Livestock Research for Rural Development 17 (5) 2005 Guidelines to authors LRRD News

Citation of this paper

Performance of scavenging Malawi local chickens during the period of human food shortage

T N Gondwe*,** C B A Wollny**, A C L Safalaoh*, M G G Chagunda*** and F C Chilera*

*Dept. of Animal Science, Bunda College of Agriculture, University of Malawi, P.O. Box 219, Lilongwe, Malawi
**Institute of Animal Breeding and Genetics, Animal Breeding and Production in the Tropics,
George August University of Goettingen, Kellnerweg 6, D - 37077, Goettingen, Germany
of Animal Health and Welfare, Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Research Centre Foulum, 
P.O. Box 50,
DK-8830 Tjele, Denmark


The rural human population in Malawi faces cyclic starvation during the rainy season starting from November to March. The extent of human food shortage varies from year to year indicated by among others, selling of livestock (especially chickens and goats) at reduced prices or directly exchanging them for food. The objective of this study was to evaluate performance of free-range local chickens during the starvation period based on the assumption that scavenging feed resource depends on household food status. If this is true, then low farm-gate prices and poor productivity for local chickens are expected when there is human starvation. To test this hypothesis, yearly trends of changes in live weights for 224 chickens were evaluated before and after starvation period, and compared between four years, 1999 to 2003. During this period, severe human starvation was during 2001 - 2002 rainy season. Farm-gate prices for chickens monitored in 2003 were compared with prices reported the previous hunger year.

As of October-end (just before starvation started), only sex of chickens and age-group significantly (P<0.001) effected variation in live weights. Thereafter, year effect was significant (P<0.001). Chicken performance in 2001 - 2002 was significantly least of all years. Age-group, sex and year effects persisted up to April. Age-group effect disappeared by June-end while year effect disappeared by July. Sex effect, however, remained significant (p<0.001). The year effect showed trends associated to periods of starvation. Disappearance of age-group effect after June showed that chickens compensated their weights lost during the human hunger period. Average local chicken prices for 2003 season were normal and persistently similar to dry season prices. These prices were significantly higher (p<0.05) than farm-gate prices offered during the rainy season of 2001 - 2002.

It is concluded that performance of free-ranging chickens and their farm-gate prices are negatively affected during periods of human starvation. There is a human-livestock association shown by farmers selling chickens to survive during starvation, while scavenging feed resource base depends on household food status.

Key words: farm-gate prices, human starvation, local chickens, free-ranging, live weights


The human population in Malawi (currently estimated between 10.7 and 11.4 million based on projection from 1998 census (NSO 2000; FAO 2002; World Bank 2003) constitutes over 80 % living in rural areas. These people depend on agriculture for their livelihood and are characterised as subsistence smallholder farmers (FEWS 1998; World Bank 1998; Jenkins and Tsoka 2003). The major food crop is maize. Small-scale tobacco growing and raising of goats and chickens are prevailing farming activities. These livestock are raised under free-ranging, extensive systems integrated with crop farming. In this crop-livestock mixed farming system, mutual benefit exists. Human derive food, social and economic value from livestock, while livestock derive food (directly or indirectly) from man. In case of local chickens, they are sold for different functions, one of which is to avert food shortages (Kristensen et al 2004). Chickens scavenge around homesteads and the major feed resource is household wastes that include leftover from human food and by-products from food processing.

Smallholder farmers in Malawi face a cycle of hunger periods every year (Oygard et al 2003). Starvation period is between October and February / March and the degree varies from year to year. Most households run short of food before August every year (FEWS 1998). Starving households survive on donor food and other coping strategies such as buying food from money realised from temporal (casual) employment (locally called ganyu), gifts and selling household assets. Goats and local chickens are important assets households sell to buy staple food. Selling livestock is the second important coping strategy (after ganyu) against hunger. Since many households starve, more animals are offered for sale, resulting in subsequent low prices of animals (FAO 2002). Some farmers opt for direct exchange (barter) of livestock with staple food. Livestock sales during this period and low livestock prices are among indicators or early warning signs used to show loaming food shortages (FEWSNET 2002a, VAC 2002). Missohou et al (2002) and Mlozi et al (2003) noted in Senegal and Tanzania, respectively, that when farmers have food during the rainy season, fewer chickens are sold and their prices remain high. Farmers have high bargaining power since they are not compelled to sell their livestock to buy food.

