Benson Moyo (61), a smallholder farmer at Bandama village in Ward 4 of Chiredzi district has a peculiar habit.
He is always curious about cross breeding native chickens with exotic broiler breeds just to find out if this can increase egg output, meat quality and quantity and potential resistance to diseases.
Moyo is not a trained scientist or livestock breeder, but a very inquisitive farmer.
He has spent hours prying into what crossing local indigenous chickens and exotic broiler chickens could yield.
This habit or unstructured experiment with breeding yielded some results for him.
It came with lots of patience and trial and errors.
“I am not trained in poultry breeding in any way,” he says. “I am very inquisitive. I learnt a lot from agricultural extension workers about poultry and I decided on my own that I should try out crossing indigenous chickens with “Huku dzechirungu” (broiler chickens).
“I wanted a breed that could give me more eggs, more meat and quality taste as well as a breed that could not be attacked easily by diseases.”
Moyo spent several months trying out his breeding innovations and wondered if his claim would prove to be true on his own farm.
“I know this is the work reserved for scientists alone, but I wanted to see for myself,” he says. “I said, “let me try it.”
Moyo says the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF) Enhancing Community Resilience and Sustainability (ECRAS) project trained and supported him to manage and run poultry more competently.
The US$100 million project is being implemented by CARE lnternational with funding from the European Union, the embassy of Sweden, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) formerly known as DFID.
It will run until 2022 and aims to contribute an increased capacity of communities to protect development gains in the face of recurrent shocks and stresses enabling them to contribute to the economic development of Zimbabwe.
“I’m very grateful about this project and how it helped me to better care for chickens, turkeys, ducks and pigeons,” he says. “It was out of this project that I started this habit — “misikanzwa yekuyedzayedza zvinhu” (habit of trying out things).”
Moyo took a native cockerel and mixed it with some 10 or 12 broiler egg laying chickens in a fowl-run.
When they lay eggs, he then takes them away and places them on some native hens to hatch chicks.
He then took the chicks and fed them separately to find out what they could become in terms of egg laying capacity, meat quality and quantity and disease resistance.
A clear picture emerged on what innovation potential this cross-breed had after his first batch of chickens matured.
“I was happy to get a bigger cross breed that could lay more eggs, produce more meat, was resistant to diseases and could easily eat locally made feed,” he says.
“We were trained to make chicken feed using sorghum, millet and other crop residues rich in protein. This helped us a lot to cut costs and increase our poultry yields.
“I have not left out native chicken breeding completely. I still do it as most of our buyers also love indigenous chickens.”
Moyo and his wife, Mavis, are smallholder farmers who are part of the more than 47 000 beneficiaries of the ZRBF ECRAS project.
Apart from chicken breeding, the farmers have been supported to do fish rearing, goat and sheep breeding as well as cattle rearing.
They have also been trained to venture into other income generating projects.
“I run a small cooking and food outlet which is at a shopping centre close to our village,” says Moyo’s wife. “At this outlet we sell sadza with chicken, goat and fish meat for R50 or US$1. I did a cooking and catering course with ECRAS and I am earning enough money to pay fees for my children.
“I can take care of my children’s needs and do lots of other home improvement work.”
Moyo says they sell their chickens for R80 each. Last December, he sold 50 birds worth about R4 000 helping him and his wife to pay school fees, buy clothes and meet other basic needs.
The couple has three fish ponds with a stock of more than 10 000. They also grow sorghum and millet.
However, a locust outbreak early this year destroyed all their crops leaving them with nothing.
“When our farmers have other livelihood options such as chicken, goat, fish and cattle projects they can cope with other natural shocks such as drought and locust outbreaks,” says Plaxedes Gweme, an ECRAF programme coordinator under Care International.
“With appropriate training smallholder farmers can adopt chicken and fish farming to get protein food and enhance their livelihoods. All this can enhance their livelihood options to cope and mitigate against natural shocks such as climate change, locust and other pest outbreaks which may destroy their crops.”
Local chicken breeds are famed for their marbled meat, full of flavour.
Native breeds can grow naturally and at their own slow pace, surviving disease outbreaks and eating locally available food.
Poultry is rarely the sole means of livelihood for the family but is one of a number of integrated and complementary farming activities contributing to the overall well-being of the household.
It provides a major income — generating activity from the sale of birds and eggs. Occasional consumption provides a valuable source of protein in the diet.
Keeping poultry makes a substantial contribution to household food security throughout various rural and urban communities.
Small-scale producers are however constrained by poor access to markets, goods and services, they have weak institutions and lack skills, knowledge and appropriate technologies.
The result is that both production and productivity remain well below potential and losses and wastage can be high.
With adapted breeds, local feed resources and appropriate vaccines along with proven technologies productivity and income generation can substantially improve.
Agricultural experts fear that practicing cross-breeding unsystematically and without controls can lead to the genetic erosion of indigenous chicken breeds.
“Farmers, yes are inquisitive but this has its own impact on genetic diversity,” says a Harare based agricultural expert. “We can lose the important traits of local chickens. So the government has to come up with less cumbersome and farmer-friendly cross-breeding frameworks to help our farmers improve our yields and meat quality.”
Farmers like Moyo do breeding in search of unique and important characteristics such as brooding, tolerance of the disease and harsh environment such as the dry and arid conditions found in Chiredzi.
“As farmers we also use our minds to try out things for ourselves,” he says. “At times we get good results and times we fail. We are scientists in our own right, ready to toy around with innovative ideas.”