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Africa’s chicken-and-egg problem

Africa, which imports nearly 83 percent of the food it consumes, has a real chicken-and-egg problem. The continent is caught between pressure from imports in some countries and an inability to meet demand in others.

Africa’s chicken crisis is an expression of overall weaknesses in its agricultural system. If Africa cannot raise its grain production it cannot expect do well in increasing its chicken output.

Africa's chicken crisis is an expression of overall weaknesses in its agricultural system, says the writer. File picture: Jacky Naegelen. Credit: REUTERS

It is a complex problem. Producing chickens requires low-cost feed such as corn. Yet producing grain to meet human needs remains one of the continent’s most pressing challenges. Africa’s urban populations, for example, are growing faster than the continent can produce grain. This has contributed to Africa’s shift from being a net food exporter to being a net food importer.

The inability to ramp up grain production has affected Africa’s ability to feed its people as well as its chicken. Its imports for grain as well as chicken have been rising as a result. Its import of poultry products is estimated at $3 billion a year.

Imports lead to oversupply

South Africa is the continent’s largest chicken producer. According to the South African Poultry Association, chicken imports from Brazil, the European Union and the US are destroying the domestic sector.

The South African Poultry Association’s chief executive officer, Kevin Lovell, has been quoted as saying that: South Africa has the capacity to grow its own chickens at a far cheaper rate compared to most countries in the world. However it is unable to do so due to imports.

South Africa has a trade agreement with the US which allows for tariff-free quotas of key agricultural products. One of these is chicken from the US. This is done in exchange for preferential trade under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

With increased imports following the trade agreement, additional imported chicken has been added to the South Africa. This has led to oversupply and price reduction. This may benefit consumers, but it undercuts incentives for local production.

In much of the rest of Africa the problem is different.

Inability to meet demand

Population growth, urbanisation and changing diets have over the last 20 years shifted African meat consumption away from beef to pork and poultry. According to some estimates, chicken now accounts for nearly half of the meat consumed in Africa.

The supply of poultry has not kept up with the demand, which is in turn pushing up prices. This may sound like good news for those able to invest in the sector. For example, Bill Gates has estimated that a farmer breeding five hens could generate up to $1,000 a year, which is above the $700 poverty line. As a result, he has pledged to donate 100 000 chickens to kick start poultry farming in sub-Saharan Africa.

The demand for chicken in countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania is projected to rise significantly over the next decade. Chicken prices in those countries are already prohibitive given the fact that large sections of the population live on less than $2 a day. Chicken prices range from $5 to $8 a kilogram. The challenge now is finding ways to increase production while competing with imports.

Poultry production challenges

At face value the situation looks like an opportunity for entrepreneurs to align production with the rising demand. The challenge, however, is more deep-rooted. The factors (such as poor infrastructure, low investment in research, limited technical training and a lack of farm incentives) limiting poultry production are similar to those affecting the rest of the agricultural system. In fact, countries with more advanced agricultural sectors such as South Africa, Egypt and Morocco are the ones that lead the continent in poultry production.

The solution to Africa’s chicken crisis lies in upgrading agricultural systems overall. Here are the major limitations:

* Low-cost, high-quality feed. Expanding feed production involves investing in grain production, especially corn and soya. Research to increase efficiency and expand the range of feed sources will go a long way in helping to upgrade overall system.

* The lack of starter stock (chicks and broilers bred specifically for meat production). Improvements in this area will require better breeding and extension programs akin to those needed for crops. Nearly 84 percent of chicken in Kenya is based on local breeds that have low levels of efficiency in converting feed into meat.

* Disease control. The most common threat to chickens is Newcastle disease. But the frightening spectrum of new infectious diseases calls for more investment in livestock diseases in general and chicken diseases in particular. Disease control is a problem for both crop and livestock producers.

* Poor infrastructure (especially energy, transportation and water supply systems) is a major barrier to the expansion of chicken production, especially in rural areas. A lack of cold storage facilities forces farmers to keep feeding their chickens instead of slaughtering and refrigerating them. They generally transport live chickens to markets, which raises logistical costs and increases concerns over disease transmission.

* The lack of credit for producers. Countries that provide credit for crop producers to purchase seed and farm input have the opportunity to extend their incentives to chicken production. Most African countries lack such systems and it is unlikely that they will introduce them for poultry farming if they do not have them for crop production.

So far Africa can hardly feed its people. But even worse, it cannot feed its chickens so that it can feed its people. The chicken crisis is yet another reason why Africa must focus on getting its agricultural act together. The crisis is a warning to African leaders: they need to wake up with the chickens and act in time.

* Calestous Juma is professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University.

* This article was originally published on The Conversation.

* The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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