Over the recent past, severe human starvation occurred in 2001 - 2002 growing (rainy) season in Malawi. During this period, livestock farm-gate prices went as low as MK15.00-MK30.00 per live local chicken (from an average normal price of MK150.00) and MK300.00-MK400.00 per live goat (from an average normal price of MK1500.00, 1US$ = MK67.00). More animals were sold to achieve family food. On the other hand, staple food (maize) price more than doubled (FAO 2002; FEWSNET 2002a). Apart from this economic indicator, the effect of the cycle of starvation on livestock performance has not been determined. Since the free-range chickens scavenge from homestead surroundings, it is possible that they have less feed during the season of human starvation due to shortage of household wastes including leftover food. This is based on assumption that household wastes contribute significantly to scavenging feed resource base for chickens. If the assumption is correct, then cyclic nature of starvation for humans will result in associated loss in performance of free-range chickens. The objectives of the study were to determine trends in performance of free-range chickens during the season of human starvation; ascertain price decline if they are justifiable; and to determine post starvation season effects. Knowledge derived from the results will be important to design management practices that can sustain provision of functional products from free-range chickens while at the same time maintaining their productivity and biodiversity in an existing crop-livestock farming systems.

Materials and Methods

Case study site and sources of chickens studied

The study was done at Bunda College of Agriculture (BCA), located 30 km East of Lilongwe City and is surrounded by villages inhabited by smallholder farming communities. The coordinates for the area are 14.10o S, 33.47o N and altitude is approximately 1200 m above see level (Garmin GPSMAP 76CS, Garmin Ltd, Most of the smallholder farmers belong to Chewa tribe and practice subsistence agriculture.

Local chickens at the College Farm (for years 1999 - 2003) and from the surrounding villages (year 2003 only) were used in this study. In 1999, local chickens were sourced from different villages and raised at BCA as founding stock for breed characterisation studies. These were raised on free-range, in integration with goats and cattle that exist at the College farm to mimic the village production system. At the College farm, unskilled labour force, both males and females, comes from the villages. These carry their meals and prepare food for lunch at the farm. During night, watchmen (also from same villages) bring meal to prepare food there. The leftover from food for humans were given to chickens as their supplement feed, just like what is happening in the villages. Two sites (one km apart) were used to study the birds. In 2002 - 2003, the project was extended to on-farm observations at farmer households in the villages. This data was also included in the study.

Description of the years' human food status

Several authors reported the severity of food shortage in rural households during the 2001 - 2002 season (FAO 2002, VAC 2002, Oygard et al 2003). Among the reasons reported included household poverty, poor rainfall distribution at the onset of rainy season, following flooding in some parts of the country and wrong projection of previous harvest of food from root crops. The Government failed to respond in time to warning signs of food shortage in 2001 - 2002 season due to reasons discussed by the authors. It turned out that of the four seasons (1999/ 2000 - 2002/2003), 2001 - 2002 was worse in terms of food shortage (FEWSNET 2002b). Maize selling prices increased while prices of livestock declined and these were the common indications of food shortage and starvation reported in studies that were meant to assess the situation. Using price trends of maize from 1996 to 2002 (Figure 1), sharp rise in maize prices for 2001 - 2002 indeed indicated distinct starvation. Figure 1 also shows selling price trend for maize for 2001 - 2002 for Mitundu market that is within the study area. In this paper, 2001 - 2002 was a year of critical food shortage that created acute human hunger at national and local area levels. The hypothesis will be tested by comparing parameters for other years with the performance of 2001 - 2002.

Figure 1. Nominal price trends for maize from 1996 to 2002 in Malawi (Average for all districts)
Source: VAC (2002) ; Oygard et al (2003)

Chicken management and data recording

Local chickens studied both on-station and on-farmer households were raised on free-range (scavenging) system. The major intervention was Newcastle disease vaccination that was done at three monthly interval between April / May and December each year. Lasota live vaccine (1000 doses; Lohmann Animal Health GmbH & Co. Germany) was used and there were no reports of the disease outbreak on vaccinated chickens. On-station, maize bran (a by-product from maize flour processing locally called madeya, 10 % CP) was provided as supplement feed to scavenging feed resource that included human left over food wastes. In the villages, madeya is the common supplement feed. This madeya was sourced from the villages in exchange with salt during the dry season (from July to September). However, during the dry season of 2001, madeya was scarce. Shortage of maize made households to consume madeya. The College farm experienced similar shortages of madeya to feed livestock, like in the villages during the 2001 - 2002 year. Wastes from human food left over were also scarce since people resorted to eating once per day or even skip days. Local chickens were hence dependent only on scavenging during the 2001 - 2002 rainy season.

