By Florence Gichoya
Rabbit farming is growing steadily in Kenya. The practice is referred to as cuniculture. Initially rabbits were mainly kept as pets and few people considered them as a source of income. Farmers interested in rabbit business recognized a gap in the market in supplying rabbit meat. They mobilized each other and formed the Rabbit Breeders Association of Kenya (RABAK). Their goal was to empower communities with health and wealth. By 2005, the association had registered more than 3000 rabbit farmers from different parts of the country. The Kenya government supported the initiative and partnered with the association by offering an office, which is hosted at Thika District Commissioner’s office.
The Chairman of RABAK, Peter Waiganjo said that initially, farmers were motivated to rear rabbits for their meat. However, there were a lot of misconceptions in the society about rabbit meat. “Many people kept rabbits in their homes as pets and they were not willing to buy the idea of rabbit meat consumption,” he said. The Association chose to sensitize communities on the nutritional value of rabbit meat. Waiganjo explains that rabbit meat is a type of white meat and it is very nutritious. It has lower fat, cholesterol and calories than chicken, pork and beef. In its sensitization efforts, RABAK organized events and invited various stakeholders who would be key in changing society’s misconceptions about rabbit meat. These were government officials, hoteliers, butchers, journalists and community leaders. They would be served with cooked rabbit meat during the meetings. The feedback was impressive and local butcheries started selling rabbit meat alongside beef and chicken. This prompted farmers to increase production.
Reaching the market
To stimulate demand for rabbit meat, RABAK has applied aggressive marketing strategies to ensure that farmers are well positioned to determine the market price for their products. One approach was forming associations for farmers in order to avoid exploitation by brokers. Since farmers in Thika had many rabbits to slaughter, they often used the poultry slaughterhouse in the town’s market. When a rabbit is wrongly slaughtered it ‘defends’ itself by urine poisoning making the meat inedible. If that happens the meat should be hanged for about ten hours in order to drain fluids from the meat. It is imperative to have a well-equipped slaughterhouse to prevent urine and fur poisoning of the meat. The Government of Kenya through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries offered to build the first rabbit slaughterhouse meeting international standards in Thika town. The construction is almost complete and the slaughterhouse is expected to provide employment to more than 50 people from the local community.
More value addition
In 2012, rabbit farmers received a big boost from Uchumi Supermarkets (a leading supermarkets chain in Kenya) which contracted RABAK to supply 100 kilos of rabbit meat every week. The farmers were involved in the negotiations which saw them secure a profitable market price. Uchumi Supermarket continues to stock rabbit meat due to increasing demand. As more rabbits were slaughtered, farmers saw another opportunity in marketing their skins. On their behalf, RABAK approached the Leather Development Council (LDC) that processes rabbit skin to make inner soles for shoes. This was the beginning of a partnership that is still ongoing. Now the farmers have created a market niche and are able to sell both rabbit’s meat and skins at profitable prices. Jason Nthiga a rabbit farmer in Thika decided to venture in rabbit keeping three years ago and does not regret the decision. Currently he has 65 rabbits housed in a spacious and well aerated hutch. They are kept in different cages according to their age and breeding stage. He normally feeds them with vegetables from his garden once a day and has put a water trough in every cage. Jason slaughters the rabbits when they are at least six months old. He sells the rabbit meat to local butcheries and the rabbit skins to LDC through RABAK. He also discovered that rabbit’s urine is a good pesticide and uses it on his orange trees. Jason concurs that the demand for rabbit meat is high and he intends to increase their number.
There are different Rabbits breeds that are reared in Kenya. They include; Californian, Chinchilla, Flemish Giant, New Zealand White, ILRI Giant, Dutch and French Lope. The breeds vary in body shape, fur color and behavioral characteristics.
Rabbits housing requires a small space referred to as a hutch. It is constructed using locally available materials such as wire mesh, timber and iron sheets for roofing. It should be raised from the ground to allow good drainage. The hutch should be situated in a well-aerated compound. They should be kept in different cages for proper recording. Rabbits should be fed on good quality pellets, fresh grass, vegetables and water. They are usually slaughtered after six months and should weigh at least two kilograms. They live for 8-12 years. The climate in Kenya and East Africa region is appropriate for rabbit farming.