Naba Guigma, from Burkina Faso’s Boulkiemdé province, southwest of the capital Ouagadougou, watched helplessly as his chickens and guinea fowl began to die off one by one. His very livelihood – like that of the millions of other poultry farmers across West Africa – faces ruin.
“At first we thought it was (the) Newcastle (virus), a routine poultry disease, and so we rushed to sell some of them,” Guigma told IRIN.
In less than two weeks, all 120 of his birds were dead.
That was in April. Come June, some 1.7 million birds in five countries had succumbed to what had by then been diagnosed as the highly contagious and deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu.
The strain hasn’t been seen in the region since 2008, but was confirmed in Nigeria in January and has since spread to Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
Guigma used to sell between 80 and 100 chickens a month, which together with egg sales earned him between $415 and $515.
“That was our main activity for revenue,” he told IRIN. “Now I have no more poultry. The henhouse is empty.”
The poultry sector has grown tremendously in West Africa over the last 10 years and is now a main source of income for many rural, small-scale farmers.
In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, the sector increased by more than 70 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The FAO and regional governments are still assessing the extent and impact of the outbreak but are clearly extremely concerned.
“I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth told IRIN. “I have sufficient information to be worried and insufficient information to be at ease.”
In Burkina Faso, farmers across nine of the country's 13 regions have been affected by avian flu since April.
Around 215,000 birds have died. With each selling for about $10, this amounts to more than $2 million in direct losses, with poultry farmers and local merchants bearing the brunt of them.
Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Animal Resources estimates that direct and indirect losses due to the virus could amount to more than six million dollars this year.
Loss and more loss
In an attempt to stop the outbreak, any bird – even healthy ones – within a three-kilometre radius of an infected animal, is now being confiscated and incinerated by government agents. The Ministry of Animal Resources says it has destroyed more than 16,000 birds and 166,000 eggs since April.
Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Trade says it has disbursed close to $100,000 in compensation. It initially offered around $2 per head of culled poultry, but has since doubled this to nearly $4 as an incentive to farmers to own up about their sick birds.
But the amount they are offering is still far less than what a farmer could sell a chicken for at market, depending on its size, colour and overall health.
To avoid such a loss, many farmers have begun hiding their sick birds, hoping to still sell them, according to local veterinarians tasked with killing the infected birds.
While the compensation programme has helped some farmers partially recoup their losses, Guigma, like many other early victims of the outbreak, will not receive anything from the government.
Only farmers who allowed their sick birds to be killed by government agents once the outbreak was declared will be paid. Nothing is paid for birds that died early on or that died before being formally identified as infected.
Pedi Nana, for example, received just $22 for the loss of his entire flock, around 45 guinea fowl and 50 chickens in total. By the time an agricultural agent arrived to take away the sick birds, all but six had already died.
“This year will be terrible for me,” he told IRIN. “During the lean period, I can sell a chicken for up to $15, but now I lost all my savings and it is a desperate situation.”
Over the past three months, poultry breeders in Burkina Faso have lost around 70 percent of their revenue, according to the chairman of the National Association of Local Poultry Businesses Moussa Koné.
The rural regions, which depend on poultry trade as a main source of income, have been the worst hit.
Several neighbouring countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Mali recently closed their borders to poultry imports from Burkina Faso.
According to the FAO, it is too early to predict what sort of impact the outbreak will have on food security, but the widespread loss of poultry is likely to have affected food supplies and market prices.
“One area of concern is that we know this virus, we know the damage it can do and we know how it can (affect) peoples livelihoods,” Lubroth said. “If, for example, there is no consumer confidence and people stay away from poultry, you will have market pressures. Prices will either go too high (because of limited supply) and so people can’t afford them, or too low and producers can’t make ends meet.”
Lubroth said the situation is particularly worrisome for farmers in the Sahel region, where recurrent drought has left them more vulnerable and less resilient to other shocks in recent years.
Beyond compensation, many farmers say the government also needs to implement a plan to restart the country’s poultry business once the outbreak is under control.
“It’s true that we are calling for better compensation,” Kone said. “But we must agree that compensation will not solve the problem. There must be a protocol including all actors – producers, sellers, and processers – with the government after the avian flu to boost poultry trade activity.”
Martin Kabore, who recently started a poultry farm in Koudougou, agreed.
“I received ($175) when the veterinarians killed my poultry as part of the preventive measures,” he said. “But this is nothing compared to our losses. Not only do we need money to restart business… there are now some species we won’t get again.”
The Burkina Faso government says it will need an estimated $8.2 million to fight the outbreak and compensate farmers, but that it has only raised about half that amount from local and international partners.