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Searching for the next Frank Perdue

Afghanistan, November 15, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Farzana Abdul Jabar collects eggs in the village of Share Wahadad, Afghanistan. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fresh eggs from Farzana's chickens. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Farzana and her son, five-year-old Ahmad. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

At the end of a winding, treacherous mountain road in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province lives a woman with a new-found love for chickens. Farzana, a 26-year-old mother of three, keeps nearly three dozen hens and a handful of roosters in a sturdy coop in back of her house. She’s had these chickens for seven months, and uses them to produce eggs to sell to her village neighbors.

Farzana wasn’t always a chicken entrepreneur. She used to make a modest living as a mathematics teacher. In the past few years, her family’s financial situation has become desperate. Her shopkeeper husband lost his job and hasn’t been able to find work. At the same time, her five-year-old son has been suffering from a reoccurring illness that requires expensive trips to Pakistan for medical care.

Farzana needed to earn more. That’s when she became part of Mercy Corps’ IDEA-NEW, a USAID-funded program that helps impoverished Afghans diversify and increase their incomes, and expand their skills and knowledge about agriculture. Many Afghans, like Farzana’s family, are rural villagers who farm and run small businesses to make ends meet. Most farmers here use outdated techniques to grow low-value crops, producing enough to feed their families and sell a little surplus at the local market.

What most Afghan farmers don’t realize is that they can earn a lot more selling apples, pears, timber or eggs than wheat. They can also enjoy significantly greater success if they get the right seeds, feed, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs. Learning techniques like intercropping, soil enhancement, and hygiene and nutrition for livestock provides another critical boost, as does having access to proper irrigation systems and roads to connect with markets.

IDEA-NEW provides a package of resources — as well as business incentives — that gives entrepreneurial, rural Afghans a much-needed boost. We’re implementing this program in four provinces of Afghanistan, helping tens of thousands of people.

It was obvious to village leaders that Farzana’s family had a pressing need, so they suggested she become one of 15 new chicken keepers in her village. She also had an interest in the business. She had tried a similar endeavor before but her small, weak chickens didn’t get the right kind of feed, and they all died after three months.

Now with a new batch of chickens and the right care, Farzana’s selling almost 20 eggs a day. Her income has increased by more than 50 percent, enabling her to buy basics like bread, sugar and tea, and helping to finance her family’s medical care.

Commitment will be critical to Farzana’s continued success. Mercy Corps provided the first tranche of chickens, along with financial support to purchase feed, an initial round of vaccines, and intensive training on proper feed, disease control and hygiene. But Farzana made the substantial investment in building the chicken coop, which cost $220.

If she continues doing well, she’ll receive a second batch of hens in the spring, but all Mercy Corps support ends after the first year. Then entrepreneurs like Farzana are on their own.

Farzana’s got plans for her chicken empire, including lots of chicks and a second coop; she hopes to increase her flock to 200 by this time next year. To a girl from the suburbs like me, raising dozens or even hundreds of chickens seems like a tough job but Farzana clearly enjoys it. “It’s easy work,” she told me with a smile.