Livestock Research for Rural Development 16 (6) 2004

Citation of this paper

The village chicken production system in Rushinga District of Zimbabwe

F C Muchadeyi, S Sibanda, N T Kusina, J Kusina  and S Makuza

Department of Animal Science, University of Zimbabwe, P.O Box MP167 Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe


The village chicken production system and constraints that chicken producers face were evaluated in the semi-arid zone of Zimbabwe from August to December 2000. Structured questionnaires were conducted on 100 households to establish the roles of chickens, chicken nutrition, housing and health management. The perceptions on the constraints to chicken production were captured using focus group discussions and key informants.

Less than 20 percent of the households were headed by females. Average arable land sizes were approximately 2.6 ha. The main crops grown were maize, cotton and sunflower. Only 6.2 percent of the farmers kept chickens only. Mean flock size was 17.0 ± 10.5 chickens per household. All the farmers kept and reared local chicken genotypes. Female-headed households owned more chickens than male-headed households. Chickens were kept for food security, provision of manure, socio-cultural functions and as a source of income. The majority of the chicken houses (74 percent) were made of wooden poles and were thatched. All chickens scavenged for feed. Chicken mortality, inadequate nutrition and lack of organised markets were the major constraints to village chicken production. Farmers used traditional drugs to treat sick chickens. Women, even in households that were headed by men, made most of the decisions on chicken production.

It can be concluded that village chickens have multiple functions, which should be taken into consideration in designing poultry-based development programmes.

Key words: Constraints, production system, village chickens, Zimbabwe


Local chickens are an integral component of village production systems. In Zimbabwe, village chickens are estimated at over 30 million (Mhlanga et al 1999). Both inputs and outputs in these sistemas are low. Chicken productivity, as determined by the number of birds that are sold, is low (Mwalusanya et al 2002). This, evidently, disregards the other values that resource-poor people attach to their chickens, which should incorporate the socio-cultural roles that village chickens play.

Lack of understanding of village chicken production systems makes it difficult to design and implement poultry-based development programmes that benefit rural people (Guèye 1998; Pedersen 2002). There is a need to understand constraints that village chicken producers face. Constraints to chicken production are complex and vary among households due to the different biological, social and economic factors that influence production methods and, consequently, productivity levels (Mwalusanya et al 2002). The supply of nutrients to chickens, for example, depends on the amount of feed available at household level while the health of the chickens depends on the local disease situation.

The objective of this study was, therefore, to evaluate the village chicken production system and identify constraints that chicken producers face in the semi-arid zone of Zimbabwe.

Materials and Methods

Description of the study site

The study was conducted in Rushinga East District of Zimbabwe. Rushinga is located 33oE and 27oS. The area is in Natural Region IV, which is characterised by low annual rainfall (450 -500 mm). The length of the rainy season is on average three months. Mean minimum and maximum temperatures are 14.1°C and 28.6°C, respectively. It experiences seasonal droughts and severe dry spells even during the rainy season.

Sampling of households

Three villages, Mafuta, Katevera and Kuhwira, were randomly selected from a total of six villages in the Kamika ward. These three villages were approximately 5 km apart. A village was composed of an average of 100 households. Only those farmers who owned chickens and were willing to participate in this study were considered. A total of 100 households, made up of 35, 30 and 35 households were randomly selected from Mafuta, Katevera and Kuhwira villages, respectively.

Data collection

Household data of the households were collected using structured questionnaires and participatory rural appraisals. Village chicken production aspects such as nutrition, housing and health management were captured. Data were also collected from key informants such as, chiefs, headmen, agricultural extension workers and non-governmental organisation personnel who were working in the area. The data that were collected covered household characteristics, major crops that were grown, livestock ownership, role of chickens to household livelihoods, relationships of chickens with other enterprises, chicken housing, chicken nutrition, health management, flock sizes and composition and production constraints.

Household characteristics

The sex of head of household, size of household and land ownership and off-farm employment were recorded.

