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Empowering women and increasing chicken production in Ethiopia

GCRF Innovation Award project title:
Going Places: Empowering Women, Enhancing Heritage and Increasing Chicken Production in Ethiopia
PI: Naomi Sykes

Chickens are the most widespread livestock animals on the planet. Because of their importance to humans, studying the way that we relate to them in different contexts can reveal a lot about society and culture.

This project builds upon one of AHRC’s Large Grants funded under the ‘Science and Culture Theme’ called Cultural and Scientific perceptions of human-chicken interactions.

For this particular project, Dr Sykes focused specifically on Ethiopia, where chicken husbandry is a relatively low status form of farming usually considered women's work; while men farm with cattle and goats.

Dr Sykes is interested in how Ethiopian women related to chickens and the role of both women and chickens in Ethiopian society. 

"There's an Ethiopian saying: ‘Women and chickens rise early in the morning but they have nowhere to go,'” she says.

“We latched onto that saying because it seemed to encapsulate the role of women in these societies: lots of social and economic immobility; women rarely venture far beyond the home.”

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) had already identified that women could be an important focus for lifting Ethiopia out of poverty because of the way that they use the money that they earn.

Research had shown that when Ethiopian men earn money from livestock, it tends not to be used for social improvement. But if women are given the opportunity to earn money from tending chickens, it was usually invested back into the community. 

Because of this, the ILRI is working to create a breed chicken that will produce a lot of eggs - that can be sold at a profit by women. But for this to be successful it’s vitally important that the birds are also acceptable culturally.

"The shape and colour of chickens is very important in Ethiopia," says Sykes. "They're used in rituals and rites but seldom eaten."

In response to this sensitivity, Dr Sykes’research seeks to help the IRLI  - project partner - to better understand the cultural context of chicken farming by bringing together archaeological, historical and anthropological research to explore who has run chicken production in Ethiopia and to ensure that, if the industry does become more commercially successful, it stays in the hands of women. 

"Women are always associated with the household production of things," says Sykes. “Skills like weaving or making dairy products have always been female tasks, until such time as they become economically productive. As soon as that happens, the power shifts into the hand of men, and women tend to become marginalised. We want to make sure that doesn't happen with chicken farming in Ethiopia."

To fully understand the context, the project is exploring wider issues around chickens, including a deep-time study that looks back to around 800BC and the earliest known chickens in Africa. 

This anthropological aspect will include studies of cultural and archaeological material, as well as the science of chicken genetics and diet, to ensure that any new breed will be the most resilient - as well as culturally acceptable.

Intended outcomes and impact

  • Economic growth and productivity through chicken production in Ethiopia; empowering women and addressing gender inequalities in Ethiopia; and raising the profile of the role of women within economic and social activities.
  • It will also raise the profile of the significant role that women and chickens play in Ethiopian culture, with a strong focus on activities in museums. 
  • "If you visit most museums, there are lots of nice pots and stories about men, but fewer stories about woman and animals," says Sykes.  "We're bringing both those things to the National Museum of Ethiopia (NME), and also launching education resources at the International Livestock Institute and that will connect with the NME." 
  • Exhibits will include specially-commissioned women’s artwork, and work that specifically demonstrates the centrality of both women and chickens to Ethiopian culture.