News - June 4, 2015

Gates to finance productive free-range chickens in Africa

Albert Sikkema

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is financing a breeding programme for productive free-range chickens in Africa. The project wants to help lift rural African villagers out of poverty by giving them chickens that produce more meat and eggs.

Fifteen million US dollars is being invested in African Chicken Genetic Gains, which intends to apply this concept in 3000 households in three countries. The programme is being carried out by a consortium led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Ethiopia. Wageningen UR’s Animal Breeding and Genetics Group is also involved and will mainly assist with the breeding programme.

The basis for this work is the breeding programme for the Ethiopian Horro chicken developed in recent years by the Wageningen PhD candidates Nigussie Mullu and Wondmeneh Esatu. Mullu asked Ethiopian villagers about their ideal chicken for the smallscale production of meat and eggs and then started a selection programme using the local Horro chicken. In particular he selected hens and cocks with sufficient bodyweight and many eggs. They served as the parent animals for the next generation. His colleague Wondmeneh Esatu has continued the selection programme over the past four years. Now we have reached the eighth generation of these Horro chickens.

Esatu, who received his PhD in Wageningen this week, compared the performance of this Horro chicken with that of other chickens. These were non-selected Horros, a commercial chicken produced by Hendrix Genetics and a cross between a high-production laying hen and the Horro. He assessed chickens living at Ethiopia’s Agricultural Research Centre in Debre Zeit – under good conditions – and with local farmers. Villagers were able to participate in the project on the condition that they built a wooden chicken house and paid for half the feed. Then they received a couple of vaccinated young chickens, half the feed and a number of chicken feeders.

Which chicken got the highest score? The jury is still out on that, says Esatu’s research supervisor, Liesbeth van der Waaij. The improved Horros clearly performed better than the chickens outside the programme, so the breeding programme is working. But then again the commercial chickens scored the highest for weight, egg production, food conversion and survival, especially those at the agricultural institute. But Van der Waaij adds a reservation. ‘The chickens there were given good feed and sufficient water every day.’

Follow-up research must now show which chicken thrives best under less favourable conditions among the local villagers. At the same time, the researchers will be using money from the Gates Foundation to continue developing and introducing productive free-range chickens in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania. This involves the important challenge of upscaling the field experiment from dozens of households to a few thousan.