Role and integration of chickens with other enterprises

Crops that were grown, the livestock kept and the ownership patterns within households were recorded. The common crops grown in the area were obtained from agricultural extension officers. Farmers were put into three categories according to ownership of livestock. The first category comprised farmers who owned poultry only, the second were farmers who owned both poultry and small ruminants, while the third category comprised farmers who owned cattle, small ruminants and poultry. A farming calendar was compiled to include all farming activities in which the farmers were involved in during different times of the year. The gender aspects of the activities were also captured. The perceptions of farmers towards the role of chickens to their livelihoods were captured using participatory rural appraisals.

Chicken flock size and composition

Chicken flock sizes were recorded for each household. The chickens were classified by age and sex. Based on flock size, the farmers were put into two categories: small and large flock groups. Farmers in the small flock group kept up to 30 chickens, while those that had over 30 chickens were put in the large flock groups.

Housing, nutritional and health management of chickens

Housing materials that were used to construct the chicken housing, the size of the house, type of roofing, bedding material and the designs of the housing structures were captured. Households were also asked whether they supplemented their chickens or not. The type of supplement and frequency of supplementation were recorded. The farmers were also asked to provide information on when dietary supplementation was given to chickens. The diseases that affected village chickens and their symptoms were recorded. The action taken by farmers to combat diseases and parasites was captured. The types of medicines (traditional or commercial ) that were used in treating these ailments were recorded. The farmer perceptions of the constraints to chicken production and role of different gender groups were captured using focus group discussions. Agricultural extension personnel were interviewed on the constraints that were faced by poultry owners.

Statistical analysis

The effects of the sex of the head of household on flock sizes and composition were determined using the generalised linear models procedure of the Statistical Analysis System (SAS 2000). Household characteristics, management practices and participation of the different gender groups in village chicken production were analysed using the PROC MEANS procedure (SAS 2000). A chi-square test of association (PROC FREQ) of SAS (2000) was carried out to determine association between livestock ownership and poultry flock sizes. Calendars were produced for the major farm and non-farm activities that were conducted by each household.


Household demography

Only 19 percent of the households were headed by females. All the female heads of household were resident on the farm. Of the male heads of households, over 80 percent were resident on the farm. Each household had, on average, 4.8 ± 2.5 members. Average arable land sizes were approximately 2.6 ha per household, with about one hectare of this located within the homestead. Gold panning was the major off-farm activity and 86 percent of the households took part in this activity.

Integration of chickens with other enterprises

Besides chicken production, households produced maize, cotton and sunflower. According to extension personnel, small grains (sorghum and millet), were suitable for the area and were grown by few households. Cotton was the main cash crop and was produced by 78 percent of the households. Seventy-four percent of the households owned both cattle and small ruminants, whilst a smaller percentage kept chickens only (6.2 percent). Goats dominated in small ruminant production. Table 1 shows the relationship between livestock ownership and the size of flocks owned by households. Ownership of cattle or small ruminants was significantly associated (P<0.05) with chicken flock sizes. The majority of the farmers (82 percent) had small chicken flock sizes. A large proportion of farmers (65 percent) who had large flock sizes owned cattle. All the households that did not own cattle and small ruminants had small flock sizes.

Table 1. Proportion of chicken farmers (%) owning small and large flocks in relation to ownership of cattle and small ruminants in Rushinga District

Livestock ownership class

Small flocks, %

Large flocks, %

Large and small ruminants and poultry

76.3 (n = 61)

64.7 (n = 11)

Small ruminants and poultry

16.3 (n = 13)

35.3 (n = 6)

Poultry only

7.4 (n = 6)



100 (n = 80)

100 (n = 17)

Households were involved in four main farm activities namely crop, cattle and small ruminant livestock production, chicken production and vegetable gardening. Crop production activities mainly involved clearing of fields, planting, weeding, fertilising and harvesting of crops. Clearing the fields was usually done from September to late October. Older members of the households who did not go school took part in such activities. Planting started around mid-November. From December to mid-March, the main activities were weeding and spraying cotton. Crop harvesting normally started around April to early June. All age groups took part. Households often hired extra labour to help in the harvesting and paid either in cash or in kind. Male household members usually herded cattle and small ruminants, except during school holidays when children would look after the animals.

