Indigenous goats and cattle are hardier than hybrids and therefore better equipped to survive climate change effects like droughts

Indigenous goats and cattle are hardier than hybrids and therefore better equipped to survive climate change effects like droughts

Charles Dhewa Review Correspondent
Indigenous chicken, goats and cattle continue to play a significant role in smallholder agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe. Mainstream scientists (researchers) and institutes are promoting hybrid chickens, goats, dairy cows and beef cattle in ways that are luring farmers to abandon indigenous livestock.

In a changing climate, we have to rethink our strategy. Do we go for meat yield or resilience? The current hype on indigenous chickens in Zimbabwe is still to be anchored on sound scientific research. The main goat breeds are MaShona and Matabele while in cattle we find the MaShona, Tuli and Nkone breeds. Indigenous chicken breeds are so diverse that a lot of work is still underway to characterise them.

Despite their elegance as a reliable food and economic resource, the production of indigenous chickens is not yet structured to enhance their commercialisation. There is inadequate knowledge on feeding systems, general health, appropriate housing, and attributes of different strains, determination of their economic value and development of markets. In addition, indigenous chickens face the following challenges:

They are raised under poor management regimes hence their full genetic potential for fertility and growth is not adequately recognised.

Their populations are periodically decimated by diseases like New Castle disease.

Their carcases are darker because of their coloured feathers, a feature that is rejected by some markets that prefer the pink carcases of broilers.

A growing number of smallholder farmers are rearing hybrid chickens and replacing indigenous chickens, thus the populations of indigenous chickens are fast declining.

From a strategic national perspective, the reliance on hybrid chickens presents a threat to long-term food security since the grandparent lines are produced under licence and cannot be reproduced in Zimbabwe. This makes the country dependent on supplies from foreign countries whose ability to supply the genetics is determined by economic and political fundamentals.

There is an urgent need for local breeding institutions to develop commercial poultry lines from local genetic resources. Promoting indigenous poultry should be anchored on solid research beginning with proper characterisation. It is easy to promote hybrids like broilers because they are uniformly produced following successful scientific manipulation of their genes.

Unique Selling Proposition of indigenous livestock

As Africans, we have failed to develop a comprehensive Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for indigenous livestock with much of the selling propositions too generalised and compared to hybrids, for instance. If developing a USP is done well it can attract more value than is earned by artificially produced chicken where a 2kg broiler chicken can go for $4 yet a kg of indigenous chicken that is nutritionally superior is under-priced.

Preserving our knowledge in a changing climate

The young generation in most urban areas do not know our traditional food like indigenous chickens and others. As a result, this food is getting extinct because young people won’t buy what they don’t know. In a changing climate we need drought-tolerant crops and livestock. Due to inconsistent production caused by climate change, the country ends up exposed to food importation.

We are failing to develop technology that can enhance production and reproduction of indigenous livestock based on farmer knowledge. Some of the farmer knowledge relates to the differences in milk quality of different types of cows (as identified by their coat colour) and how one quality differs from the other. Farmers also know of the medicinal properties of dairy products from different types of cows, sheep and goats. Unfortunately very few modern scientists appear to care about these beliefs in order to translate them into researched classifications of facts and myths.

We should also develop technology for processing organic feed for indigenous poultry, goats and cattle for optimum growth just as we have such information for broilers and layers. Factors like livestock type, feeding conversion capacity, disease tolerance (ability to withstand New Castle disease), draught power potential, milk production potential, docility (easy to handle – women can milk or yoke without problems) are very important.

Need for alternative markets

We need indigenous local markets where other parameters are considered not just kilogrammes linked to price as a basis of value. Other indicators as mentioned above should be considered. This information can be collected and shared at community knowledge centres so that a farmer or buyer interested in a particular type of chicken can easily be referred to a particular producer.

We also need programmes that empower communities and value chain actors to adequately express the value of particular commodities in ways that satisfy all stakeholders and indicators (economic, social, cultural, developmental, humanitarian and climatic indicators). These can then be linked to monetary values where necessary. Where such transactions take place, it should be monetary value plus social and other values.

By subjecting our commodities to modern marketing principles, we are under-estimating the authentic value of our commodities. Value should not be about the size of piece of meat or weight in kilogrammes. Why not talk in terms of vitamins per gram of meat?

The role of barter deals

A market in a cash crisis should allow barter deals where farmers from Mutoko can exchange butternuts with other farmers bringing goats from Gwanda. This trade system has sustained communities for centuries and these deals are close to expressing the true value of commodities (eg zviyo exchanged with chicken).

It is not about the $10 but the intrinsic value of a certain type of chicken. You can’t sell indigenous chickens using kilogrammes and express fair value. Where a farmer can calculate the amount of feed and other inputs in order to come up with a price for a broiler or eggs from layers, farmers keeping indigenous chickens look at broader factors. That is why you find someone continuously keeping small chickens called zvindiya irrespective of their size.

In an indigenous market, a customer can be asked: What type of chicken do you want? Negotiation platforms where selling proposition are exchanged are becoming very important. Kilogrammes play a very small role of percentage value. In some communities farmers shun cattle sales because they know their cattle are more valuable particularly if one looks at draught power, status, milk yield and other parameters not just kilogrammes which assume that everything is being sold for meat.

Kilogrammes contribute 60 percent of the value of a commodity depending on whether it’s a cow or a bull. Other factors contribute 40 percent of the value which is ignored by the modern market. There is need to broaden the notion of market. This can be see the establishment of sales pens where one can sell on kilogrammes and an alternative market route where socio-economic factors determine the value of chickens, goats and cattle.

Farmers need knowledge on appropriate messaging so that they adequately express the true value of their commodities.

We lose through indiscriminate


Due to desperation, some peasant farmers end up losing their best breeds to slaughter just to get some bit of money for pressing survival expenses like grinding mill costs. At the moment, we seem to have markets for slaughtering animals (abattoirs and butcheries, etc) but no markets for buying and exchanging indigenous breeds for livestock rearing. By promoting slaughter some breeds may soon be extinct. An alternative market focusing on breed sales can save more breeds by ensuring some breeds end up in the hands of other farmers. This preserves the breeds so that when the farmer who sold wants to come back and buy offspring from his former breed he can easily do so.

Let’s not have markets for slaughtering livestock only. Otherwise we are driving farmers into more poverty.

Most conventional livestock programmes do not take into account farmers’ perspectives on selecting particular livestock breeds for continuous improvement. This is partly because most livestock scientists have absorbed a Western education system which values hybrids as an extension of modernisation and industrial agriculture.

We need a blend of education approaches which also take into account aspects of the socio-cultural values of Zimbabwe’s agrarian community. With much of the work previously done by local researchers now in the hands of NGOs, the gap between our scientists and local communities is widening in terms of knowledge generation.

Need to be continuously revisiting our agricultural policies

Let us update our policies with agrarian livestock production knowledge. While in the modern economy, parents who afford can open bank accounts for their children, in the dying agrarian economy, a child would be given a goat or cow so that by the time the child is 18 years old, the number of the child’s livestock would have increased to more than 10 in number. This would give children a strong start in life in terms of investment/wealth or independence.

We need to learn from these indigenous knowledge and value systems and mesh them with modern trends to create our own ways that work for us.

While our agricultural policies seem to favour cross breeding indigenous livestock with exotic breeds in the name of improvement, the race to replace local germplasm seems to be also gathering momentum.

Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) whose flagship eMKambo has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. Feedback: [email protected]

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