During the monitoring studies, data recording included fortnightly weighing of the chickens, egg production and hatching performance. These were normal routine activities on the farm and the same recording was taking place in the villages in 2002 - 2003. Daily observations included recording of deaths and sales of chickens.

Data analyses

Table 1 shows the format of data entry for live weights used to analyse effect of year, and thus a reflection of starvation. In order to determine year effect, individual initial, fortnightly and final data were compared between years. Data at the end of October was considered initial to mark the period when starvation starts. This data included live weights and live weight changes expressed as specific growth rates (SGR). SGR were determined as percent change in live weights per day estimated using the following formula:


SGR is the specific growth rate expressed as percent change in live weight per day
lnwn is the natural log of live weight at time n in days
lnwi is the natural log of live weight at previous time in days
ti is the number of days between the two weighing

Table 1. Format for data for live weights during the four year period



Initial weight
(as of October)

Fortnightly weights

Final weight
(after 12 months)

1999 2000



50 30


2000 2001



52 34


2001 2002



45 29


2002 2003



41 16


n = number of birds observed

These chickens were of different ages as of October. Age-group and sex of chickens were additional effects included in the model in order to adjust for them. Phenotype of chickens was not significant and later dropped from the model. General Linear Model Procedure (SAS 1999) was used during the analysis applying the following linear model. Significant differences were determined for least square means by least significant difference (LSD) procedure.


yijklm = Observed response parameter (live weight or SGR)
= is the overall mean

= is the effect of year of season
= is the effect of sex of bird
= is the effect of age-group 
= is the effect of station of study

= is the residual error

Overall, observations from 224 chickens were used during the study. All birds were individually tagged, identified by age (to determined age-group), sex, year and phenotype.

Comparison of chicken prices

The next issue was to evaluate whether farm-gate prices for chickens that were reported to be low and indicated food shortage during 2001 - 2002 reflected the condition and value of chickens during the period. Farm-gate prices for chickens were observed and recorded in the study villages during 2002 - 2003 season only. The 2002 - 2003 real prices were taken as normal (FEWSNET 2003) and compared with those reported for 2001 - 2002 adjusted to 2002 - 2003 price value. Farm-gate prices were considered significantly different (p<0.05) if they were outside the confidence interval (CI) for 2002 - 2003.

We went further to determine what would be the expected price considering the loss in live weights of chickens during the hunger period. Price during 2002 - 2003 were converted to per kg live weight and were used to calculate what would be the farm - gate price per chicken in 2001 - 2002 based on their live weights. Predicted prices and their CI were compared to the actual reported prices for 2001 - 2002 (adjusted to 2003 price equivalent). Inferences about fare trade of local chickens and farmer exploitation during the rainy season were drawn from this comparison.

Results and discussion

Live weight changes during the period of human starvation

Table 2 shows parameters that influenced chicken performance at selected periods of the year during the four-year period. At the beginning, sex of chickens and age-group were the significant effects on initial live weights (p<0.001). Year effect was significant (p<0.001) from middle of November. Age-group, sex and year effects persisted up to April end. Age-group effect disappeared by June while year effect disappeared by July. Sex effect remained significant (p<0.001) throughout the year.

Table 2. Parameters affecting production (live weights) for local chicken under free range during the years (selected periods only)


Effect by period

October end (week 1)

November end (Week 6)

December  end (Week 10)

February mid (Week 16)

April end (Week 26)

June end (week 34)

August end (week 42)

September end (week 46)

Year of production









Age group 









Sex of birds









Station of production









Looking at the year effect, chickens in 2001 - 2002 (hunger year) significantly (p<0.05) lost weights compared to chickens in the other years (Figure 2). Birds lost weight (median, 47.72 % of October live weight) between November and December. These birds regained weight after 10 weeks (around April). However, weight losses were observed in birds in all years during April - May. This probably signals an onset of disease outbreak and parasite infestation. 