There was seasonality in the labour requirements for livestock management. The ruminants were only herded during the cropping season (November to April). Households committed more time to vegetable gardening during the period from March to October. Household members spent at least four hours per day on gardening. Activities in chicken production did demand less time from household members and were carried out throughout the year. A household member spent less than one hour per day managing chickens. Labour spent on care of chickens was low and was required for penning the chickens at night, releasing the chickens in the morning and for feeding the chickens.

Chicken ownership, flock sizes and composition

Mean flock size (± standard deviation) in the interviewed farmers was 17.0 ± 10.5 chickens per household and ranged from 1 to 50 chickens. The mean number of breeding hens was 3.4 ± 0.28 and 6.2 ± 0.58 for the small and large flock groups, respectively. Table 2 shows the effect of sex of head of household on flock sizes. Female-headed households owned more (P<0.05) chickens than households that were headed by males. Flock sizes for households whose heads resided on-farm were similar to those for non-resident heads of households (P<0.05). All the farmers reported that they kept and reared the local chicken genotypes.

Table 2. Least square means (± standard error) of the number of chickens and different age categories in male- and female-headed households

Sex of head of household



Flock size

15.9 ± 1.11a

23.2 ± 2.62b


7.5 ± 0.82a

10.2 ± 1.94b


3.9 ± 0.29a

5.5 ± 0.68b


3.2 ± 0.57a

4.2 ± 1.35b


1.2 ± 0.18a

1.9 ± 0.43b


0.9 ± 0.16a

1.5 ± 0.27b

a,b Values within a row, with different superscripts, are different  (P<0.05)

Role of chickens in household livelihoods

Focus-group discussions revealed that food security was the major reason for keeping chickens. Farmers were able to secure their food base from chickens through provision of meat and eggs. Since most households produced only energy-giving food crops, the major source of proteins available to households was livestock, particularly chickens. Given a choice, farmers would prefer chicken meat to other types of meat. The preferred taste of chicken meat made households reserve them for special guests or at ceremonial gatherings, such as the marriage feast, weddings or funerals. Where food sources were low, chickens would be sold and the money used to buy food items for household consumption. Female participants emphasised the role of eggs as relish in basic meals, especially when the supplies of other forms of relish for the households were low. Chickens were also sold to pay for school fees, medical costs and paying village taxes.

Village chickens were used in socio-cultural activities of the households. Farmers gave relatives and friends chickens as gifts or as tokens of appreciation for services rendered. In general, women attached more value to chickens, whilst men valued large animals more. Most women reported that they had more control on, and were able to make decision about chickens, than on large animals. They used chickens to strengthen relations with in-laws or maintain contact with their families by entrusting the other family members with their chickens.

Another important role of village chickens was the provision of manure. Manure from chickens was applied in vegetable gardens, where no chemical fertilisers were used. Chicken manure was regarded to be of high value for vegetables in comparison to goat or cattle manure. All participating farmers indicated that they had never used chicken manure as animal feed.

Management of village chickens

Eighty-two percent of the households interviewed provided housing for their chickens, while the remaining 18 percent had no separate chicken housing. The non-housed chickens spent the nights covered with woven baskets in the kitchens and granaries. Of the households that provided chicken housing, bricks, mud and wooden poles were the materials that were mainly used in constructing chicken houses. The majority of the chicken housing structures (74 percent) were made of wooden poles and thatched. Of these, about 36 percent were raised about 0.5 metres above the ground on wooden or stone slates whilst the rest were not raised from the ground. Only 26 percent of the housing structures were made of bricks. These were not raised from the ground.

