RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — The high-pitched cheeping of a thousand newborn chicks fills the humid room. Technicians pluck them from incubation trays, inject them with a vaccine against Newcastle disease, discard those with deformities and pop the rest into plastic containers, where they will travel in heated trucks to government farms and be raised to adulthood.
This process, repeated twice a week at the poultry research center in Punjab province, is the first step in a national anti-poverty program announced Nov. 29 by Prime Minister Imran Khan. The premise is simple: Provide five hens and one rooster to several million poor families, especially rural women, so they can earn income at home by selling eggs.
But Pakistan is also facing dire macroeconomic and fiscal crises, with the rupee plummeting against the dollar and its foreign debt burden soaring out of control. Khan, who swore as a candidate that he would never go begging abroad, has already been forced to borrow billions from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere and to negotiate for debt relief from the International Monetary Fund.
With such weighty issues to tackle, the backyard poultry project, an idea Khan borrowed from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has been met with widespread derision. Headlines and pun-filled tweets have mocked the premier as throwing “chicken feed” at serious problems. One editorial cartoon showed a heavy wooden cart, labeled “the economy,” being pulled uphill by a struggling hen.
But at the Poultry Research Institute, which has spent years trying to develop the perfect backyard chicken, director Abdul Rehman firmly believes that the project can make a critical difference in the health and livelihood of millions of poor Pakistanis.
Poultry Research Institute staffers vaccinate chicks last week. (Sarah Caron for The Washington Post)
A newborn chick at the poultry research center. (Sarah Caron for The Washington Post)
“In Pakistan, 44 percent of children under age 5 have stunted growth due to nutritional deficiency,” Rehman said. “Our high infant mortality rate is associated with malnutrition in mothers. These eggs can add a healthy ingredient to their diets.”
The newborn death rate in Pakistan, about 40 per 1,000 births, is among the highest in the world, according to the World Bank.
The second goal is to provide extra household income for poor families who can sell the eggs. Livestock officials estimate that five hens, laying several eggs each per week, can bring in at least 10,000 rupees ($75) a month — more than the salary of a security guard or construction worker.
By crossing hardy, hand-raised domestic chickens — known as “desi,” or native, poultry — with breeds from Egypt and Australia and with Rhode Island reds, the center has developed birds with the necessary qualities for backyard life: tough, omnivorous, disease-resistant and agile.
“They can live in trees, in boxes or under people’s stairs,” Rehman said. “They can eat kitchen scraps instead of expensive feed, and they can outrun predators like cats and foxes.”
In contrast with the skeptics, many poor and working-class Pakistanis said they were excited to hear about the project and eager to sign up. Even more-affluent families said they appreciated Khan’s continued focus on the plight of the poor, which he vowed to prioritize during his campaign.
“People may laugh at the prime minister over this, but I laugh at them. It is a wonderful idea,” said Zahida Shad, a middle-class homemaker in Islamabad. She keeps a half-dozen chickens near the family’s garage, mostly to provide extra nutrition for her grandchildren. “Here in the city, people have money to spend, but they can’t find a single pure thing to eat,” she said.
Chicks that have just hatched at the center are sold to villagers. (Sarah Caron for The Washington Post)
Ahsan Jadoon, 10, feeds chickens on the rooftop of his uncle’s home in Rawalpindi. (Sarah Caron for The Washington Post)
Raising chickens is a common practice in this largely rural, agricultural country of 208 million. Even in crowded cities such as Rawalpindi, where narrow lanes are crammed with trucks, donkey carts and motorcycle rickshaws, many families build chicken coops on rooftops or under stairs.
And almost any Pakistani will tell you that desi eggs, produced by desi chickens, are better tasting and more fortifying than the factory-farm eggs that are now mass-produced in high-tech poultry facilities. Many have been built by wealthy industrialists who once invested in cement or textile production and have now cornered the egg market.
Sardar Ali Abbas, 55, who owns a crockery shop in Rawalpindi and keeps a few chickens on his roof, applied for the new program right away and is impatiently waiting for it to begin. He observed that factory-bred chickens are raised to lay more eggs and that while their eggs are larger and whiter than desi eggs, they lack their flavor and oomph.
“We want the same good food for our children that our parents and grandparents had for us,” Abbas said. “The problem is, desi eggs cost more and they are hard to find. The others are everywhere.”
Therein lie the greatest obstacles to the success of the chicken-in-every-plot scheme — economies of scale, which keep factory eggs cheap, and, reportedly widespread business practices, such as warehouse hoarding and price manipulation, that benefit large food processors and brokers at the expense of small farmers.
In a recent essay in the News International newspaper, Zaigham Khan, a Pakistani development professional, wrote that persistent poverty in rural Pakistan is “more about the fox” than the chicken. With the political and business elite conspiring to maximize profits, he argued, only a radical reordering of the playing field can truly give family farmers a boost.
“The problem is that the whole market, at every stage, works against the poor,” he said in an interview. “It is fine for families to be eating better eggs, but even the small producers who raise 500 birds can’t compete with the crony capitalists who sell 30,000.”
Abdullah, 14, carries a chicken he bought at an Islamabad market. (Sarah Caron for The Washington Post)
It is far from clear whether Khan’s anti-poverty crusade will take wing or whether selling a few eggs a week will bring in more than pocket change for struggling rural families. Many urban Pakistanis, though, are attracted to the project out of nostalgia for a traditional way of life.
Rajah and Ghazala Sohail live in an old, three-story rowhouse overlooking a noisy market in Rawalpindi. The gritty, sprawling city of 2 million is crammed with people like them, who migrated from rural areas in search of steady work and better education for their children.
The couple have lived here for decades and their children are college graduates, but they still miss the village they left behind. Rajah, a 42-year-old auto-parts seller, recently signed up for the chicken distribution and meanwhile bought a rooster and several hens. He built them a wire coop on the roof, with a heavy curtain to keep out the cold.
“I loved growing up with buffaloes and goats and chickens. This reminds me of my childhood,” said Ghazala, who feeds the chickens and keeps the roost clean. “Now we can eat better-quality eggs,” she said. “If we can join the program and sell a few extra, that’s a good thing, too.”