Scandal in the Henhouse

It has been five months to the day since Ethiopia’s first National Poultry Training Centre was inaugurated. It has been two since it was closed.

The 10 million Br undertaking was a product of the cooperation of Holland-Africa Poultry Partners (HAPP), which, with the help of the Dutch Embassy, supplied the equipment and trainers; the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR), which, under the Ministry of Agriculture, volunteered to set aside two of its buildings; and the Ethiopian Poultry Producers Association, (EPPA), which selected trainees for the for the training programs.

The ceaseless growth in population and continuous increase in the price of red meat, while cattle population growth remains modest, signals the emergence of a widening gap between supply and demand. In order to meet the local demand for protein, and increase Ethiopia’s export earnings, the second Growth &Transformation Plan has set an ambitious goal: a 247pc increase in chicken meat production, raising it to 164,000tn; and 828pc increase in egg production, boosting outputs to 3.9 billion eggs by 2020.

Yet the only infrastructure that works on building the human capacity specifically is the National Poultry Training Centre in Debre Zeit, an hour’s drive southeast of Addis. The centre was inaugurated on June 8, 2015, with grand plans for training thousands of people annually, as well as delivering 3.2 million chickens to small and medium poultry enterprises in five years’ time.

However, in the past week, Fortune has come to learn that the facility has been closed since early September, with the trainees and the institution’s management disagreeing on the cause. The centre claimed a viral disease among the chickens as the cause of its closure, while the trainees Fortune talked to disputed that claim.

“When we arrived at the compound to commence the final course of our Training of Trainers programme,” said Robel Efrem, a Jimma University graduate with a MSc in Animal Production, “they told us that the hens were sick, and that no one was allowed to go in.”

As the course was designed to be practical training, EIAR’s suggestion that they just continue in theoretical form and use audio visual aids was not well received by the trainers or the trainees. So, the trainees, all practicing professionals in the field, had to convince friends  who owned poultry farms to allow them to do the practical training at their facilities. As a result, the trainers who had spent so much time, effort, and money to come to Ethiopia and teach a professional class for free, did not leave without first imparting their knowledge.

“We had to increase biosecurity,” said Dawud Ebrahim, head of the national poultry case team, defending the decision to close the Centre. “We discovered an outbreak, and when diagnosed, it was found it to be a disease called Gumboro.”

He claimed to have shown the group the results of the laboratory test the centre undertook to identify the disease. It was then decided, that until the origin of the disease was confirmed, biosecurity would be enforced, which meant that the only humans allowed near the chickens were those that fed them.

Demeke Wondimagegn (DVM), one of the trainees in that first and only training exercise given so far, insists that the trainees could not have been the source of the infection as they had followed bio-security protocols. Trainers and trainees alike wore medical overalls, sprayed disinfectant on their knee-high plastic boots, and washed their hands with antiseptic before entering the premises.

Gumboro is a common poultry disease throughout the world. While biosecurity measures help prevent the introduction of the organism that causes the disease, post outbreak hygiene measures may not be effective as the virus can survive for long periods both in previously occupied hen houses and in water. Gumboro, a.k.a. Infectious Bursal disease (IBD), is an acute, highly contagious viral infection that attacks chickens’ immunities.

The incubation period is short; hence, the first symptoms appear 2-3 days after infection. The rate of sickness is very high and could reach 100pc, whereas the mortality rate is 20 – 30pc.  The course of the disease is 5-7 days and the peak mortality occurs in the middle of this period.

IBD, as the name implies, is an infection of the bursa, an organ in poultry, that grows smaller as the birds get older. Gumboro can be contracted as long as the chickens have a functioning bursa – up to the age of 16 weeks. After that, the chances of catching the disease diminishes greatly.

As the Secretary of EPPA, as well as HAPP’s chosen representative, Demeke has had the vantage point to observe many of the goings on at the centre, from inception to close down.

“This is a simple case of personal egos getting in the way of national gain,” he said, rejecting the claims by the centre’s officials.

