CHEDDIKULAM, SRI LANKA — Chickens skitter underfoot in Nagalingam
Narayanasingam’s garden as he picks medicinal herbs: keezhanelli (gale of the wind), kuppaimeni (Indian nettle), kovvai ilai (ivy gourd leaf) and neem leaves. He grinds them into a paste and mixes them with paddy husk to make a medicinal treatment for his animals.
“This traditional medicine protects the chickens to some extent from diseases such as colds,” he says. “But it’s difficult to procure a lot of these herbs. And the chickens must get accustomed to them from a young age, otherwise they will not eat it.”
Narayanasingam is among a growing number of rural Sri Lankans who are raising chickens in their backyards using traditional methods in response to the nation’s crippling economic crisis, which has more than doubled the price of store-bought eggs. Nearly 125,000 people raised chickens last year, 8.5% more than the pre-pandemic peak in 2017, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics. Backyard chickens range freely, eat kitchen scraps, and are treated with medicinal herbs, thereby reducing input costs. Most people in rural Sri Lanka raise them for eggs to eat and sell locally during the crisis, which has reduced access to nutritious food, experts say.
“Nutritionists consider the protein in eggs to be the highest quality protein,” says Selvarasa Mathurahan, a doctor based in the city of Vavuniya. “As the prices of meat, fish and legumes have increased significantly, eggs are even more important, as they are available at a lower cost than other sources of protein.”
Narayanasingam, 72, had lived in Vavuniya for 21 years before deciding in 2019 to start a poultry farm in his retirement. He moved to his hometown of Cheddikulam, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, and bought 60 egg-laying chickens.
Then a series of misfortunes hit the poultry industry. The coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. The next year, the government banned chemical fertilizers, sending the price of chicken feed soaring. And in early 2022, the economy nosedived due to debt and diminishing foreign reserves. Chicken feed, medicines and other farming supplies became scarce, and prices skyrocketed. Many small- and medium-scale egg farmers shut down, and larger farms cut production, says Kirubananthakumaran Sivapathasuntharalingam, a veterinarian at the government veterinary office in Cheddikulam. There were 28,061 egg farms with fewer than 1,000 chickens in 2022, down 28% from 2017, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. In some districts, up to 80% of poultry and egg farms have shut down, according to a 2022 United Nations World Food Programme report.
Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka
“The economic crisis has ruined the future of poultry farmers who were on their way to self-sufficiency,” Sivapathasuntharalingam says.
Narayanasingam was also affected. When 12 chickens fell ill last May from a hemorrhagic disease, Narayanasingam couldn’t find medicine locally. He frantically searched the stores in Vavuniya.
“It took me a whole day to buy medicines in the city, but my chickens died within that time,” he recalls. “I’ve reared the chickens since they were little, so it felt like a big loss for me.”
He has since weathered the troubles by switching to traditional methods of poultry rearing. He downsized his brood to 30 animals. He searched YouTube to learn about traditional herbs to protect his chickens from disease. He partly feeds them rice bran that he buys from a local mill for 3,500 Sri Lankan rupees (11 United States dollars) a month; they forage the rest in his garden. With this low-input farming, the chickens lay between 35 and 55 eggs a week — down from 60 to 80 eggs a week last year from a larger brood, Narayanasingam says. He earns about 10,000 rupees (32 dollars) a month.
“It is difficult to raise a large number of chickens using traditional methods,” he says. But he enjoys it. “I can do this work alone and it is a good way for me to spend my time.”
The poultry crisis has led to an egg shortage in Sri Lanka, with only 1.8 billion eggs produced in 2022, down 5% from the previous year. While the nation needs 7 million eggs daily, only 5.2 million are produced, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The supply crunch has more than doubled the price of eggs. At New Amman Traders in Cheddikulam, only 50 eggs are sold every week, down from 250 in 2021, says shopkeeper Anthonipillai Nagarasa. The price of an egg in April was 44 rupees (14 cents); two years ago, it was 19 rupees (6 cents). That means people are consuming fewer eggs, Anthonipillai says. “The average person only buys half as many eggs as they used to from my shop,” he says.
Thayalini Indrakularasa, GPJ Sri Lanka
The government is pushing families to raise their own chickens to solve the shortage. In 2022, the agriculture extension department, the Hadabima Authority, distributed 18,000 chicks to 1,800 families in need. The department plans to distribute 2,000 chicks every month to produce 480,000 eggs by the end of the year.
Sivapathasuntharalingam, the veterinarian, says that all families should raise at least 20 chickens in their backyards to produce eggs for their children. While this won’t solve the nation’s shortage, it will help individuals become self-sufficient, he says.
In the Vavuniya district, the Organization of People for Justice, a social justice nonprofit, has distributed up to 30 country chickens to 32 women-led households affected by Sri Lanka’s decadeslong civil war, which ended in 2009.
“The main objective of our livelihood assistance programs is food stabilization,” says Vadamalai Ravindrakumar, coordinator at the nonprofit. “Malnutrition among children and adolescents has increased due to the economic crisis.”
They can also sell excess eggs to their neighbors, generating a small income stream, Vadamalai says.
Poultry farmer Joanregan Arulamma relies on this income to supplement her husband’s wages and feed her four children. She began rearing chickens in her garden in 2019 and now has 15 animals. She feeds them kitchen scraps, buys occasional vitamin pills, and hatches her own chicks, keeping her input costs low.
Her family of six consumes 20 eggs a week and she sells the rest to her neighbors. As the price of eggs soars, she earns 5,000 rupees (16 dollars) a month from her farm.
One of her regular customers, Gnanachanthiran Sangeetha, 26, says Joanregan’s eggs are cheaper than those at the store. “Since all our incomes are lower, it has become difficult to buy eggs,” Gnanachanthiran says.
She buys 20 eggs every week. But watching Joanregan’s success and the skyrocketing egg prices, Gnanachanthiran thinks that she too will soon raise chickens.