On June 8, Bill Gates announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would donate 100,000 chickens to help extremely poor households in sub-Saharan Africa. Describing the initiative, Gates stated: “It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens.”
According to my research on the Great Famine of Ireland, there is indeed a strong historical case for investing in the humble chicken. The Great Famine of Ireland was the last major famine in Western European history. Claiming more than one million lives – one eighth of Ireland’s pre-famine population – the catastrophe ranks as one of the worst instances of mass starvation in modern history. Including the more than one million who emigrated between 1845 and 1851, the island’s total population is estimated to have fallen by between 20-25% and has yet to return to its pre-famine level. My research reveals, however, that chickens were often a key factor in survival.
In work forthcoming from the Journal of Development Economics and Palgrave Macmillan, I find that small- to medium-scale farmers in Irish districts worst affected by the arrival of blight relied on the chicken as a short-run buffer against failure of the potato crop. They were rarely directly consumed by marginal farmers themselves, but rather were sold on to national and international export markets, with the income obtained used to purchase cheaper (often imported) food substitutes, meaning farmers were prepared for adverse production shocks. Even more than swine, another traditional buffer against harvest failure in Ireland, chickens were crucial as they required only a small initial investment, minimal acreage, were omnivorous and constituted a highly liquid asset class yielding a small but reliable income stream through the sale of eggs or poultry.
Specifically, I find that in the year following “Black 47” – the worst year of the famine – districts experiencing severe blight infection had increased poultry stocks by two more chickens per farm than districts experiencing only moderate infection. By the end of the famine, in 1852, the average farm in severely impacted districts increased poultry stocks by almost five birds, with the estimated differential concentrated exclusively among small- to medium-sized Irish farms of fewer than 15 acres. Only as Irish agriculture gradually adapted to the arrival of blight through crop diversification and transition to pasture farming did relative accumulations of buffer poultry stocks begin to dissipate.
Loans and chickens
I further find that where small-scale Irish farmers had access to microfinance credit from the Irish Loan Fund System, the observed short-run accumulation of buffer poultry stocks in the worst affected districts was even more pronounced. One year on from “Black 47,” severely infected districts with a Loan Fund had increased their poultry stocks by almost four more chickens than severely infected districts without. By the end of the famine, the relative increase in per-farm poultry stocks was greater by nine chickens in severely impacted districts with a microfinance fund versus in those without.
To put these figures in historical context, the average Loan Fund loan was approximately £3.00. Chickens, meanwhile, in 1845 averaged 1s. 9d. (£0.06) each, and eggs 5s. 9d. (£0.26) per long hundred (120 eggs). Given that an adequately fed chicken will lay 150 or more eggs per year, an investment in one chicken could therefore conceivably yield an annual profit of 5s. 5d. (£0.25), meaning a smaller-than-average loan of just £1.00, buying half a dozen chickens and 9s. 6d. (£0.48) of feed, could yield enough saleable eggs in a year to purchase, after interest, 128 quarts of corn meal, sufficient to sustain a family of five for a month.
Thus, in addition to the reasons cited by Gates for promoting poultry ownership among very low-income African households, my research suggests we might also add the potential for poultry to constitute a relatively safe, highly liquid asset class, the yield on which can play a crucial role in tiding people over in the face of adverse production or income shocks.
*Tyler Beck Goodspeed  did an MPhil in Economic and Social History with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He is currently is a Junior Fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Oxford. Picture credit: Wikipedia.