On the evening of 7 August 2018, a KLM charter flight left Amsterdam, landing 11 hours later at Kilimanjaro airport in northern Tanzania. Its young occupants were nodded through immigration and driven 50 miles to their new home, close to some of Africa’s most famous game parks.
These were no tourists hoping to see lions in the nearby Serengeti. The 2,320 little cockerels and 17,208 hens on the plane were a flock of European-bred pedigree Cobb 500 chickens, the world’s most popular breed. Their destination: a remote 200-hectare mega-farm under construction in the windy foothills of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro.
Here, where wildlife and nomadic tribes have always roamed, Tyson, the world’s second-largest food company, has set up with Irvine’s, Africa’s oldest industrial chicken producer. With the backing of a devout Christian businessman, Donnie Smith, the three partners aim to revolutionise food production in central Africa and “save” people from hunger by growing chickens on an American scale. The little chicks and hens are the expeditionary force of an army of Cobb 500s to follow.
Irvine’s $20m (£15m) parent stock laying eggs on the high plains below Mount Kilimanjaro is just the start. In a year’s time they expect to be sending 500,000 fertilised eggs a week to a sister hatchery on the Tanzanian coast, where millions of one-day-old chicks will be sold to local farmers. In a few years they could be rearing and exporting 40m or even 50m broilers a year to neighbouring Kenya, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries.
No one knows if they will flood the market and undermine local producers, or if they will improve food security in countries where millions of people regularly go hungry.
But they should make money. There is an insatiable appetite for chicken meat in African cities, and only a handful of industrial farms across the continent competing with imports from the US, Europe or Brazil.
Tyson sees central Africa as a promising new market. The corporate behemoth, which turns over $38bn (£30bn) a year, says it is “faith-friendly” and rooted in Christian values. It processes and sells about 11bn chickens a year worldwide, according to Bloomberg.
And for Donnie Smith (below left), the genial former chief executive of Tyson, from Tennessee, the Kilimanjaro plant is “God’s plan”.
Smith, who spent 35 years with Tyson, says he feels impelled by his faith to feed the world’s poor. He has already set up a small chicken charity in Rwanda that offers loans to small farmers to buy a few hundred birds. His mission now is to bring chickens to Africa on a grand scale.
“I am a Christian. I feel a call to use my poultry background and put that to work. Poultry is the most efficient converter of feed to meat; no religions are against eating poultry. If you want an impact on the poor, providing them with high-quality, affordable protein from chicken is the best way.
“Why Africa? The need is tremendous. I have travelled in sub-Saharan Africa and in the largest population centres you see fairly rapid progress, but [not] in rural areas. All my experience tells me that God wants me to work in Africa,” he says.
Nature’s Arnie Schwarzeneggers
The farm looks like aliens have landed. Planet Cobb sees giraffes on their way between national parks pass many low, 120 metre-long, 12 metre-wide, shiny white structures; Maasai pastoralists in woven red shuka blankets drive their cattle over land dotted with steel masts, tanks and towers. The snows of Kilimanjaro glisten above the clouds.
As happens all over Africa, many households in the few nearby villages keep chickens for eggs or to eat on occasional celebrations. But unlike the bright white Cobb 500s in their sealed sheds, these birds are scrawny, gaudy and all shapes and sizes. They look spectacular and taste strong.
In contrast, the Cobbs are nature’s Arnie Schwarzeneggers – all jutting chests, rippling thighs, big feet and bland flesh. These meat machines have been highly bred for 100 years to grow fast, bulk up their breasts and to eat only small quantities of cheap soya and maize.
Irvine’s $20m farm and hatchery in Dar es Salaam
Today, the Cobb 500 is an industrial marvel. A parent hen will lay on average 192 eggs in its short 15-month life, more than twice as many as any backyard bird; and a young Cobb 500 broiler can grow from a day-old chick to a 2kg bird ready for the pot in just 33 days.
The Cobb is now the chicken that ate the world, identically bred in 120 countries and the first choice of most of the world’s big poultry farmers and fast-food chains from McDonald’s to Wendy’s, KFC and Zaxby’s.
No one has counted, but there are probably far more Cobb 500s alive than there are humans. The UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) estimated in 2011 that there were 19bn chickens across the globe. Of those bred for their meat, nearly half are thought to be Cobbs. In the next few years chicken is expected to overtake pork and beef to become the world’s most popular meat. Cobb flesh by then could be in the diet of billions of people.
The multinational company Cobb-Vantress, which has developed the bird and is owned by Tyson, declined to speak to the Guardian. But, says Hal Herzog, a US author and anthro-zoologist: “Once its feathers are plucked, its feet and head chopped off, its gut scraped out and its blood drained, 73% of a Cobb 500’s carcass will be eviscerated yield.
