HARARE – Zimbabwe has been hit by a serious shortage of day-old chicks and, in some cases, table eggs, which could worsen in the coming weeks in the event that the root cause is not addressed.
The deficit is due to the outbreak of the avian influenza virus, also known as H5N8, which has affected the country’s largest producer of poultry — Irvine’s Zimbabwe.
As of 2015, Irvine’s commanded a poultry market share in excess of 50 percent.
This figure could have gone up in view of substantial investments made by the company in the intervening period.
About 60 percent of Irvine’s day-old chicks are supplied to indigenous contract farmers who grow the broilers on behalf of the company and bring them to its processing plant for slaughter.
Irvine’s is an integrated poultry operation and supplier of Cobb and H&N breeding stock, hatching eggs, broiler and layer day-old chicks.
It also produces high quality table eggs and frozen chicken for both Zimbabwe and countries in the region.
A survey by the Daily News revealed that most retail shops in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare have run out of day-old chicks and stocks of table eggs are fast depleting.
A number of day-old chicks merchants surveyed have not received supplies from Irvine’s since the outbreak was reported. As a result, the queues that normally form outside their premises have disappeared.
“We have since resorted to buying from Chegutu where there is a farm but of course it cannot meet the demand, so the supply is very erratic,” said an employee at one of the merchants.
The biggest supplier of day-old chicks in Bulawayo, Higrow Poultry Place, has been overwhelmed by demand and supplies have since run out.
“We do bookings on Wednesday but at the moment we don’t have anything, the demand is too high than we can supply. So you book on Wednesday, you will get your order on August 22,” said an employee at Higrow.
In some supermarkets, including retail heavyweights — TM, Choppies and OK — eggs and chicken meat were still available on their shelves, including those from Irvine’s.
The Manicaland Poultry Producers Association confirmed the shortages saying it would be difficult to bridge the deficit because most potential source markets have equally been affected by the outbreak, while the existence of trade barriers militates against imports.
Enock Mbendani, chairperson of the Manicaland Poultry Producers Association, said egg and day-old chick imports from Europe attract a 40 percent duty, which would have the effect of raising the retail price for a chick to $1,20.
At the same time, Zimbabwe cannot import chickens from neighbouring South Africa because Pretoria banned their exportation due to the outbreak of the disease.
“The global outbreak of avian influenza has hit us hard and there is a shortage of chicks, which should stretch for a further five to six months,” said Mbendani.
“The 40 percent duty on eggs also means we cannot import them from Europe at the moment to replenish our stocks as it would mean one day-old-chicks will retail at an untenable $1,20 per chick.
“It is really scary because the outbreak hit even big players like Irvine’s, so prices of chicks are going up because of this.
“Because South Africa has also been hit, inter-trade of poultry between us has been affected until this is cleared. So our hope lies with egg imports from Europe. Zimbabwe Poultry Association is going to write to the minister to temporarily forgo duty on eggs to protect the consumer, especially as we battle this liquidity crisis,” Mbendani said.
While officials at the company were reluctant to give this paper details about how the virus has affected their production, reports indicate that Irvine’s is already seeking permits to import eggs to avert the crisis.
Even if the company is to secure the import permit, it will still need to join the queue at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) to be allocated the foreign currency to pay for the imports.
The RBZ has since last year been grappling to pay for the country’s imported raw materials, semi-finished products and finished goods due to the prevailing illiquid market conditions.
To manage the situation, the apex bank is prioritising critical imports in the allocation of foreign currency while putting non-critical imports at the back of the queue in order to save the little available resources.
This development comes as egg production has already been declining steadily as small-scale farmers are divesting from the poultry industry.
As a result, the total egg production in the first quarter of this year is estimated to have declined to 3,6 million dozens from 4,7 million dozens in the same period last year.
In terms of chicks, last year 5,9 million chicks were produced and this year the figure went down to 5,7 million.
This translates into a decline of 200 000.
According to the Poultry Association of Zimbabwe, the decline was a result of the disinvestment by small-scale producers.
Should the avian flu outbreak persist, it is likely to have a devastating snowball effect on the industry.
Industry experts warned the decline in chicken and egg production could force the stock-feed industry to scale down, putting scores of jobs on the line.
Stock-feed manufactures warned recently that the situation was not looking good.
With eggs and chicken having overtaken beef as the main protein source among long-suffering Zimbabweans owing to their competitive pricing, panicking authorities are escalating efforts to contain the outbreak.
Fears are the disease could become difficult to control if it is allowed to spread to small-scale chicken producers, who do not have sufficient resources and expertise to deal with it.
Last week, the Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services said it was working around the clock to contain the highly pathogenic virus.
“Every effort is being made to prevent infection from escaping the establishment (Irvine’s). The disease had initially been detected and confirmed on May 24, 2017 and the situation had stabilised following complete depopulation of affected poultry sites by June 1, 2017. The farm had been in quarantine under veterinary supervision since then and will now remain in quarantine for three months or until the disease is completely resolved,” the department said.
“The department is maintaining heightened countrywide clinical and serological surveillance in all commercial poultry production farms, live poultry markets and areas close to big water bodies. All poultry farmers and the general public are requested to report any incidences of high mortalities of domestic or wild birds to their nearest veterinary offices.”