Figure 2. Bi-weekly live weight changes (LS means) for local chicken by year of production for 12 months.

Specific growth rates (SGR) were used to indicate relative changes in live weights and thus, further ascertain the link between performance of chickens and the starvation periods (Table 3). Year effect (p<0.001), age-group (p<0.001) and station (p<0.001) influenced SGR from October to December. SGR from January to March were influenced by year (p<0.001), age-group (p<0.001) and sex (p<0.01) effects. SGR for April to June were influenced by year (p<0.001) and age-group (p<0.05), while year effect was the only significant factor on SGR from July to September (p<0.001). Adjusted for all other effects, results showed that least square means for 2001 - 2002 period were significantly different from zero (p<0.05). Differences in SGR for chickens between other years were not important (p>0.05). Concentrating on SGR for 2001 - 2002 (hunger year), negative SGR were observed during the starvation period (October to December). Highest SGR were observed afterwards, then declined towards the end (after Apil - June) periods. The trend in SGR is therefore similar to the trend observed for live weights, with performance during hunger year being significantly lower and different from performance during other years.

Table 3. Least square means for specific growth rates (% growth per day) during 10 weeks interval of growth periods

Seasonal year

Oct - Dec

Jan - Mar

Apr Jun

Jul - Sept









1999 2000







- 0.104b


2000 2001







- 0.002b


2001 2002*

- 1.119a








2002 2003

- 0.027b








LS means with similar superscript in a column do not differ (p>0.05); * = lsmeans and their differences are significantly different from zero (0) (95 % CI); SE = standard error of the mean.

Overall, live weights for chickens were fluctuating with time (Figure 2). This is possible due to different environmental factors the chickens encountered at different seasons of the year. Possible factors included disease incidence, food shortage and weight drop during laying and incubating eggs. However, the significant weight loss during the period for the hunger year (2001 - 2002) was extraordinary and signalled critical feed shortage for chickens during the period. It could therefore be established that chickens under free-ranging conditions have feed shortage when human beings starve. Dessie and Ogle (1996) reported that Ethiopian scavenging chickens had energy deficiencies in their diets during the rainy season. In this study, maize (a staple food and an energy source) shortage was the main cause of human hunger. This means when there is maize shortage, there are less leftover from human food to offer to chickens. Olukosi and Sonaiya (2003) reported that household leftover significantly contributed to scavenging feed resource base. The maize shortage in our findings also implies shortage of madeya. Household wastes in form of human leftover food and grain by-products were scarce during the 2001 - 2002 rainy season. Chickens had to survive solely on scavenged feeds, that Dessie and Ogle (2001) reported not adequate especially during the rainy season. We can therefore, make inference from the study that birds have energy feed deficient during the starvation period (which is also the rainy season) whose degree depends on household food situation.

The regain in weight after the hunger period was observed. This period corresponded to the time when people started to consume green maize from gardens, followed by food period from early harvested maize. Malawi was declared state of food disaster in February 2002 and this resulted into government and donor supply of food into the country (Oygard et al 2003). These alleviated human starvation. Noticeably chickens started gaining their lost weights. During this time, chickens in the hunger year (2001 - 2002) had higher and significant SGR than the rest. SGR for chickens observed in other years were expected since birds were mature, expressing only recovery from previous weight drops. Chickens in the hunger year were expected to perform similarly. The high and significant SGR provide evidence that birds were regaining their normal sizes. An aspect of compensatory growth was observed here, related to the period when maize was available, further supporting the need for energy feed to birds. Access of chickens to maize was through humans in form of household supplements. Livelihood of scavenging chickens, therefore, depends on food security of human beings.

Are farm-gate prices for chickens observed during starvation justified?