“A broiler chicken’s bones cannot keep up with the explosive growth of its body.” He says that unnaturally large breasts may torque a chicken’s legs, causing lameness, ruptured tendons and twisted legs.
But the Cobb 500 is the likely future of food. With scientists urging people to eat less meat to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Cobb broilers are proving to have the best carbon footprint of all land-based animals. According to one calculation, kilo for kilo, a broiler emits five times less CO2 equivalent than lamb, and is environmentally better than cheese.
‘These birds live like kings and queens’
To get the best, soft white meat from a Cobb 500 you need more than genetics, says Enzo Faglioni, the young Brazilian vet who is Irvine’s breeder operation manager at the farm. “You must minutely control the birds’ environment. They must be as comfortable as possible at all times, and be treated like babies,” he says. “These birds live like kings and queens.”
He accepts that commercial poultry farms have made welfare mistakes in the past, but says the lessons have been learned. No antibiotics are used unless there is an outbreak of illness, and no hormones are pumped into their feed.
To go inside the sealed, dark, windowless Kilimanjaro chicken sheds you must shower twice, brush your teeth, wash your hair and wear special clothes. When the doors are opened, there are identical white chickens as far as the eye can see.
From top left: young Cobb chicks drink from a mechanical water dispenser; each room contains about 9,000 birds; herding chicks to keep them from crowding in groups; repairing the mechanical chicken feeder
There is a deep rumble of tens of thousands of clucks, interspersed with the crowing of many hundreds of cocks, and a whiff of ammonia. But random checks show no lameness, blisters or sores. The birds are not aggressive and look content. The mortality rate over their 15-month lifetime is said to be about 5%, far less than in the average European or American broiler house.
It is only when you get down on floor level that the large Cobb cocks attack. Feet out, wings flapping and beaks thrusting, they come at you hard. It hurts and all you can do is yell and run.
‘The need is great’
“This is how Africa can feed itself,” says Smith. The continent’s population is going to double to 2 billion people in the next 30 years and chicken is needed to provide the protein to avoid malnourishment and stunting, he says. “Chickens are good for the environment, too, because they need less land, less food and less water [than cattle and pigs] to produce the same amount of meat.
“We’re not there yet but we are making chicken more affordable. I don’t think that we will undermine other producers or traditional breeds. You will see two food systems running side by side.
“I believe that chicken will become the most affordable, complex protein on the African continent. We know what the future is going to look like and this is it. We want to access the future in Africa because the need is so great.”
Food security will be strengthened by improving the availability of broiler chicken products, confirms Anne Mottet, a livestock development officer for the FAO. But she emphasises the importance of small-scale operations. “Overall you want diversity of production sources. It’s more resilient than putting all your eggs in one basket. The more small-scale producers you have, the more resilient you are.”
Is sub-Saharan Africa ready for unchecked corporate concentration and the pollution and potential animal welfare problems that have plagued broiler-chicken production in Europe and the US?
Yes, says the Tanzanian government, which struggles to feed its fast-urbanising population and is a target for chicken imports from Europe and Brazil. Nearly a million people needed food aid in the country last year and Tanzania adds 1.6 million people a year. By 2035 its population will have grown by another 32 million.
“Definitely we are ready,” says Rose Sweya (left), a young Dar es Salaam chicken farmer who is eager to buy thousands of Donnie’s day-old Cobbs to fatten up. She says she welcomes competition and that the demand for chicken is insatiable.
“People desperately need protein and chicken is the best way to get it. The population is growing fast so the demand is rocketing. Eating chicken was rare when I grew up. It was seen as the food of high-class people. We had it for celebrations, and on special occasions like Christmas. For most people it is still quite rare,” she says.
With British aid, her company, Kingchick, is investing heavily in four poultry farms and a processing plant. She expects to employ another 20 or more women and could be selling 2,000 Cobbs a week within a year.
“There was always this mentality that frozen supermarket chicken was not good and that village chicken was best. But this is changing. ”
Locally grown chickens in a market in Arusha, Tanzania
Yet the arrival of the Cobbs is a mixed blessing for the villagers near the farm. It has provided well-paid work for some, but Maasai herders have complained that the farm’s high fences restrict their access to traditional pasture land. This, says Faglioni, has been resolved.
“Industrial-scale farming goes hand in hand with development,” he says. “We are changing the way that people eat and how they see the world. People here are proud that they are producing safe food for the country. They have money and can buy better food. We are offering a better way of life for both chickens and people.”