All chickens were reported to scavenge for both food and water from as early as 0500 hours to around 1800 hours. During the planting season, however, the letting out of chickens for scavenging was delayed to around 1100 hours to protect the crops. While 20 percent of the farmers supplemented their chickens throughout the whole year, 74 percent supplemented more frequently around May to July. Only four percent of the farmers never gave their chickens supplementary feed. The majority of the farmers (92 percent) used energy supplements of maize, sorghum and millet for their chickens and the only type of protein supplement used was sunflower (6 percent). Household waste was also used by a few households (2 percent). No preference was shown during supplementary feeding. All birds had to compete for the same feed which was broadcast on the ground.

From both PRAs and personal interviews, chicken mortality was ranked as the major constraint to village chicken production. A considerable number of farmers (40 percent) did not treat their chickens against diseases. These farmers ate their birds if they suspected compromised health. Majority of farmers who treated chickens reported that they used ethno-veterinary medicine. Such traditional drugs included gavakava, an aloe plant(Euphobia metabelensis), muzumbani a shrub with mint flavour, muroro a shrub which produced yellow fruits, hot pepper (Capsicum frutescens) and paw paw leaves (Carica papaya). There was no agreement as to what the traditional herbs cured. Goat dung was used to repel predators, particularly snakes. Liquid paraffin was commonly used to treat eye wounds and control of fleas. Paracetamol and aspirin drugs, meant for the treatment of human ailments, were used by a small proportion of farmers. Commonly used veterinary drugs were tetracyclines, ESB-3 and cocci-stop for any signs of illness such as fevers, ruffled feathers and general weakness. Cabaryl compounds from cotton production were used to control external parasites. The common disease symptoms given by the farmers ranged from eye wounds, diarrhoea, swelling legs, coughs and other signs of respiratory infections.

Constraints to chicken production

The major chicken production constraints were small flock sizes, low growth rates and poor marketing channels. Predation and diseases were said to be the major causes of mortality. Common predators were dogs, cats, snakes, eagles and hawks. Although parasites were reported to contribute substantially to chicken mortality, the farmers could not quantify the effect of parasites on mortality. Inadequate nutrition was also considered a constraint to chicken productivity. Scavenging for feed increased predation, especially of chicks.

Gender participation

Women owned 56 percent of chickens, whilst men owned 36 percent. Boys and girls owned six and two percent of the chickens, respectively. The results on participation of different gender groups in village chicken production are shown in Table 3. Every household member had a role to play in village chicken, although children (at least 12 years old) did the bulk of the management aspects in most households. Women, even in those households headed by men, were responsible for most of the decision-making on chicken production.

Table 3. Participation of different gender groups in poultry production

Gender group



Decision making

Attending developmental meetings


























Boys had more participation in chicken ownership and management than girls. Men, however, participated in most of the developmental meetings that were conducted by non-governmental and national organisations. This was confirmed by the chiefs and headmen. All households did not keep written records for their chickens and any other livestock. Cotton farmers, however, kept some records on the yields and expenditures incurred in cotton production. Children were responsible for record keeping in most households.


Rural Zimbabwe is largely a patriarchal society, which explains the high percentage of male-headed households in the studied rural community. In other rural set ups, the proportions of male-headed households were around 66 percent (Scoones 1992; Mashatise 2002). One aspect typical of this study area (Kusina and Kusina 1999) is the high percentage of men who were resident on the farm. In most communal areas of Zimbabwe, most men are employed in towns and cities and women stay on the farm. In this study, however, households depended heavily on agriculture for food, income and other social obligations, as evidenced by a large proportion of resident men. According to Francis and Sibanda (2001), rural farmers diversify their enterprises to meet the multiple obligations from agriculture. Diversification reduces risks and offsets the seasonality of the agricultural production enterprises. The involvement of most chicken keepers in higher yielding enterprises and the observation that chicken flock sizes were higher in those households that owned cattle and goats, suggest that chicken production was a means of diversifying and reducing vulnerability to risk. Contrary to two reports (Kitalyi 1998; Pedersen 2002), findings in this study suggest that chickens are not substitutes, but complementary to large livestock, for the rural farmers.

