Until recently, quail farming in Zimbabwe was booming as lucrative alternative for small-scale producers – and then it all suddenly went wrong. Ian Nkala reports on how a single ministerial misstep has toppled an entire poultry sector, just as it was beginning to find its feet.
Up until May 2016, it looked like quail was really taking off in Zimbabwe. In the previous two years or so, thousands of citizens had taken to raising the bird in their urban backyards, on farms and in villages, attracted by high profits, ease of rearing quail and the health benefits associated with eating its meat and eggs.
In addition to farming the bird, the more enterprising producers started holding well-attended workshops countrywide, educating others on how best to keep quail. Thanks to its rising popularity, the bird even debuted at the country’s biggest trade and investment showcase in April 2016, the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo.
But all it took to bring the burgeoning sector down was a ministerial statement in parliament that questioned the legality of commercial quail production and raised the issue of some quail farmers’ allegedly misleading advertising.
The thousands who had joined the quail craze are now stuck with their stock while others have abandoned the business altogether. Many are still angry with the Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Oppah Muchinguri, for her statement in parliament on 28 April 2016, which they blame for bringing their business into disrepute.
Patrick Saruchera, who used to organise workshops teaching farmers how to rear quail, says the minister made a mistake.
“In an instant a promising industry collapsed,” he says. “I still wonder why the minister said those things in a country that is so passionate about agriculture. It was a bad mistake.”
How did the statement cause such damage? Muchinguri told parliament that quail were a wildlife species and any commercial breeders would have to apply for licences from her ministry – and a person intending to rear any wildlife species commercially, including quail, needs US $1,000 to secure a licence from the government.
“We don’t want people to be taken for granted [sic] by such lies that these birds can heal cancer, blood pressure and so forth,” her statement went on. “As a ministry we feel it’s unfair and we can’t watch people being charged for birds that are cheap. Zimbabweans are very innovative – that’s why they came up with the idea; we are saying stop trading but you can enjoy them at home… The prices of US $6 [per crate of 30 quail eggs] are too much considering that they stole the eggs from the bush.”
Although she reversed the ban six days later amid national condemnation, the damage had already been done.
Patience Ndlovu thought she had secured a livelihood when in 2015 she set up BigHen Poultry Services, a small quail-breeding business she operates from the back of her home in Emganwini, a suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.
“The business collapsed soon after the minister’s statement,” she says. “I had to reduce the price from US $5 per adult bird to $1. For eggs it’s $1 for 10.”
When interest in the bird began to pick up in 2014, most farmers grew Japanese quail, one of the hardiest breeds that is also easy to rear.
An online frenzy followed as Zimbabweans’ posts featuring the bird began trending, which spread the word about its physical toughness and economic potential. One meme featured an image of the national flag with a quail taking the place of the iconic fish eagle, the Zimbabwean national bird. A prominent comedian advised people not to delete pictures of quail from their mobile phones saying keeping them would “boost the longevity of their batteries”.
Zimbabwe Quail Farmers Trust chairman Campion Mutarisi, from Hwedza in the east of the country, used to produce 6,000 Japanese quail weekly – 4,500 chicks and 1,500 as breeding stock. Now he has only 800.
“There is no quail on the market now but this is an industry that was generating jobs and incomes for thousands of youths, the elderly and women,” he says. “You can imagine what the economic status of those people is now after the ban in this difficult economic environment.”
Farmers fed their birds on conventional broiler chicken or layer feeds depending on whether they kept them for meat or eggs. As the number of breeders and demand grew, stock feed manufacturers saw an opportunity to augment their businesses by supplying feed tailor-made for quail.
Agricentre, a farm-inputs supplier in Bulawayo, was a distributor. “We have no quail feed in stock now. We expect new stock in the next five days but it has been slow for a year or so,” said a sales person speaking anonymously.
Recently a local university, Chinhoyi University of Technology, released research findings that confirm long-held beliefs about the health benefits of eating quail. According to the study, among other perks quail eggs can help people deal with skin diseases, digestive disorders and hypertension.
Mutarisi says the findings are a validation of what many have been convinced of for a while – that eating quail offers many advantages. “This is a basis for a relaunch of the business,” he says.
“There is nothing new really about the findings, but… the Chinhoyi University of Technology show that what we used to say about quail before the ban was effected was no gimmick. As a trust we are planning to return big time. We will do so through the Georgia Giant Bobwhites. Physically it is larger than the Japanese type although it takes longer to reach maturity. We have a parent stock of 350 and by 1 August we will start releasing 2,000 chicks into the market weekly. This is a new breed which must take us where we were before the April 2016 episode.”