Sarah's Summer Externship in Zambia

Rural poultry production is an important agricultural activity in Zambia, contributing to household nutrition and food security by providing a reliable source of protein in the form of meat and eggs. Chickens and eggs are also sold for cash or bartered for necessary household items such as school supplies, cooking oil, and medicine, thus significantly contributing to overall family welfare in rural areas.  The traditional village poultry production system in Zambia is based on a low-input and low-output scavenging system, and productivity is limited by standards of housing, nutrition, and disease control. Newcastle disease (ND) is a highly infectious viral disease affecting both domestic and wild avian species, with up to 100% case fatality, which poses a severe constraint to rural Zambian poultry production.

Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society, works in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia and is a model for rural development. Operating on the understanding that human poverty and suffering drive wildlife snaring and destructive land use practices, COMACO utilizes rural markets to address the conflict between human needs and land and wildlife conservation. Its ultimate goals are to help rural communities achieve food security and livable incomes through the sustainable management of natural resources.

In collaboration with Cornell University, COMACO has sought to develop village poultry systems in the Luangwa Valley. The organization aims to achieve economically sustainable control of Newcastle disease (ND) and improve flock nutrition, husbandry, and management practices, including enhanced marketing strategies. To this end, COMACO began a ND vaccination program in July 2007 that utilizes specially trained community vaccinators and requires farmers to invest in the health of their flocks by purchasing the vaccine. The group has also introduced an extensive educational outreach program to teach farmers about the economic benefits of providing adequate housing and supplemental nutrition for their flocks.

My involvement with the group started in 2009, when I travelled to Mfuwe to  assist with training activities, educational outreach, and data collection and analysis. I held small group or individual training sessions with each of our 21 community vaccinators and spoke to hundreds of COMACO poultry farmers about ND, avian influenza, bird nutrition and husbandry.

Since the initiation of these activities, COMACO has seen a large increase in the average household flock size in the area. We realized that this jump in flock size offers the opportunity for a source of protein in the form of egg consumption within the community and opens up a new potential market for increased egg sales. I wrote a proposal suggesting the establishment of small layer facilities at poultry producer groups, each consisting of about 30 to 50 layers and using semi-intensive confinement rearing practices. In 2010, COMACO began piloting eight such facilities, with the goals of establishing egg handling, production practices, and quality control techniques while testing the market for farm-fresh eggs. This program also offers participants the opportunity to learn a new skill-set, improving their earning potential.

I returned to Mfuwe in 2011 to assess the impact of these facilities, and initial analysis found a statistically significant impact on household incomes for the operators of the facilities. I also found a significant increase in the number of eggs consumed by nearby community members. In a sample that reports eating meat only once every two months, readily available, farm-fresh eggs may have a significant nutritional impact on the community. This is an idea that needs to be further explored, and I intend to return to Mfuwe in January 2012 for a closer look.

I have always been interested in using veterinary medicine to improve the lives of others, but working with COMACO’s farmers has given me a clearer idea of how I want to go about this. I plan to continue researching and improving the COMACO poultry project as part of an MPH or PhD, with the goal of replicating the model in other communities. Poor farmers in developing countries only need the opportunity, expertise, and means to help themselves, three things that veterinary medicine is readily able to provide.

Photos by Shara Dumas