The significant effect of the sex of the head of household on flock sizes and composition, however, suggests a systematic bias of the chicken production enterprise towards women. Women-headed households owned more chickens, implying that chickens are important to these households. Pedersen (2002), for example, established that unlike large animals, which are owned and controlled by men, chickens are directly accessible to women. This is mainly because men tend not to attach much value to chickens.

The finding that crop production in Rushinga was seasonal was typical to the smallholder production systems in Southern Africa (Mariga 1997). Crop production in these areas is rain-fed and, therefore, depends on the seasonality of the rains. The explanation for intensification of garden vegetable production during the cold season could be three-fold. Firstly, limitations in labour supply during the field crop producing season means farmers have to make a compromise in terms of labour allocation. Secondly, farmers could secure other sources of relish from the fields, such as pumpkin leaves, okra and black jack (Bidens pilosa) during the rainy season. The availability of alternative sources of relish allows farmers to allocate most of the labour hours to field crop production. Thirdly, most of the horticultural crops, such as vegetables, are negatively affected by heavy rains. During the rainy season, vegetables are susceptible to diseases and pests and, logically, farmers avoid producing vegetables during this period. Vegetable production is done in swampy areas where there is a supply of water and is very labour-demanding.

The herding of livestock (cattle and goats) during the crop-growing phase is typical to most sedentary livestock production systems. Herding of livestock is a labour-demanding exercise, which requires an individual who is fully committed throughout the herding season. Considering the relatively small sizes of the households and the competition for labour with other enterprises, the farmers are faced with labour constraints. As a coping strategy, related families combined herds and take turns to look after the livestock.

Chicken production occurs throughout the year, possibly because it is a low input enterprise. The only main labour demand in village chicken production is housing chickens in the night and letting them out in the morning. This did not compete directly with other enterprises. The low labour demand of chickens should be considered as an opportunity for both researchers and development agents in their effort to try and use chickens in improving the livelihoods of the rural communities. This implies that chickens can integrate well with most of the enterprises that rural households may be engaged in. Introduction of new technologies in village chicken production might, however, shift this scenario and should be critically analysed before implementation. Examples of such shifts are the introduction of feeding programmes, disease vaccination programmes and record keeping.

The observation that all the farmers kept local chicken genotypes suggested that Rushinga possibly had untainted indigenous genotypes, which are valuable genetic resources. The farmers pointed out that imported breeds did not survive the high temperatures that were experienced in the area and were also very susceptible to diseases and parasites. The farmers, therefore, valued the adaptability of the local chickens in their production systems.

The reported relative importance of chickens for food security rather than for income agreed with other findings (Guèye 1998; Kusina and Kusina 1999; Pedersen 2002). Although farmers invested less in chicken production, they were able to derive meat and eggs from chicken production to meet their food security needs. This study highlighted the potential of increasing productivity of local chickens as well as the need to improve the provision of markets. The feasibility of such an improvement might, however, not be guaranteed, considering the multi-purpose roles of chickens at household level (Harun and Masango 2000). According to Anderson (2001), rural households are vulnerable to uncertain events and often have insufficient resources to act as buffers during critical periods. In these circumstances, livestock are usually used as buffers in times of shortages. Therefore, their roles in food security and income generation might not be realised. The extent to which chickens are used as buffers will, however, depend on the socio-economic status of the rural households. A detailed study is therefore, necessary to assess the contribution of these chickens to the household livelihoods.

Although farmers were aware of the need for chicken housing, they varied as to the appropriate type of housing for their chickens. Chicken housing is meant to protect the birds from predation and harsh weather conditions, to control egg production and to keep the birds away from the fields during the planting season (Harun and Massango 2000). A good housing structure should provide the birds with the best micro-climate and keep diseases and parasites from spreading (Hall 1986). Brick housing structures were common to households that viewed predation as the main threat. Housing structures made from wooden poles were regarded as being effective for reducing infestation by external parasites. Resource availability could also have influenced the type of housing structures (Ramlah 1996). Most of the chicken houses were made from locally available materials. It is, therefore, necessary to determine whether the variation in chicken housing design affects flock productivity.

