The African Chicken Genetic Gains programme aims to support productivity growth, increase household animal protein intake, reduce poverty and empower female farmers, all by improving the genetics of the chicken varieties available.
The project will initially focus on Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, but the germplasm, data and knowledge generated will have potential to impact millions of farmers across the continent for whom chicken production is an important source of food and additional income.
Previous attempts to introduce high-producing genotype chicken have failed to make a sufficient impact, according to Nairobi-based project organisers the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), as the exotic breeds used were ill-suited to local conditions, and required substantial investments in feed, energy and veterinary services.
However, researchers hope that by combining new genetics with improved local breeds and enhanced delivery systems, it will be possible to create high-producing, low-feed-input birds that are well-suited to local conditions.
Similar to the ILRI scheme, the European Union-funded Indigenous Chicken Improvement Programme (InCIP) has been running in Kenya and Malawi for the last three years, with collaborative research conducted by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Egerton University in Kenya and the University of Malawi.
The project leader at Egerton University, Professor Alexander Kahi, explained to African Farming, “We are currently at the research level of the project where we are collecting genetic resources, and producing the breeding stocks and hybrids for later dissemination to farmers.”
The renowned animal genetics researcher said the first step has been to identify various ecotypes available locally and seek out useful attributes that can be used for breeding and multiplication purposes.
“The main purpose of the programme is to improve indigenous chicken (IC) egg and meat production through proper breeding, feeding and disease control,” said Prof Kahi. “This will in turn improve on rural farmers’ income and reduce poverty.
“We are also working with government agencies and other players to link up with farmers, as well as poultry product processors in value addition.”
Initially, InCIP researchers conducted surveys in five Kenyan counties to identify different ecotypes, and evaluate eggs and meat composition.
The data collected in Narok, Bomet, Bondo, Kakamega and West Pokot indicates that there are five genotypes of IC in the country.
A post-graduate research project was also conducted in Lamu, Mwingi and Taita counties, using modern DNA techniques to identify different IC ecotypes and genotypes.
Researchers weighed eggs and different chicken parts, before chemically analysing the meat for dropping loss, Ph, cholesterol, tension, sensory attributes and colour.
“Analysis from the data collected indicates that Kenya has just three ecotypes of IC which we have named Lamu, Bomet and Kakamega. Lamu is a big bird, showing fast growth rates while Bomet is a good layer”, added Prof Kahi noting that the three will now be used as the breeding stock for IC improvement in Kenya.
In Malawi, InCIP investigators led by Prof Timothy Gondwe, of the Bunda College of Agriculture’s animal science department, conducted surveys across the north, centre and south of the country, identifying main eight phenotypes.
The Dwarf and Naked-Neck varieties were found to produce more eggs, while the Normal and Katsumba (Crest-head) types were found to be good for meat production, and the Feathered Shank (Masapa) and the Naked Neck birds had a superior capacity for disease resistance.
The Naked Neck ecotype has no feathers around the neck region, meaning it is also more tolerant of the high temperatures that characterize sub-Saharan Africa.
“At the same time, we are stocking Black Australorp, a dual purpose exotic breed for crossing with IC chicken,” said Prof Gondwe. “We are also working for more phenotypes and breeding to produce pure phenotypes.”
InCIP Malawi has started hatching IC eggs of different phenotypes, working with other stakeholders in the livestock sector to facilitate dissemination of the improved genotypes to rural households.
“We hope soon to access breeding stock for multiplication and dissemination,” said Victor Mhango, deputy country director of Heifer International Malawi, in a recent consultative meeting on the programme.
Two incubators are already in use for the hatching process; one from the government of Malawi and another 1500 egg capacity machine from the Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre (MIRTDC).
Feed formulation is also part of the programme in Malawi, said Prof Gondwe, who explained, “All feed is locally formulated and fed to chickens under confinement.
“Two students are evaluating optimal feed for IC chickens,” Prof Gondwe said, adding, “We plan to produce and sell IC feeds to farmers in town.”