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From rookie to pro through lessons picked from India

By Agnes Aineah
Nicholas Mureithi a farm manager at OlNjoro Poultry farm which trains farmers on emerging trends in poultry farming. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Sometime in 2008, Michael Njoroge was in a delegation to India to benchmark on some government project.

To unwind, Njoroge visited Keggfarms, a poultry breeding organisation in India where a certain breed of chicken caught his attention.

He learnt they were Kuroiler breed, an improvement to pure kienyeji chicken. They were bigger, matured fast and were high yielding. A mature Kuroiler cock weighed 3.5 kilos and was heavier than the local cocks he reared which weighed about 1.5 kilos. This discovery heightened Njoroge’s interest in poultry farming.

But he says the encounter in India wasn’t his first in poultry farming.

“I grew up on a poultry farm. My parents kept chicken that we ate but they never looked at poultry farming as a business venture,” says Njoroge.

He kept a few local birds himself as a side hustle that he started in 2006 with 20 pure kienyeji chicken. 

“I used to spend a lot of money on chicken feeds but I wasn’t getting much in return. The most a hen would lay was 10 eggs that didn’t all hatch into mature chicken,” he says.

According to Njoroge, pure kienyeji hens lay about 40 eggs in a year and take a year to mature from the time the eggs are hatched.

He says the hens take long to lay eggs because of the time they take during brooding.

“Say a hen lays 10 eggs in one cycle and sits on them for 21 days where only five eggs hatch successfully. The hen may spend up to two months guiding the chicks to independence. These are three months the hen wastes instead of laying more eggs,” says Njoroge.

He adds: “Though brooding is a natural process in local kienyeji chicken, the process affects productivity of this breed.”

During the India trip, Njoroge decided to do things differently.

Though his intention was to buy Kuroiler chicks from India, he realised the transaction would have been expensive as Kenya didn’t have such shipping rights. It was easier for him to buy chicks from a poultry farm in Uganda which had negotiated for parent stock from Keggfarms. He bought his first batch of 100 chicks at Sh160 per chick of which 60 survived to maturity. These, he disposed after two years and bought the next batch from the Ugandan poultry farm.

Njoroge who calls himself a pioneer in Kuroiler chicken in Kenya continues to buy the breed from Uganda to preserve quality for his large customer base in Kenya.

“I have to go back to Uganda to get Kuroiler chicks every time I need a new stock. I also dispose them every two years to prevent inbreeding of the chicken which can potentially affect quality,” he says.

But Njoroge is not alone in the rearing of Kuroiler chicken as many middlemen have joined the venture. He however cautions farmers against falling for fake varieties.

“Today, there are many varieties of improved kienyeji chicken but the world’s tested and most successful improved variety is the Kuroiler developed at Keggfarms. But cons are now hatching their own things and duping clueless farmers who realise they have been conned when the chicks take long to mature,” says Njoroge.

The trip to India has birthed OlNjoro Poultry Farms in Thika where Njoroge trains farmers on poultry farming. He also produces chicks for sale.

His highest season falls between June and July when farmers buy chicks to rear for the December festivities. On such times, he produces up to 5,000 chicks for sale. The lowest season, however, falls on days when rains are anticipated.

“Farmers rarely purchase chicks when they anticipate rains or the cold season because this translates to high cost of rearing the chicks,” he says.

Njoroge sells chicks at varied prices depending on their age. One day old chicks are sold at Sh110 while eight-week-old ones go for Sh450.

According to Njoroge, most farmers prefer to part with Sh260 for four-week-old chicks that do not require heating in the brooding space.

The biggest challenge that farmers face while purchasing the chicks is identifying their gender as this is usually not visible until the chicks are eight weeks old. At this age, cocks develop a crop.

Professionals vs novices

Njoroge also conducts monthly trainings at OlNjoro Farms where most of his students are novices in poultry farming and experienced farmers seeking answers to emerging trends in poultry farming.

But over time, Njoroge has also witnessed an increasing number of professionals coming for the training sessions. These people account for 80 per cent of all people that come for beginners’ tips in poultry farming.

Most topics addressed during the trainings are hinged on making poultry farming a business venture. He offers lessons on picking the best niche in poultry, deciding on the best chicken breed and designing a business plan for the poultry farm.

Designing the best poultry house and sourcing for the best equipment in poultry rearing are other topics covered.

Additionally, farmers are trained on cutting costs in poultry farming and embracing technologies that will see them make their own chicken feeds.

My biggest mistake

The learners are also exposed to some of the challenges and risks that come with poultry farming.

“We let them know that poultry farming isn’t a walk in the park. I allow them to learn from mistakes I have made before that made me a better farmer,” says Njoroge.

He divulges on once being overambitious to an extent of producing many chicks that could not find buyers.

“I once met some random people who excited me with a deal to supply 10,000 chicks to their client in in South Sudan. I was the happiest farmer knowing that I would make a lot of money. I emptied my savings in the deal only for the men to ditch me. It was in 2014, the hardest year for me because I was left with the chicks to buy their feeds. I watched the chicks die of hunger. The greatest mistake I made then was failing to at least ask for down payment before I embarked on the project,” narrates Njoroge.

Return on investment 

But the biggest challenge in poultry farming in Kenya, according to Njoroge is lack of competitiveness in the regional market which has seen egg sellers from other countries thrive in the Kenyan market.

He says Kenyan farmers err when they stick to the local variety that isn’t feed efficient, thereby increasing cost of production.

“The local variety consumes a lot of feeds and gives little returns. Yields are low and it spends a lot of time while breeding,” says Njoroge.

He says farmers translate these high production costs into market prices where they measure low against imports fromother countries. This has translated to the headache that Kenyan poultry farmers are facing with the influx of Ugandan eggs on the Kenyan market.

Njoroge says frustrated poultry farmers are now disposing off their chicken, a trend that is creating room for a bigger future challenge in Kenya’s poultry farming.

“I have come across many farmers who yielded to external pressure and sold their birds because of the low prices of eggs. If the trend continues we are likely to become importers of all poultry products,” says Njoroge.

He proposes diversity in maize farming to include yellow maize which will be used in animal feeds to lower cost of chicken feeds.

“In Kenya, people compete with livestock for maize unlike in Uganda where the staple meal is matoke. There is need to consider growing yellow maize to exclusively make animal feeds,” says Njoroge.

He says maize accounts for 50 per cent of chicken feeds.

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