by Deepa Krishnan
Journalist Deepa Krishnan traveled to Uganda as part of The Africa Reporting Project, an Initiative of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. –Ed.
There is hardly a day when Chance Christine wakes up at leisure. Sometimes it is her crying babies. Sometimes it is her backyard chickens, clucking for their morning feed.
Most times, it is both. Holding her fourteen-month-old she unlatches the door of her chicken coop to survey the birds. Amid the fluttering, she spreads the feed into a thin wooden trough. The birds noisily rush to the feed, forgetting about their eggs. Christine picks the brown eggs, holds each one to her ear, and shakes it. She quickly counts her eggs and fills her blue bowl.
It is a typical day for Chance Christine. It has been for some time, and this could well be a charmed life. Just a few years ago she was barely making ends meet by selling porridge on a roadside in Buhoma, a rural town in Uganda. Now, thanks to the chickens, she has a reasonably comfortable life - a nice house with a backyard where her children can play, and land to plant banana trees.
In Buhoma the earth is red and smells fresh from the rain. The trees are lush and tiny matchbox-like mud brick houses with tin roofs line either side of the dirt roads. Little children run barefoot, and are delighted to see tourists. "Muzungu!," they scream. That's the local term for white man. Buhoma is full of white tourists. It is the nearest town to Bwindi National Park where many Europeans and Americans come to track gorillas - the reason for Chance Christine’s thriving business.
Two years ago the 24-year-old received modest funding from the Uganda National Agricultural Advisory Services. She bought a few chickens and hasn't looked back since. She now owns over seventy, and is thinking of growing her flock. Chance Christine is among a new breed of successful African women entrepreneurs.
Christine bought the birds when they were a day old. She has learned how to provide the right amount of insulation and nutrition. She buys a mix of corn and vitamins she calls mash. She gives them immunizations. Raising chickens is profitable for her. Until lately, the hotels around Buhoma had to buy their eggs from the neighboring town of Butagota, 20 kilometers away. Christine now sells her eggs to all the lodges in Buhoma and Bwindi, just a kilometer up the hill.
The beauty of Christine's business is that there is nothing new about it. Christine's mother, and probably hers, had chickens clucking, scurrying, and scavenging in their backyards. But they hardly considered turning it into a full-fledged, profit-making enterprise. With the success Christine has seen, she has decided to stay in the chicken business for the long haul.
Local chicken or enkoko, do not need much land, rarely any special feed, and are not troubled by rising temperatures caused by climate change. Chickens can cope with drought and floods far better than cows and goats as they can survive on scavenged food. It is perfectly acceptable for women to own and sell chickens without a man's permission as cattle, not chicken, are seen as an important symbol of wealth and social standing in traditional Ugandan society. Chickens, hardly important in the scheme of things, are a big safety net for women.
In Uganda's capital city, Kampala, Professor Anthony Mugisha of Makerere Univesity reiterates that people don’t think twice about selling chickens to provide for immediate needs. Chickens are rarely associated with food security. “Chicken can be sold to provide rice, maize flour and corn-meal,” he says, adding “Children are undernourished because they are not getting a balanced diet of animal protein. In some houses where they have enough food, chickens also provide eggs that are a good source of protein and income."
Connie Kyarisiima, a senior lecturer at Makerere University adds that these businesses are important as they are multi-pronged. “Chicken farming adds to the income; it improves the livelihood of both men and women.” Chicken farming requires very little extra time. It is popular as it does not add to women’s chores.
A few hundred miles from Buhoma is Kyotera, a small town in the district of Rakai in the banana-growing region of Uganda. Nakato Madina, a sixty-six year old destitute woman, struggles to take care of a household of sixteen children, aged between six and eighteen. Her large family is not unique to Rakai district. It is one of the regions worst hit by HIV. Here every household has a handful of orphans who have lost at least one parent to disease. Some of the children living with Madina are her own grandchildren, others are abandoned neighborhood children. Madina’s husband left her when she was sixty.
