Diversity is key to sustainability for local chicken farming in Africa

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Adopting a more local and flexible approach to sustainable development could be key to boosting the productivity of small-scale farms in Africa, a study involving researchers at the University of Nottingham has found.

The research, led by the University of Liverpool and in collaboration with UK and African partners, reveal village chicken populations in Ethiopia to be genetically diverse and highly adapted to their local physical, cultural and social environments.

Published in Nature Sustainability , the study suggests that in order to be successful, development interventions, including breeding programmes, need to consider this diversity and be locally tailored and designed to allow for flexible implementation, depending on local needs.

Professor Olivier Hanotte , in the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences , was one of the co-investigators on the study.

He said: “What is remarkable about this study is that for the first time we were able to unravel fully and in detail the overall context for a successful chicken improvement intervention for African smallholders.

“Taking this into account, donors, policymakers, non-governmental organisations and national extension officers will be able to maximise the success of their interventions aiming to address the challenge of food security and poverty.”

The Nottingham team took the lead on the element of the study which looked at the chicken genetics and genomics, showing that village chickens from different geographical areas, despite appearing similar, for example in their plumage colour and pattern, may have different origins and show different signatures of genome adaptation to the local environment challenges.

Breeding resilience

Chicken production is an important agricultural activity in Africa and can play an important role in reduction of poverty, and improved nutrition and gender empowerment. While many people are able to raise village chickens and they require few inputs, productivity is low and constrained by, among other things, disease, predation and scarcity of feed.

There is much interest in trying to breed a chicken resilient to its environment, while providing the basis of an economically sustainable enterprise. Globally, however, a wide variety of interventions have so far proved unable to deliver sustainable improvements.

Professor Paul Wigley, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, said: “That chickens are so locally adapted, despite often appearing similar, does present challenges to increasing productivity.

“There is not a ‘one size fits all’ chicken for Ethiopia or any village system. It could be argued that improvements in management, the use of vaccination and improvements to disease control such as simple biosecurity measures are as important as the genetic potential of the bird. Such measures need improvements in access to information and training.”

To better understand the barriers to sustainable development, the researchers investigated disease challenges, the genetics of the local chickens and, crucially, the nature of the production system and the socioeconomic reasons why chickens are kept.

The ’evolution’ of the African chicken

The study was conducted in two districts of Ethiopia: Horro, around 300 km northwest of Addis Ababa, and Jarso, around 400 km east of Addis Ababa. The genetics of the village chickens showed high levels of adaptation to their local ecosystems, resistance to disease and to the management and cultural variations of their environment. On top of adaptation, the data suggest that there have been multiple introductions of chickens in Ethiopia that may relate to trade routes, religion and culture.

Professor Rob Christley, at Liverpool, who led the study, said: “The importance of culture and location should not be underestimated. Conventionally, the transfer of technology has often taken a top-down approach - from researchers to farmers - ignoring the considerable knowledge of the farmers. This often leads to interventions that are inappropriate to the social, physical and economic settings in which farmers operate.”

The research also involved researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI - Ethiopia), the Royal Veterinary College and Wageningen University and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Scottish Government.

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