How to roast a chicken: Climate change and farming in Nigeria

Extreme heat is worsening economic inequality among African farmers – and raising the spectre of future food shortages.

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In Nigeria, breeder-broiler chickens must drink water four times a day - sometimes after farmhands add ice - to keep cool because mortality rates are increasing among poultry due to extreme heat [Socrates Mbamalu/Al Jazeera]

In the wake of a severe heatwave, popular Nigerian television host Ebuka Obi-Uchendu laments on Twitter that the brand of eggs he eats is missing from grocery shelves. On further inquiry, he is told that the suppliers of those eggs lost 5,000 of their chickens to sweltering weather – a problem that is a source of complaint among many Nigerians today.

The World Meteorological Organization predicts that 2019 will be among the globe’s hottest years on record. And Nigerian farmers – such as the poultry producers who provide Obi-Uchendu’s eggs – are among those feeling the heat.

In Zaria in northern Nigeria, where recent temperatures have spiked to 36C, farmer Olusola John says the severe heat has been affecting his 600 chickens. “I lost some of my birds to it,” he sighs. “My colleague sold off her birds because she couldn’t cope with the stress. All this happened after giving them ice and medications. They died gradually.” 

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Chickens in Nigeria crowd around a feeder in an open-air chicken coop positioned to catch a breeze and keep  valuable poultry from dying of heat exposure [Socrates Mbamalu/Al Jazeera] 

Climate change – a major problem for Nigerian farmers – brings to the fore a challenge now facing the Nigerian government: the need to fund more modern technologies that could help heatwave-challenged farmers stay in business – and help Nigeria feed a population that is projected to double by 2050 and become the third-largest in the world.

John dreams of building a modern-style chicken house that could minimise his heat-related losses. But such a structure could cost as much as 19 million naira ($55,000) – more than the profits that he could recoup by selling his chickens.

Global warming killing businesses 

Climate change has affected many Nigerian farmers, especially small-scale ones with traditional, low-level technologies and plots of land that stretch for less than five hectares.

Such farmers comprise up to 70 percent of Nigeria’s population – and engineer Bamidele Oyeyiola is one of them.

Oyeyiola has been in the poultry business for 15 years, and like the average Nigerian farmer, he relies on the local ecosystem to sustain him. Ironically, the recent heat has turned that very ecosystem into his biggest threat.

And at the entrance to Oyeyiola’s farm on the outskirts of Ibadan, a chicken lays dead – possibly from exposure to heat.

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Nigerian poultry farmer Bamidele Oyeyiola stands in the middle of a group of farmhands as they take a break from working to keep his chickens cool [Socrates Mbamalu/Al Jazeera] 

The farm where Oyeyiola rears 3,000 breeder-broilers – which cost 6,120 naira ($17) per chicken to produce, and which are among the most expensive chickens to raise – is a large open space with two big poultry houses, a water tank, a generator and living quarters that house six farmhands. “The cost of feeding is high, the cost of drugs is high and the cost of management is also very high,” Oyeyiola tells Al Jazeera.

To create ventilation and airflow in high temperatures, Oyeyiola has built poultry houses that stand 13 feet high, face the wind, and are surrounded by trees. Constructing them cost 3.6 million naira ($10,000) – about what the average Nigerian farmer can typically afford for such a project.

Before Oyeyiola’s hens can even start laying eggs, he feeds them for one year and four months and offers them round-the-clock surveillance. While they mature, Bamidele makes no sales. And during this time, some hens die – often due to extreme heat.

One of Oyeyiola’s farmhands carries a pail of water to fill the troughs for the chickens, making more than five trips to the tap and back.

When the heat is unbearable for the chickens, Oyeyiola and his workers put ice blocks in the birds’ water. But they can not regulate humidity or the internal temperature of the open-air poultry house.

Just as the Nigerian government doesn’t help Oyeyiola with his chickens’ bedding – sawdust that must be kept dry and changed at least twice a day – he says the government isn’t lifting a finger to help his business beat the heat.

“If there was technology, the water would come there automatically, [and] the birds would drink at their convenience and adequately,” Oyeyiola says. “But if you decide to put water in a bucket and the water finishes, the bird will also suffer, and that will also affect our production.”

Oyeyiola and his workers breathe a sigh of relief around 4pm, when temperatures start to cool. 

Climate change and inequality

Problems with heat are becoming more common on Nigeria’s farms due to rising carbon dioxide levels, which are fueling the spike in global warming and which recently hit an all-time high concentration of 415.39ppm CO2 in atmospheric measurements taken by the University of California San Diego.

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A farmhand tends to birds in a chicken house that was built to promote airflow but that cannot regulate humidity or internal temperatures because it lacks modern technology [Socrates Mbamalu/Al Jazeera] 

In poultry and piggery production, high temperatures hinder yields because they can retard reproductive cycles and boost mortality, says Adekunle Adedoyin Idowu, a senior lecturer at the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.

Idowu notes that in Nigeria, mortality rates for poultry are increasing “to the level of at least 15 percent per annum”.

The loss is not as severe on farms with modern technology, where yields and profits are higher. Agricultural producers who are wealthy enough to mitigate the effects of global warming can plant more productive crops and raise more poultry and livestock. This is why it is the more affluent Nigerian farmers who are now controlling the market, says Merlin Uwalaka, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta.

The agricultural market – and climate change – do not work in favour of the roughly 90 million Nigerians who are currently living in poverty. They represent 47 percent of the population, according to the World Data Lab. Most of them rely on agriculture as a source of income, says Uwalaka, who notes that even a slight change in the balance of the ecosystem can be enough to plummet low-income Nigerians into dire poverty.

Official intervention?

In 2018, Nigeria overtook India as the nation with the most people living in extreme poverty. And in a country where six new people fall into poverty every minute, it is projected that by 2030, a record 120 million Nigerians will be impoverished.

With poverty in Nigeria steadily rising – and with dire food shortages projected in its future – how can the country address its agricultural needs?

“The government must intensify its efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change on farmers,” says Adenike Adediran, a project manager for the International Climate Change Development Initiative. “Research producing relevant data should be carried out. This would bring to the forefront the impact of climate change, and [would] create awareness amongst all stakeholders.”

From 2011 until now, the Nigerian government has never allocated more than three percent of its budget to agriculture – despite Nigeria signing the 2003 Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security, which stipulates that the country must devote 10 percent of its budget to agriculture.

The government must intensify its efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change on farmers.

by Adenike Adediran, project manager for the International Climate Change Development Initiative

A 2017 analysis by the nonprofit organisation Oxfam recommends that the Nigerian government help the country’s small-scale farmers by increasing funding for agriculture and climate-change adaptation, redirecting funding to smallholder farmers, and enacting policies to scale up private-sector involvement.

Nigerian farmers say that unless the government provides that basic support, the only way they can afford to take measures to address extreme heat is to take out loans from banks that can charge interest rates as high as 28 percent.

Average Nigerians might not be aware of how global warming is affecting their country’s agricultural industry. But for consumers like television host Obi-Uchendu – who made the connection between global warming and the disappearance of his favourite eggs – climate change is not only hitting closer to home, but raising the spectres of poverty and food scarcity.

Without government intervention, small-scale Nigerian poultry farmers are being left to fend for the survival of their chickens – and for their own survival, too.

Olusola says he recently had to increase the number of times he gave water to his hens – and that he now performs this chore four times a day. “The weather,” he tells Al Jazeera, “is not friendly to the birds.”

With additional reporting by Molly M. Ginty. 

Source: Al Jazeera