Weru — Faced with harsher weather as a result of climate change, farmers are turning to birds that need less food, water and fuss
In Elly Joy Kanini's farmyard in Kenya's Tharaka Nithi County, a few chickens perch while others peck for food, and a cock runs after a hen.
But when Kanani, dressed in a blue chequered apron and carrying a container of grain, walks past the chicken house and gives a familiar call, the yard is in no time packed with birds of many different colours, snapping up the grain almost before it hits the ground.
Kanini has been raising chickens for about four years, along with crops and other livestock, but she has not always reared the local variety of chickens that now make up her flock.
She began with imported cross-bred birds - the white or brown chickens common across much of the world and a variety good at gaining weight fast.
But Kanini is one of many Kenyan poultry farmers who have now renounced the imports, finding them less able to tolerate the more frequent extreme weather that is hitting the country as a result of climate change.
"I had reared the exotic breed for over two years, but the worsening climatic conditions coupled by frequent disease attacks on the birds made my farming a nightmare," she said.
Imported chicken breeds require more food than native chickens, but chicken feed is no longer as cheap as it was as harsh weather hits crops, she said.
The exotic birds also need to have heated houses, especially during the cold season, bringing additional costs because of the high price of electricity, she said.
And unlike their native counterparts, they drink a lot of water, which is getting harder to come by in Tharaka Nithi County, a semi-arid region beset by droughts in recent years.
In the end, switching to local poultry was an easy decision, Kanani said.
"One of the most important positive characters of native chickens is their hardiness," she said. "(They) can tolerate the harsh environmental conditions and poor feeding practices without much loss in production."
LESS COST, FEWER ANTIBIOTICS
Elijah Kimani, a farmer in neighbouring Kirinyaga County, said that his parents made a living rearing indigenous chickens, and he began doing so himself in 2014.
Then a friend suggested he try imported breeds instead, pointing out that they matured more quickly and suggesting there was high demand for their eggs and meat.
But prospects for his business faded as he confronted a market glut of chicken meat and eggs, and growing disease problems, Kimani said.
He switched back to native chickens, where there is still strong demand for both eggs and meat, in part because the chickens are less likely to have been fed antibiotics to keep them healthy.
"My priority, or any priority of a rural farmer today, is not just having birds that lay some more eggs, but birds that will also have an ideal body size with an optimal body weight," Kimani explained.
Local breeds can thrive and produce eggs with minimal care and irregular feeding, he said. They can also tolerate a wider range of temperatures, and rainy seasons that can deliver a total of 1,250mm annually in Kirinyaga, one of the country's wettest counties.
Indigenous chicken eggs also sell for about a third more than eggs from imported chickens, with the birds themselves also bringing a similar premium.
Benald Kinoti of Meru County's agriculture ministry said farmers find raising indigenous poultry straightforward because the chickens can scavenge around the homestead, eating insects, leftover grain and kitchen scraps, which saves on feed costs.
"These chickens serve two main critical aspects. One, they provide good-quality protein to the families, and two, they provide livelihood security to the rural families, the youth and women, thus playing a key role in the rapidly growing economy while offering emergency cash income," Kinoti said in a telephone interview.
Reporting by Caroline Wambui ; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering