Kenya’s Encounter with Large-Scale “Production” Agriculture

Realities and Reactions
By Mia MacDonald

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur
Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur

It is a nearly universal truth, although not yet one widely acknowledged: U.S.-style industrial animal agriculture is spreading around the world in large, emerging economies like China and India and in smaller, less-developed countries, including Kenya and Paraguay. Western-style food cultures and diets (high in meat, dairy products, oil, sugar and processed foods) are also being globalized and, helped by intensive marketing, are gaining popularity among expanding middle classes. This then drives demand for steady, standardized supplies of animal-based foods, and the intensive production methods that dominate in industrialized countries.

Proponents of these developments like global agribusiness, governments of countries with vast and powerful agricultural lobbies, and agricultural scientists and researchers, often justify them with data points like these: by 2050, the human population will exceed nine billion and overall demand for food will rise by at least 60 percent from what it is today. This scenario assumes that an increasingly urbanized, middle class and wealthy global population consumes more food overall—and in particular will demand more meat, eggs, milk and processed dairy products.

The process is happening without much documentation or scrutiny, which means it’s relatively uninterrupted. That’s likely to change as the grim environmental and ethical consequences of factory farming, feedlots, and large-scale production of feed crops like soybeans and corn become better known. More researchers and advocates are demonstrating animal agriculture’s negative effects on natural resources, global warming, animal welfare and rights, food security, and equity and the distribution of power in food systems. But this work is more developed at global levels than it is in national or local contexts. There, it is just beginning to unfold.

Brighter Green, the public policy action tank I founded and run in New York City, is playing a part in this unfolding by documenting the facts of, and offering alternatives to, the growth of industrial-scale animal agriculture and rising consumption of meat and other animal products in countries of the global South. We are also seeking to forge links with the small but burgeoning civil society movement that’s challenging the “inevitability” of Western modes of food production and consumption being embedded around the world—ecological limits and ethics be damned.

That’s one of the reasons why I was in Kenya, to learn more by going inside factory farms that produce eggs and chicken “meat” on an industrial scale, including the country’s first battery cage facility for egg-laying hens. One morning, I set out with two colleagues from a Kenyan non-governmental organization (NGO)—a young veterinarian and a program and resource mobilization officer—plus a government vet sympathetic to farmed animal welfare whose remit has included inspecting slaughterhouses. We expected a day-long series of visits. The four of us wanted to see the conditions for the birds and understand more about how the people who run these operations perceive their role in the agricultural economy and if they have any concerns about what they’re doing, or how they’re doing it.

We’d agreed, however, that to gain access we’d need to be seen as merely interested in the large-scale model’s role in meeting food demands in Kenya, and that once in, we’d all set aside, publicly, the qualms we had about industrial animal agriculture.

Peri-Urban Operations
We set out from Nairobi, Kenya’s sprawling capital city. In Kenya, as in most other countries, larger-scale animal agriculture facilities are usually found in peri-urban or urban areas. Generally, they are not clearly identifiable from the roadside and are almost always protected by locked gates and security guards.

Our group’s first stop was the “broiler” farm and hatchery run by Kenchic, one of Kenya’s largest poultry producers, in Athi River. (Birds bred for meat are known within the industry as “broiler chickens.”) We’d arrived here, not far from the southern extension of Nairobi. The traffic, often terrible, wasn’t too bad. We’d made good time on decent roads after a vehicle change. The first van we’d gotten into had broken down.

When we arrived at the locked gates of the facility, set in a dry landscape of small trees and brownish-green vegetation low to the ground, the uniformed security guard regarded us skeptically. After he’d emerged, the veterinarian we were traveling with proffered his business card. “Could we come inside?” he asked, noting our interest—and mine in particular—in food security and Kenya’s production systems (the “cover story” we’d decided made the most sense; we’d agreed not to mention animal welfare directly).

No, came the reply. The manager would have to approve it, the security guard explained, and he was at a regional meeting. If we left a mobile phone number, the guard said, it was possible the manager would call when he returned and arrange a visit. The vet did as suggested. But we all were skeptical about our chances of seeing more than what we could observe from the road: a series of long, low sheds set in the scrubby grounds, rising slightly from the flat surface of the land into the low hills behind it.

We continued further south, through Kitengela, a fast-growing town that in the 1980s was demarcated as a “group ranch” for Maasai pastoral herders. This was a World Bank-supported scheme to get the Maasai to settle down, secure land rights, and become more like U.S. cattle ranchers. It didn’t quite work out. The Maasai resisted the fixed ranching model, preferring to travel to pasture in seasonal migrations. Many didn’t want to join the cash economy fully, preferring to rely on cattle as their assets instead of a right to private property (property rights had become a central tenet of development policy by then, pushed by big actors like the World Bank). Further sub-division of the land took place, leading to helter-skelter development patterns and many now landless Maasai are seeking work as security guards in Nairobi. Today, much of the area surrounding Kitengela town is being dug up for housing and office buildings. The vet shook his head at the rapid pace of change and cement where wheat could be grown or cattle grazed. Of the land’s agricultural potential foregone, he observed ruefully: “We’ve finished that.”

In Kenya, land is under considerable pressure. Many wealthy families own huge tracts, but most of Kenya’s farmers have small plots, and soil erosion and lack of water are recurring problems. Climate change is also making drought more common and seasonal rainfall less predictable. This has the potential to upend Kenya’s agricultural economy and the livelihoods of millions of people. Nearly half of Kenyans live below the poverty line, and food insecurity is a fact of daily life for many.

A Population of 65,000, and Not Alone
We continued a few miles further south to the town of Isinya, where a company named Sigma had built Kenya’s first large-scale battery cage operation. We crossed our fingers that we’d get inside, past the locked gate and the uniformed guard. Sigma and its partner, Isinya Feeds, are challenging Kenchic’s dominance in Kenya.

While Sigma’s 65,000-hen operation is new, large-scale production animal agriculture has been in Kenya for decades. Kenchic began in 1974 through an investment by British American Tobacco. Kenchic’s chicken, massed produced in its large-scale, industrial poultry sheds, is sold to hotels, airline caterers, fast-food outlets and through the company’s own quick-serve Kenchic Inns, a common site in Nairobi.

Kenchic supplies KFC, which opened its first outpost in East Africa in Nairobi in 2012. Since then, Subway, Domino’s Pizza, and Cold Stone Creamery have set up shop in Nairobi. This is a direct consequence, according to Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper, of gross domestic product (GDP) data that “moved Kenya to the club of middle income nations” with a rising population of Kenyans who have disposable income.

Kenya’s farmed animal population has been rising. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, the number of goats and sheep both more than doubled, and the number of cows rose by 7 million. In 2013, Kenya had 20 millions cows, 30 million goats, 32 million chickens, nearly 400,000 pigs and 18.5 million sheep, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Like many countries in the global South, Kenya’s government and its large agricultural producers have sought to increase their presence in the international trade in meat, looking for new customers in both Europe and the Gulf region.

Farmer’s Choice, launched in 1980, is the biggest pork producer in Kenya. Its largest facility has between 25,000 and 30,000 pigs in factory-style confinement, and it also operates slaughter and processing plants (it also processes and sells beef). In September 2014, I saw a prominent advertisement from Farmer’s Choice on page five of one of Kenya’s largest daily newspapers seeking more pigs. It proclaimed that a “generous bonus will be paid for healthy baconers delivered to our Slaughter House [capitals original to the ad], with immediate effect.”

Kenya’s dairy industry is the biggest in east and southern Africa. Industrial-style dairy operations, in which large herds of dairy cows are confined in stalls or sheds, similar to those in the United States and Europe, are increasingly common. About 40 percent of Kenya’s milk market is controlled by Brookside Dairy Ltd., founded by the family of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s current president. In 2014 the French dairy giant Danone purchased 40 percent of Brookside. “This is a very important step in our African development,” Emmanuel Marchant of Danone told the Wall Street Journal.

Most of what’s produced by large agribusinesses is sold under the brand name, i.e., Farmer’s Choice sausages or Brookside milk, in supermarkets or grocery shops in Kenya’s cities, often at a premium price. The cost signals to consumers the modernity and efficiency of the sourcing, sanitation systems and processing, i.e., higher quality. Both Kenchic and Sigma trumpet the fact that their production and processing equipment is imported, i.e., better.

A Look Behind the “Ideal” Egg
Not surprisingly, no agribusiness I know of in Kenya uses the terms “factory farming” or “industrial animal agriculture” to describe their business model; I suppose nowhere are these terms market-friendly, despite their explanatory power.

Sigma has altered the prevailing naming pattern for its products. Sigma eggs are sold under the brand name “Ideal” (think of that explanatory power) with the six-egg package carrying the tagline “Have you had an egg today?” Its website tells Sigma customers that its eggs are “produced from our own farms with highest standards and biosecurity measures. Eggs are carefully graded and packed by our imported automated machine. EVERY Ideal EGG is printed with Best before date. Hence, you are assured of its Freshness!—Always!”

We were about to see the backend of the “Ideal” egg operation. We’d arrived at Sigma’s gates. Here, the guard let our car through, although also with some hesitation. Another member of staff ushered us into a large building and called the sales manager. He arrived, and after a brief explanation of our interest in his modern production methods and Kenya’s food supply, he agreed to talk and led us to his minimally furnished office.

From here we could hear, faintly, the vocalizations of the thousands of layer hens in cages we’d seen outside: 65,000 of them in two long sheds that looked newly built, five to eight in each cage, the manager told us. Stacked three and four levels high, the cages appear to be the same small size of battery cage systems used in the U.S. It is my first time at a factory farm, and it’s a bleak site; there are so many birds, a mass of tawny brown punctuated by red heads, that it’s hard to distinguish individuals.

Unlike U.S. poultry operations, one of the sheds didn’t have solid exterior walls. Instead it had screen-like mesh on the sides, starting about a quarter of the way up. Tarpaulins were installed that could be raised or lowered, to cover the wire siding if the weather is too hot or the rain is too intense. They were up when we visited, which meant the birds had fresh air and sunlight. But of course with so many birds in cages, they couldn’t walk toward, or away from, sun or rain or wind.

In the other shed—perpendicular to the one we’d first seen and perhaps a slightly newer construction—wire mesh was visible on the sides, but covering less of the walls than in the other shed, the tarpaulin was only partially open. Those birds were more enclosed, indoors; we later saw electric lights inside, and fans providing ventilation.

As we talked with the manager, I tried to play my role: nodding as he explained the mechanics of the business and its prospects for growth. He was surprisingly open with information: well versed in the poultry business, optimistic, proud. He’s young and slender and told us that he was recruited from India to build Sigma’s business in Kenya, along with that of its partner operation, Isinya Feeds. In India he worked for many years at Suguna, a large poultry processor, and also Reliance, a conglomerate with a retail arm that’s like the Indian version of Walmart. “It’s all run by giants now,” he said about the Indian poultry sector.

In Kenya, there’s lots of potential for expansion, he told us. The climate is good: usually not too hot or too cold, so there’s no need for heating and cooling systems for the sheds (electricity is expensive in Kenya, he adds). He wasn’t worried about getting enough grain for Isinya to process into feed—he could get it from other East African countries if Kenya couldn’t produce enough—and doesn’t have concerns about how climate change may affect grain harvests.

We asked for an overview of the operation and, matter of factly, he obliged. It’s not a new global story, even if a large-scale battery cage facility is new to Kenya. The Sigma hens are “Lohmann brown classic,” an international, high-productivity breed. They lay brown eggs, more popular in the Kenyan market than white ones, although they sell for higher prices. Sigma sells about half the eggs it produces in supermarkets, including the big chains, Uchumi and Nakumatt.

Sigma also raises and sells “meat” chickens and has about 100,000 birds in production. All are the “Cobb 500” breed. On its website, Sigma says these are “the world’s most efficient broiler” with “the lowest feed conversion” and “best growth rate.” Its processing plant, not far from where we sit in the manager’s office, slaughters 15,000 birds in the course of each eight-hour shift, rivaling Kenchic’s line speed. Sigma is an integrator. It also sells day-old chicks from its hatchery, egg-laying hens, and the “Cobb 500” birds to people who want to set up poultry operations.

What about market potential? He lamented that unlike in other countries, in Kenya the costs of buying chicken, beef or goat meat are similar, so chicken doesn’t have an advantage as a more affordable meat. But the manager was hopeful. With more industrial capacity like Sigma has, the price of chicken may fall and consumption rise. “Kenya may be in the transforming stage,” he said. Kenya doesn’t have a “cold chain” that would allow refrigerated transport of birds from facilities to consumer markets, he adds. But Sigma itself is planning to build six to seven urban “hubs,” cold rooms where chicken could be stored and then sold.

He explained his view of the efficiencies of a large operation. With 300 to 500 birds, a producer would need one to two full-time workers, which, the manager says, can be very expensive. With more birds in cages, eggs can be collected easily and not much labor is required, boosting profitability. He told us about a woman in central Kenya who has 50,000 “broiler” chickens and good biosecurity measures. We didn’t challenge him, but it’s a fact that contractors in the U.S. who produce birds or eggs for the poultry giants often operate very close to the margin; large operations don’t suppress outbreaks of avian flu, as recent experience in the U.S. and China shows. They may even fuel the flu. Birds raised in crowded conditions and bred for fast growth, not good health, succumb quickly.

A Few More Questions
The manager was ready to wrap up our session, but agreed to give us a quick tour outside, where the birds were. No pictures, he said, and we complied, reluctantly. When will anyone get inside here again, I wondered? “Look how clean the egg is,” he urged us, as we stood in the doorway of the larger shed, thousands of birds to our right and left. I looked at them, but not enough to arouse suspicion that I was sympathizing. The only worker we saw was taking eggs off the conveyor belt that runs in front of those layered cages and putting them into the cartons in which they’d be sold.

I had a few more questions. Are the hens’ beaks cut? Yes, the manager said, right after they are “sexed” (determined to be male or female, a process that he says is very straightforward), which is just after they hatch. He pointed out the shape and length of the birds’ beaks as they drank from the water nipples inside the cages.

What about the male chickens? If they can’t be sold as “broilers,” they’re smothered, the manager said matter-of-factly, simply relating the ugly truth about a standard industry practice. We saw the birds through the mesh as they stretched their necks to reach the feed. Their feet rested uneasily on the wire cage flooring. The stench wasn’t too bad; the open-sided shed obviously diffused the odors of the birds’ manure.

I asked if the droppings, which create a thick coat on the dirt floor under the cages, can be used on crops. Not directly, the manager replied. It contained too many nitrates. It has to be mixed with “green matter” and then sit before it can be used on soil. As we prepared to go, the sky, which had been hazy, cleared. The manager was also leaving, heading to the Isinya feed mill. The gates were locked behind us. The birds, not easy to distinguish as individuals up close, receded in the distance. From the road, they were invisible.

What’s Inevitable?
The visit to Sigma and other conversations I’ve had in Nairobi, including with people active in the food industry, all indicate that Kenya is moving toward a more industrialized livestock sector. At the same time, in the U.S. and Europe, and within international research agencies, there’s an emerging consensus that this “model” hasn’t solved persistent challenges of hunger and food insecurity and may even undermine the capacity to do so. In 2012, the global Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change concluded that: “Globally our food system is not sustainable, does not provide adequate nutrition to everyone on the planet and, at the same time, changes to our climate threaten the future of farming as we know it.”

Of course it’s also had huge, incalculable costs for animals, domestic and wild.

Intensive production of animals also relies on a troubling inefficiency that reinforces inequity: one recent UN study estimates that the calories foregone when cereal crops are fed to animals could feed as many as 3.5 billion more people.

Can the forward march of the industrial model and rising animal product consumption in Kenya (and elsewhere) be interrupted? Yes, but it’s going to take a lot of work to demystify the perceived “win-win” of industrial animal agriculture, as the Sigma manager portrayed it. At a national level, Kenya’s government could adopt policies or put incentives in place that support long-term food security and sustainable, equitable, “climate-smart” (truly) agricultural systems. It can end incentives (official or unofficial) that encourage both industrialization of the livestock economy and an increase in animals used in food production.

Government agencies, NGOs, communities, and individuals can come together to promote resilience, sustainability and equity in national and local agriculture and food systems. They can join with medical associations and educational institutions to promote healthier, more sustainable diets that benefit people and the natural world. And researchers and advocates can expose the realities of factory farming.

Mia MacDonald is the executive director of Brighter Green (, a public policy action tank in New York that works on issues at the intersection of environment, animals, and global sustainability. She also chairs the board of the Green Belt Movement International-U.S.