Persistent communication from the trainees led to a compromise on the part of EIAR. Ten days after their entrance was barred, the trainees were allowed to go into the building that housed the Dutch equipment and more than 600 egg-laying chickens.

The assignment for the day was to individually film five-minute videos of themselves, demonstrating what they had learnt. One of the demonstrations was a physical check up of the hens. Trainee after trainee was filmed picking up a hen, holding it up by its wings, running their hands over it, explaining how its full body, glossy feathers, bright coloured comb and wattle demonstrated the healthy state of the hens.

Yet these are the same hens that the centre claimed to have been suffering from an outbreak of a disease with external symptoms that include diarrhoea, anorexia, depression, ruffled feathers, especially in the region of the head and neck.

The chickens in question, sick or otherwise, were hastily procured five months ago, when the centre was to be inaugurated. The EIAR, worried about showing the dignitaries empty warehouses, bought 600 layer chickens from Genesis Farms. These chickens were 20 weeks old when they were bought in June, said Demeke.

“Since the population was older, if it was indeed suffering from a Gumboro outbreak, it is most likely that it was one of the strongest strains of the disease. But if that was what attacked them, considering the lack of management, I would not be surprised if mortality reached upwards of 90pc,” said Abiyu Kassa (DVM), a veterinarian specialising in poultry, and one of the trainees.

“There were a series of Gumboro outbreaks in that town at that time,” said Abiyu.

The strain of virus that was going around was much stronger than the vaccine available at the time. In conditions where management, type of breed, and persistence of follow-up were less than ideal, as was the case with the centre, Abiyu said, mortality rates would shoot up pretty fast.

“I have seen 90pc of a 5,000 chicken flock perish in just a couple of days,” he stressed.

When asked about the conditions at the training centre, the trainees say it was substandard.

“To start with, the chickens were not of a good breed – they were small, unproductive, and not uniform in physical character,” said Abiyu.

Scientific method requires working with a uniform type of population.

“The [Dutch] trainers suggested disposing off some of the smaller, less productive chickens,” Demeke said, “but they [the institute] refused. Sometimes, we even saw rats.”

There were two breeds of chicken used for the training centre: Broilers and Layers. The former are bred for their meat. They are white, grow very large very fast, and are ready for the butcher in 42 days. These hens were at the centre in June and July, when the first and second rounds of training were conducted. They were already removed from the centre by the time the problematic third round had begun.

The second breed, on the other hand, are bred for their eggs. These chickens lay their first eggs at 20-25 weeks, and, depending on their rate of production and economic viability, can live up to 45 weeks or beyond.The institute says it had legitimate reasons to close the centre when it did, and hints at a point of difference with the Dutch personnel who had come to help.

“The Dutch wanted to promote strains of poultry that they preferred,” said Getnet Assefa (PhD), general director of EIAR. “But we know better.”

He added that one of the main purposes of the Institute is to research the best breeds for the country’s context and purpose.

“If anything threatens that purpose, or the strains we are experimenting with, we will not hesitate to shut it down.”

In a building adjacent to the one appropriated for the poultry training centre, EIAR houses and experiments with its own chickens. In the weeks leading up to the closing of the training centre, three trainees and a trainer saw that the institute had got rid of the flock it had been housing there and got a new set of very young chicks. Sources that wish to remain unnamed have confirmed that EIAR had acquired five new strains of foreign chicken at that time, which might have been the reason for the closing of the centre.

The crux of the matter lies in the fact that the only training centre the country has in the field of poultry, a centre that was supposed to have trained, according to its own ambitions, over 6,000 poultry farmers by now, has barely trained the first 15, who went through two rounds of the first training course, finishing the third round at other poultry farms.

“All the effort and investment the that has gone into the creation of this training centre should not go to waste,” says Demeke. “Concerned government bodies should find a solution; or if they are not willing to host us, then we should be able to retrieve the equipment and start elsewhere.”

The training centre could open after three months of closure, according to Dawud. However, once infected chickens have been removed from the premises, the scientific information is that the virus could still be around for up to two years.






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