On September 16 this year, I woke up to a post on Facebook in Digital Farmers Kenya (a group of farming enthusiasts) by an evidently disappointed and frustrated farmer who could not find market for his chickens.
I can relate to his experience. Three years ago, there was this craze about rearing improved kienyeji chicken.
From feather to empire
The converted made it sound so lucrative with a narrative that a fully-grown cockerel would fetch you Sh2,000.
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It was common to hear stories like: “I started rearing my chicken by purchasing a feather’ now I am a millionaire! My friend, on the ground, things are different."
Back to my story. Back then, I bought 300 chicks, with a fancy name, Rainbow Rooster, which I started rearing in my farm in Bungoma County.
I ordered them from a hatchery in Eldoret and were delivered in Webuye. At Sh110 for a day-old chick, I paid through mobile money transfer and they were delivered.
Little feed guzzlers
After doing my math based on the success stories I had watched on TV and YouTube, it was to make a cool Sh300,000 in just five months.
So, with my previous experience with layers, I started by feeding the young birds chick mash, specifically a superior brand so that they can grow fast.
I also bought charcoal for keeping them warm and everything else that was required.
Vaccination programme, poultry equipment and a chicken coop from my previous experience of keeping layers, was all on point.
Three months down the line, the little ‘things’ had consumed almost Sh50,000 in feeds were still so tiny. Clearly, something was not right.
By the fifth month, Sh100,000 was gone down the drain.
The worst is that when you go to the market, wachurusi, (brokers in the village market) said the fetching price for the chicken is Sh250.
With that reality, here I was stuck with 300 plus chickens mostly hens with a few cockerels with no market and they were still feeding.
I decided to ask the extension officer from the hatchery to help me find a market. He gave me a contact of a woman in Kakamega.
I learnt she was the queen of buying chicken in the whole of Western region.
I was informed that she supplies all the supermarkets with kienyeji chicken.
She asked me to slaughter one and send it to her. She wanted to sample and decide whether the meat was the right quality. Again. I was tired!
The chicken was weighing a strong 1.5 kg, well fed, healthy and clean. Why was I struggling to get a market? Why was this broker taking me through all this trouble?
Apparently, the meat was not premium enough because it lacked the magic yellow colour for it to be convincingly kienyeji.
Now, how would I make the meat look yellow after slaughtering? Do I buy yellow paint? To achieve that colour, the chicken needed to be free ranged, she said.
“When you rear the chicken in an enclosed system, feeding them on commercial feeds, they will have qualities like broilers,” she claimed.
Finally, she offered to pay me Sh350 for the sample which did not even meet the cost of sending it to her.
She also advised me to allow the chicken to free range for several months and afterwards she will buy at Sh250 per kg. That time the meat will be yellow enough!
Sadly, by then my chickens would be over six months and that means extra cost of feeding them.
I did quick math with her offer of Sh250 a kg that would probably give me a maximum of Sh500 a chicken.
Mark you, feed conversion in most improved kienyeji chicken is so poor, a cockerel will rarely weigh over 1.5kg after six months.
A hen will hardly manage 1kg after six months. And all the food they had eaten previously?
The figures I was looking at were depressingly low. There was even nothing like return on investment.
Frustrated and confused
Frustrated and confused by the turn of events, I decided to free the chickens so they can roam freely around the compound.
I reckoned perhaps this will guarantee the elusive yellow meat and I can save on feeds.
But the problem is that those birds were too many for effective free range on my space of land. Still, I did it.
Within three days, my compound was dusty! The lush green grass was all cleared. Food waste from the kitchen was not enough to meet their dietary needs.
At my farm, I had also grown some beans and so letting the chicken there was not an option.
If I left them to go at the neighbours, it would be faced with conflict after conflict.
With no options left, I took my jalopy and dropped the back seat to create room. I loaded the 100 chicken in the boot one by one.
Together with my farm hand, Nicholas Lisutsa, we drove to Misikhu market one Sunday morning.
We sat for almost one hour with no buyer in sight. I had even paid Sh100 as market fee so I was covered.
The wachurusi (brokers) who were hovering around waited for the right time.
They knew I would be frustrated and sell at a throw-away price. They were right.
Within no time, one of them approached us and offered to take a big cockerel at Sh400 and a hen at Sh300.
Tired and frustrated, I gave in.
Apparently, that is how these ruthless brokers dictate market prices across a county, controlling the natural laws of supply and demand.
When I returned to my farm, I counted the miserable cash I made from the market.
I had only Sh13,000 and a dirty looking Sh50 note. Just that for all the 100 kienyeji chicken! This translated to about Sh130 per chicken on average.
If you recall I had bought the chicks at Sh110 six months earlier, so profit for this batch would be Sh20 per chicken assuming I had not spent anything on feeds.
It was painful but I stopped counting my losses and worked on getting rid of the remaining birds.
Next market day was in Webuye town where I sold another batch of 100 chicken at throw-away prices.
Next was Kimilili town where someone had the audacity to offer me Sh50 per chicken.
To avoid more misery, a friend said that if I took the chicken to Nairobi, I would fetch better prices.
Nairobi was hell
Desperate, I loaded 30 of them and drove to Nairobi. I left about 20 with Lisutsa to sell.
Nairobi was another hell. The best offer I got for seven-month old hens in a hotel was Sh600 and Sh800 for a cockerel.
Meanwhile, back in the village Lisutsa decided to disappear with the 15 that he was tasked to sell, the other five or so, I was told were eaten by a mongoose.
After disposing of all the chicken I went back to the drawing board and wondered where I had gone wrong with my kienyeji chicken business.