Table 4 shows reported range of farm-gate prices for chickens during starvation period of 2001 - 2002 compared to prices for 2002 - 2003. Farm-gate prices for chickens during the 2001 - 2002 hunger period were significantly lower (p<0.05) than those observed during 2002 - 2003 period. The fall in price for chickens during the hunger year was expected due to poor condition of birds, desperate need for money by farmers to buy food, and the fact that more birds were offered for sale. The issue is to evaluate whether the prices fell below expected range. Based on the available information, expected 2001 - 2002 farm-gate prices estimated from unit farm-gate prices for chickens during 2002 - 2003 multiplied by live weights of chickens during the hunger period of 2001 - 2002 (Table 4), showed that the fall in price was however, supposed to come to an average of MK92.50, assuming the value to reflect condition of the birds. This expected farm-gate price for 2001 - 2002 was also significantly lower (p<0.05) than those for 2002 - 2003. The upper level of farm-gate price range for 2001 - 2002 is, however, above the CI for expected price. This means those farmers that sold their chickens in 2001 - 2001 at price above MK71.00 were not exploited. However, prices below MK71.00 meant buyers exploited farmers. Farmers lost their bargaining power. It was reported that while buyers consumed some birds sold during this hunger period, a significant proportion of chickens exchanged hands into other food secure farmers (FEWNET 2002a). Since chickens were able to compensate their lost weights after starvation, it means that those farmers and other people that bought and kept the chickens benefited.

Table 4. Farm-gate prices of chickens during hunger period of 2001 2002 compared to 2002 2003


2001 2002

2002 2003

CI (95 %)

Price per bird*

38.00 127.00





Price per kg live weight






Expected price per bird






Expected price for 2001 2002 based on price per kg obtained from 2002 2003 season; CI for 2002 2003 except for expected price (for 2001 2002); * = price adjusted to exchange rate values for 2002 2003 (real price range is MK30 MK100); exchange rates, 2001 2002 = MK67.00/US$, 2002 2003 = MK85.00/US$ (; * Only used official reported prices. Various personal communications said prices went as low as MK15.00 in 2001 2002.

Price trends for maize and livestock are socio-economic indicators of food shortage and are converse of each other. The inverse relationship is verified as shown in Figure 3 based on what would be farm-gate prices for chickens assuming their condition influenced the pricing. The more drop in farm-gate prices than expected support that the panic by farmers to have food for the household contributed to it. Small stocks are liquid assets usually sold for food aversion purposes (Dolberg 2001). The scenario shown here shows one of the use of local chickens during times of food shortage. All reports on food security status reported that farm-gate prices for chickens remained stable during 2002 - 2003 year. During this year, donor and government food imports were available on time (FEWSNET 2002a) and human starvation was alleviated. The predicted prices for chickens for other years (not shown) were not different (p>0.05). This means that when food insecurity is not severe among farmers, few chickens are offered for sale and farmers have bargaining power that prevents price falls (Missohou et al 2002; Mlozi et al 2003). Human food shortage, therefore, results into insufficient feed for scavenging local chickens, hence, the loss in their condition. The household need for food leads to subsequent lower farm-gate prices for chickens than would be expected. Other factors of chicken production do not affect price of chickens.

Figure 3. Expected farm-gate prices for chickens and selling price for maize during the year 20012002

Implications for the results

Loss in weight of chickens during human hunger periods is distinct from other causal factors and leads to some farmers being exploited due to massive sales of chickens at lower than expected prices. This lost condition of chickens could also be used as a socio-economic indicator of food shortage for humans in rural areas. However, we also need to look at the human - chicken - environment relationship that exists (Figure 4) for managerial purposes. It would be difficult to intervene to the poor condition of chickens by providing feed to chickens during this time since farmers' attention is to secure food for humans. When there is no income, the chicken is sold to secure food. Priority of farmers is to acquire staple food for the households rather than saving the chickens.

Figure 4. A pictorial model for the human-free-range chicken dependence in the villages

On the other hand, when there is food for humans (from harvest reserves, markets and from international donors), chickens do not lose excessive weights apart from that occurring due to other environmental variables. Chickens are also spared from massive sales and their prices are stable. This means a food secure household has feed secure chickens. By providing food to households, chickens get adequate scavenging feed resource to sustain their lives. Chickens also get spared from being sold at low and exploitative prices. There is dual benefit from chickens that needs to be explored further in line with management of genetic resources. Man will then derive full use from chickens. We can say that a mutual association and benefit exist between rural households and chickens produced under scavenging conditions in the rural areas as illustrated in Figure 4.



Financial support to the Village Poultry Project was provided by NORAD - Bunda project (from 1999 - 2001) and FAO SADC FanGR project (2001 - 2003). The authors are grateful for the funding.

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Received 14 October 2004; Accepted 14 April 2005; Published 1 May 2005

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