Two development economists from Wageningen University have developed a new strategy to improve the struggling poultry food chain in Sierra Leone. The scaling up of maize production is expected to lead to more chicken meat and eggs, and thereby improve food security for the local population. ‘This is old school development co-operation,’ says Erwin Bulte. However, it is so old-school that it has actually become modern again.’
‘This is old school development co-operation. However, it is so old-school that it has actually become modern again.’Erwin Bulte
Many African countries have great agricultural potential, yet despite this, most remain food importers. This is also true for Sierra Leone. Large parts of the country have fertile soil and high rainfall. These factors mean that the country’s land is very suitable for agriculture and cattle rearing. Nevertheless, its agricultural output remains far from its potential. Erwin Bulte and his colleague Maarten Voors are hoping to change this situation by introducing some fairly simple innovations into the poultry value chain. ‘The poultry value chain is somewhat limited, but it has the potential to grow,’ Bulte explains. ‘Only 15% of the 30 million eggs that are consumed annually in Sierra Leone are produced in the country itself. It is anticipated that because of the increase in the urban population and the demand for fresh food, egg consumption will continue to rise, increasing to as many as one hundred million eggs per year. So, there is a huge opportunity here for chicken farmers. In fact, the same goes for the production of chicken meat.’
Bulte and Voors, together with local partners, identified bottlenecks in the chain. At present, chicken farmers own approximately twenty chickens. Our question was: so why don’t they keep more? This turned out to be a chicken-and-egg problem. The reason for the low number of chickens was attributed to a lack of good feed. And the reason given for the lack of feed was a lack of demand for it. In order to overcome this impasse, Bulte and Voors now intend to intervene in the chain, naturally, with the co-operation of the local authorities. ‘We soon realised that we had to do something about the production of chicken feed. And more specifically about the production of maize. Due to its high nutritional value, ground corn is an excellent basis for chicken feed. The only problem is that it is not widely grown in Sierra Leone. The positive news is that maize is grown in a different season as compared to rice, which is the population’s daily staple.’ Thus, the cultivation of chicken feed is not in competition with the production of human food’.
A new hurdle to overcome is the storage and processing of the maize. For this, electricity is needed. In rural Sierra Leone, this electricity is not always readily and continuously available. Fortunately, a hundred or so villages have recently acquired solar energy through so-called mini-grids. ‘Our idea is to establish regional hubs and to connect a large number of links in the value chain there. Central to this will be well-ventilated storage facilities and mills in which the maize will be ground into chicken feed. These will be financed with the contribution from Dioraphte. We will also use it to upscale a number of chicken farms to about two hundred chickens, and to guarantee sales for the maize and poultry farmers through contracts when they first start up.’
Proof of concept
This will be a proof-of-concept project, says Bulte. The pilot will start off with five hubs, with around fifty farmers involved in each hub. ‘We have more than ten years of experience working with agricultural projects and we know that it is very difficult to change systems – especially in Africa. We will know more next year; we will start measuring and monitoring everything. Once we have a workable concept, we intend rolling it out to other villages, and organising a large-scale trial to assess the impact. If this chain proves to be successful, we may be able to extend it to other African countries. Since the concept itself is so simple, upscaling will not be difficult. And when we start to work with a larger number of hubs and farmers, then we will be able to provide more scientific evidence.’