Nakato Madina was encouraged to become a poultry farmer by the Community Integrated Development Initiative (CIDI), one of the many grassroot NGOs across the African continent that empowers women. Similar programs have been adopted by Uganda's neighbors Tanzania, Ethiopia, and South Africa. They also help women like Madina form farmers' cooperatives.
Madina belongs to the Tufayo local breeders’ group. One of the main issues they tackle is how to provide for the kids. “Little children need to be fed very well,” she says. The group meets every Sunday for two hours, shares information and ideas, and looks for ways to better their chicken farming practices.
Like Christine the Tufayo women also sell eggs. Madina runs a smooth and simple operation. The children take the eggs to shops, and this pays for their school fees. The hotels in the town make orders to buy chickens. Sometimes, the children get to eat the chickens and eggs as a treat. Other times, the eggs are sold to buy maize and peas. Feed is Madina’s only big expense for rearing chickens. She mixes the feed she buys with dried banana peels and some other weeds to make a homemade mix.
Through a steady income from chickens, two of Madina's children have graduated from school and are now contributing to the school fees of the younger ones. Two more will graduate this year. Hundreds of groups like the Tufayo are looking at chicken farming as the next revolution.
"You put money in chicken. You get chickens to eat; you get chickens to sell. You get eggs to eat; eggs to sell. Another thing that I get is fertilizer – the droppings have a lot of nitrogen. You use them in the garden, and you harvest – you get money," says Dan Kigula, an extension worker at CIDI in Rakai. He is the reason why so many of Rakai's women are excited about poultry. It is not difficult to believe when you hear him declare his pure love for these unobtrusive birds.
"Chicken is part of me. I sleep chicken, I walk chicken, I love chicken, I eat chicken," he says. The village women call him Kigula Enkoko – Mr. Chicken. His next objective is to provide the women in Rakai with a ready market to sell their chicken and eggs. Unlike Chance Christine, without any steady buyers these women find selling their chickens a big challenge. Yet chickens are their biggest blessing. They help feed their large, hungry households.
The women of Rakai are fully aware that raising chickens is not a one stop solution. Fast spreading diseases like Newcastle can simply wipe out whole flocks. It leaves the birds with droopy wings, bent legs, twisted necks, and worst of all, a partial or complete drop in egg production. Good markets are also hard to access. Faced with all these challenges, the women adapt and innovate. Madina raises local chicken breeds which require less expensive feed, just like Chance Christine has found a way to tap into the tourist trade.
Winter is one of the busiest seasons for Christine as Buhoma is brimming with tourists. It is a sunny Saturday morning and Christine is waiting outside her house for a boda-boda (motorbike taxi). She will do her weekly rounds of the tourist lodges in Bwindi National Park. She usually brings ten trays. "I have only five today, I will bring five more on Thursday," she says as she mounts the boda-boda, precariously balancing her eggs.
At more than three dollars a tray, she can make about $90 a month delivering eggs to just one client. Christine is saving every penny for her three boys’ higher education. Barely a decade ago, her parents could not afford to let her study. She stopped at seventh grade to start working.
Chance Christine has no time to waste. Her children are waiting at home for lunch. She has to feed them, check on her chickens, and think of applying for a fresh loan to expand her business. Maybe even buy some land. She speeds off on her boda-boda. There's a lot to be done.
About the Author
Deepa Krishnan is a financial reporter from Mumbai, India. In the last five years, as a journalist, she has specialized in covering India's nascent commodity futures markets and commodity trading. She began as a reporter in Business Standard, an English-language financial paper, and moved to The Economic Times, India's largest financial daily in 2006. In 2009, she worked as a television reporter for the newspaper's newly launched TV channel, ET Now. She has a bachelor's degree in Economics, and has a post-graduate diploma in Journalism, with a specialization in television, from Asian College of Journalism, India. She spent the last year as a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, and has been producing freelance work.