Fowl play: The curious case of the missing chicken wings

Feathers flying: The shortage of chicken wings has exposed a larger problem in the poultry sector
Feathers flying: The shortage of chicken wings has exposed a larger problem in the poultry sector

Since at least May, local customers of fast-food franchises have found themselves without chicken wings, a popular food item. While the issue appears insignificant, the shortage actually exposes deep capacity and policy issues within the local poultry sector as well as monopoly bottlenecks strangling small, citizen producers. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI explains

So your favourite fast-food treat, the spicy, hot chicken wing, has not been available for months? So what? After all, the other chicken pieces are still available at the country’s fast-food franchises.

But what if it was explained to you that the shortage of chicken wings is like seeing the tip of a giant iceberg that lies hidden beneath the water. Like a loose thread on your jersey, that once tugged on unravels the entire garment?

Players in the local poultry sector explain that the shortage of wings is a symptom of broader and deeper troubles mainly affecting small scale citizens and their efforts to boost production and manoeuvre past a legion of bottlenecks and challenges.

Between these citizen producers and the fast-food enterprises lies pressure from powerful South African producers, while in the local market, day-old chick and feed monopolies, as well as vertically integrated titan producers, stand tall. In addition, procurement policies at the fast-food franchises, all of them South African, do not necessarily provide elbow-room for the citizen poultry producers. Despite coming from different areas of concern and holding different views, stakeholders in the industry who spoke to Mmegi this week agree that the chicken wing shortage dates back to an April decision by government to ban poultry imports from South Africa. This was due to the outbreak of Avian flu in that country. Under the ban, all live poultry and fresh related products were banned and the only imports allowed were with the use of a permit and only from ‘registered and approved’ avian flu-free areas in that country.

The result was that imports from South Africa dried up, but the local market was unprepared and unable to plug the gap, even though the different players were eager to do so.

Banks Ndebele, owner of Dwililo Farms explains. “The local market’s supply is not enough,” he says.

“They bring something and within a short time, it’s gone.

“This really talks to the issue of poultry and self-sufficiency which government previously said we had attained, but it’s clear this has not happened.”

The reasons why the local market is unable to plug the demand for chicken wings is what transforms the shortage of a non-essential but tasty treat into a bigger debate about the dynamics in the local poultry sector. As relatively unimportant as the chicken wing appears, for instance when compared to the rest of the chicken cuts or the whole chicken, it has an especially tricky story when it comes to production.

Producers of chicken wings specialise in their production and because their contracts with the fast-food franchises are specifically for these wings, the producers have to secure other contracts for the rest of the bird. At a large-scale production level such as in South Africa, the economies of this can work. Farmers can rear birds specifically for chicken wings, but in the case of a shortage, even they cannot simply rear more chicken unless demand for the rest of the chicken also increases.

Locally, however, a supplier who secures a contract to supply a fast-food outlet with chicken wings also has to make a plan for the rest of the bird.

Chicken wings, also called winglets, are slightly smaller and the rest of the bird parts will find it difficult to secure another contract buyer in a market where most producers focus on making their birds as weighty as possible, even through injecting them with brine.

Fast-food outlets will enter into separate contracts: one for full bird supply which comes from those specialising in the weighty birds and a separate contract for the producer of wings.

Locally, producers capable of dedicating supply strictly for chicken wings are few and far between. Supplying the wings to the standard and quantity required by the franchises is proving a tough ask for the local market.

The situation is not unique to Botswana however. In August, Mexico’s National Union of Poultry Farmers announced not only a shortage of chicken wings but decried a 25% increase in their prices when compared to 2020. The shortage in that country was due to not only high demand, but a reduction of United States exports and the dynamics of chicken wing production.

“The demand for this product climbed so brutally, that there is no capacity on the planet to cover this situation,” Gustavo Barraza Miller, operations director at Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant chain in Mexico, told media in that country.

Back home, small scale producers are too focussed on their battle against bottlenecks in the market to even begin trying to access the opportunity availed by the shortage of chicken wings.

“There are players in this industry who are controlling the market, from feeds to chicks and keeping smaller producers dependent on credit,” says Botsalano Coyne, a self-taught Ruretse-based producer who has been in the industry for eight years.

“You fight for chicks, then fight for feeds and it’s difficult.

“Accessing refrigeration and abattoirs is also a challenge. If your product does find buyers, you have to rely on credit terms and they may not pay you on time.

“People are suffering in this business and are living on debts.”

Another small-scale farmer tells Mmegi there is a shortage of day-old chicks in the market and producers can wait for two months for delivery after making a booking. The market is dominated by a handful of large producers, some of whom are vertically integrated which means they control large scale production from hatching to supermarket supply.

This issue is particularly upsetting for Ndebele, who speaks about the existence of ‘cartels’ in the poultry sector.

“The shortage is something we have to look into as a country and also consider as a window of opportunity and maybe call for government support.

“But this support must be for Batswana, not the cartels.

“Megastores prefer getting supply from large, well-organised entities and the small producers end up with the informal market like selling to bo Mmaseipei.”

A possible solution, Ndebele says, would be for small-scale producers to form cooperatives that can boost their production volumes and share resources such as abattoirs, machines and others.

“There are, however, other bottlenecks like the requirement for halaal,” he says.

“However, there’s a silver lining in this shortage and we have to exploit it and see how it can benefit the small man.”

Dwililo Farms, meanwhile, is focussing on the production of indigenous poultry, known more commonly as Tswana chicken or roadrunners. This particular market, which enjoys healthy demand amongst Batswana, is still in the hands of citizens because it flies below the interest levels of the large scale producers. “We saw a niche around the indigenous chicken because the cartels have not yet gotten to this sector.

“Not long ago, we decided to mass-produce in this sector and we are still breeding and waiting for incubators from China.

“Our intention is a baseline for 1,500 to 2,000 birds which is the parent stock.

“We will also produce eggs and chicks.

“The demand here is very strong.”

The fast-food franchises, meanwhile, are reportedly reaching out to local small-scale farmers with support programmes to handhold them in boosting their production and capacity to supply the chicken wings. Supplier development programmes are reportedly underway between several fast-food chains and groups of small-scale farmers around the country.

In the short term, however, the shortage looks set to persist.

“Despite the number of local suppliers who produce chicken winglets to our required standard, demand is an issue,” Nando’s Botswana head of marketing, Maipelo Moatshe tells Mmegi.

“There are not enough wings being produced for nationwide restaurant supply.

“We are working together with suppliers and authorities alike, for the issuance of permits, in the absence of the avian flu.

“We are hopeful that the avian flu will be arrested and we can continue serving winglets.”

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, meanwhile, asked for written questions on the subject but had not given responses by the time of going to press.

Mmegi had wanted to know government’s position on franchises’ local procurement and what support was being given to local small-scale poultry producers.

Additionally, Mmegi wanted to know what, if anything, is being done about the bottlenecks small scale producers are facing in the market.

Editor's Comment
Everyone should be on high alert

Close to half a million people in the country have been fully vaccinated while over 800,000 have received their first doses. Botswana has tackled tough hurdles, but the race is far from over.Batswana are gearing up for the holidays and there will be a lot of movement across the country and outside the country. Social gatherings are back in full force and now more than ever, people should observe COVID-19 protocols.Our neighbouring country South...

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