Farmers predominantly supplemented their chickens using energy-rich feeds. This had previously been observed in Sanyati, Zimbabwe (Pedersen 2002). Shortage of protein in the nutrition of scavenging chickens is not presumed to be a major constraint (Smith 1992). Chickens are expected to get adequate protein from scavenging of insects, snails and leguminous grains. Energy, is therefore, considered the first limiting nutrient in scavenging chickens. Although this opinion might hold true in some environments (Tadelle et al 2002), it might not in others. Protein supply is, however, likely to vary with seasons.

One weakness in this production system was, however, the non-preferential feeding of weaker groups, such as chicks. The provision of supplementary feeding was indiscriminate and all age groups had to compete for the supplement. This might result in weaker groups getting sub-optimal nutrition (Gunaratne 1993). There was also no quantification of the feed given to the birds. Different birds are known to require different amounts of nutrients (Rose 1997), depending on the production stage. For example, laying hens will require more for reproduction, whilst growers require more for tissue deposition. It is not clear whether the chickens get enough nutrients under these feeding systems. The possible fluctuations in the supply of feed resources require designing of appropriate strategic supplementation programmes.

Most households were found to use ethno-veterinary drugs as broad spectrum medicines. These have been reported to be very effective against some diseases (Guèye 1999). The use of ethno-veterinary medicines is a sustainable option for most rural households. Traditional medicines are locally available and free to the households (Barua and Yoshimura 1997). A further advantage is that farmers can easily prepare their own remedies. These drugs do not require modern technologies, such as refrigeration, which are not easily accessible to most rural farmers. A rather disturbing observation was that a high percentage of farmers did not offer health interventions to sick birds. There was limited veterinary extension services. Conventional medicines are expensive and not readily available to most farmers.

Although ethno-veterinary medicines are a potential, lack of information limits the success of this option. Ethno-veterinary knowledge tends to be in the custody of older people, who pass it on to the younger generation by word of mouth. This knowledge is not available to all poultry keepers and some farmers consider the knowledge a jealously guarded family secret (Bizimana 1994). The limited use of the local medicines might have implied that some farmers did not appreciate the role and effectiveness of local medicines in curing chicken diseases. Further research work is required to establish optimum dosages and efficacies of traditional drugs and the active ingredients.

The observation that mortality was the major constraint to village chicken productivity agrees with Chitate and Guta (2001) and Smith (1992). Chickens are exposed to various threats, ranging from predation, theft, cold or heat stress to poor nutrition. There is need to find strategies for reducing mortality, such as controlling environmental conditions. Variations in weather conditions, for example, have profound effects on disease prevalence, abundance and types of parasites, nutritional supply and predation.

Although women owned most of the chickens, management was also done by men. The reason why men attended most developmental meetings might be attributed to low literacy levels among many women and the many tasks women have to undertake at household level (Kitalyi 1997). Low literacy levels must, therefore, be overcome if chicken production is to directly benefit women. The number of men who participated in village chicken production in Rushinga was higher than that reported by Kitalyi (1998) and Pedersen (2002). The socio-economic environment in Rushinga District may explain partitioning of management roles among gender roles. In this study area most men were resident on the farm and depended on agriculture for their living. This might explain their interest in management of chickens. In a study on women involvement in chicken production, Brorholt et al (2000) showed that different women have different interests, resources and possibilities regarding keeping of village chickens. Women tend to be more interested in the non-income generating roles of chickens than men (Anderson 2001). These factors have to be clearly outlined and considered when designing village chicken production development projects to benefit women.



We acknowledge the UZ/ASLIP/DANIDA project for funding this study. We thank the farmers, chiefs and headman, Agricultural Research and Extension (AREX) personnel, and Non Governmental Organisations, particularly Household Agriculture Support Programme (HASP-DANIDA) in Rushinga for co-operating and providing valuable information.


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Received  14 April 2003; Accepted 27 May 2003

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