotypes of economic importance are in danger of extinction. The training of chicken rearers and extension agents in poultry husbandry is necessary if the productivity of village chickens is to be raised.

The increase in the total number of chickens being raised offers an opportunity to have a prized meal, or small improvements in diet and clothing, and improved access to money, medications and schooling for the majority of members of poor rural families. It can therefore be concluded that village poultry plays a major role in poverty alleviation and that increased support from government and non-governmental organizations would lead to greater benefits.


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