By Justus Bahati Wanzala
NAIROBI, Kenya (AlertNet) – Small and furry are not the words that usually come to mind when one thinks of Kenyan livestock. But they describe exactly the animals that Charles Mwangi farms.
“I’m passionate about rabbits,” says Mwangi. “They are my main source of income. They have enabled me to feed my family, clothe them, meet their medical expenses and educations as well as invest.”
Mwangi is not Kenya’s only rabbit farmer. The business is growing rapidly in Kenya as increasingly extreme weather leaves farmers struggling to raise cattle and grow crops.
For generations, the mainstay of Kenya’s smallholder agricultural economy has been pastoralism and mixed farming. Farmers have kept cattle and grown crops, hedging against unpredictable shocks such as the failure of rains, which could affect crops, or diseases that might wreak havoc on their livestock.
But erratic patterns of rainfall and frequent droughts, linked by experts to climate change, have combined to create worsening disease and losses in both livestock and crops, reducing grain and milk production and prompting Kenya’s farmers to seek other ways to safeguard their livelihoods.
Today around 600,000 rabbits are being farmed in the country, according to Evans Makokha, assistant director of livestock production at the Ministry of Livestock Development.
The chairman of the Rabbit Breeders Association of Kenya (RABAK), Peter Waiganjo, says his organisation has a membership of 3,000 farmers who rear rabbits for their meat and skin. RABAK has plans to build a slaughterhouse in Thika, a town near Nairobi, which will employ 300 people and have the capacity to handle 1,000 rabbits a day.
Mwangi began farming rabbits in 2000. He also raises dairy goats and poultry, but he sees definite advantages to his 1,500 rabbits.
“They mature first and litter regularly,” he says. “Small livestock thrive well in all seasons, unlike cattle which are affected by drought due to unavailability of enough pasture.”
Mwangi never tried dairy cattle farming because of lack of space and difficulty obtaining pasture where he lives in Soweto, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi. But raising rabbits hasn’t been entirely easy either.
Social attitudes initially hindered the widespread adoption of the new type of livestock. Keeping rabbits has traditionally been a pastime for boys, and consuming rabbit meat was frowned upon in many communities.
Mwangi says that at first his neighbours looked down upon his rabbit farming, but they came to appreciate the economic and nutritional value of the animals.
“My venture is no longer treated as an intrusion on an activity reserved for boys,” he says, adding that the demand for rabbit meat, which according to him tastes like chicken, has increased countrywide.
“Rabbit meat is white, high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol. The fur is used to manufacture luxury garments and therapeutic clothing for people with arthritis and other joint diseases,” Mwangi explains.
Waiganjo, chairman of RABAK, says that that many shops now purchase the meat and farmers are finding it increasingly lucrative to rear the animals. A kilo of rabbit meat retails for 300 Kenyan shillings (about $3.50).
“Rabbits are prolific, their gestation period is only 30 days and they grow fast, such that they can be slaughtered when three months old,” Waiganjo notes. Compared to cattle they are also easier to handle, he said, and rarely get sick unless kept in unhygienic conditions.
According to the government livestock department’s Evans Makokha, climate change is not the only reason for the growing popularity of rabbit farming. The amount of land available for individuals to farm is declining, both as a result of degradation through drought and overgrazing, and because of the tendency of farmers to divide their land to bequeath to their sons.
These factors are pushing farmers to choose livestock enterprises such as rabbit production which have low demand on land and feed resources. Makokha notes that rabbits can be successfully fed on leftover vegetables or hay.
NO NEED FOR GRAIN
“They (also) feed on weeds obtained in farms, thus do not compete with humans for grain,” a particular benefit since grain production is falling as a result of climate change, Makokha says.
“For this reason and the fact that they are noiseless, rabbit keeping is particularly suited to peri-urban farmers who may choose to raise their rabbits without fear of being a nuisance to their neighbours,” Makokha says.
Rabbits are among the livestock species with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions and are also adaptive to the effects of climate change, he said.
Common breeds reared in Kenya include the New Zealand White, Californian White, Chinchilla, French Ear-lopped and Kenya White, as well as cross-breeds.
Mwangi favours the New Zealand white, which weighs up to 8 kg and produces more meat than smaller breeds. The productive period for does is four years, and a mature live doe can sell for 5,000 shillings ($60).
Despite the interest in rabbit farming, there are some obstacles that are stopping it from multiplying as fast as the rabbits themselves. For instance, Makokha says, production is dominated by small-scale producers and can lack structure.
Challenges aside, however, rabbit farming in Kenya has the potential to grow exponentially in the face of a changing climate, he said.
Mwangi now sells rabbits to others across the country interested in venturing into rabbit farming, and offers advice on how to look after them.
Justus Bahati Wanzala is a writer based in Nairobi.