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Than Win can kill, pluck and disembowel a chicken in less than three minutes. He does it at least a hundred times a day, seven days a week and makes around 300,000 kyats a month. While sipping green tea in a blood-stained singlet and longyi at a roadside teashop opposite Burma’s largest poultry market, known simply as the “Chicken and Duck Market” in Rangoon’s Mingalar Taungnyunt Township, Than Win explained that his shift begins at midnight.
He and a small team travel by truck to collect about 1,300 chickens from some 50 different homes in Pegu Division and Rangoon’s northernmost townships of Taikkyi and Hmawbi.
“Most farmers live in small huts and each owns about 1,500 chickens,” he said.
The mission is usually complete by 4:30am, after which time the chickens are brought to the market in time for its 6am opening.
He said most buyers are Burmese and Indian-Burmese restaurant and shop owners, while “The Chinese prefer to shop at the wet markets downtown.”
The market is a cacophony of sounds and nauseating smells, and many of the chickens are in bad shape. In addition to having their legs tied together in groups, many are virtually bald or emaciated, and even those in the shade pant thirstily with open beaks. A man mercifully tosses a bucket of water over a cage crammed full of layer chickens, but drinking water itself seems non-existent.
With the exception of the day-old chicks crammed into large cardboard boxes, most of the animals lack the energy to even utter squawks of protest. Whether it’s the dire conditions that made authorities decide to ban photography inside the market is uncertain – however the workers themselves were jovial, posing goofily with eggs in hand.
Aung Ko Min, 12, told DVB that he began work as a “chicken cleaner” at the market five months ago.
“I work with my older brothers and I like it because I’m strong,” he said.
Aung Ko Min said he started chewing betel 10 days earlier, and that there are 50 to 60 boys of the same age also pulling 12 hour shifts.
Far away in Inein Township, Khine Zar Win runs a shop called Win Win, which sells day-old-chicks, feeds and medicine. She got into the trade because her father was a vet and her family owned a poultry farm.
“We’re selling around 20,000 day-old-chickens every week and sales are improving every year, because Burmese people are consuming more meat. I think CP Freshmart outlets have encouraged us to eat chicken as a snack, which is something we didn’t use to do.”
She said that the chicken and duck market sells about 40,000 chickens a day, the vast majority of which are broilers, bred specifically for meat.
However Khine Zar Win added that due to increasing competition, Win Win sells to farmers on credit, with a 50-day repayment period.
“We have so many competitors nowadays that our business depends on having good relationships. However, if market prices drop, we’re unable to get the money back,” she said.
She explained that ever-increasing profits are due to the expansion of existing farms rather than a wave of newbies deciding to set up poultry farms.
“Some farmers, particularly the smaller ones, lack knowledge about biosecurity. A lot of chickens are getting sick from respiratory tract infections as a result. Myanmar CP Livestock has a technical group for small farmers who will send out their vets – but awareness about this is low.”
She added that mortality rates are currently “unusually high” and said she suspects at least some of these deaths are caused by bird flu, which was first detected in Burma in March 2006.
“For the past three or four years, most cases of bird flu have been in Yangon [Rangoon]. It’s also a problem in Bago [Pegu] and parts of Ayeyarwady [Irrawaddy] regions, and I’ve heard of cases of it in Mandalay also,” Khine Zar Win told DVB.
“When bird flu was first discovered in Myanmar [Burma], the government undertook widespread culling and many farmers lost everything. I myself lost 60,000 birds and because the market was destroyed, I wasn’t able to get back the money owed to my feed mill from buyers. I lost more than US$200,000,” said Dr Hla Hla Thein, who is vice chairperson of the Myanmar Livestock Federation (MLF) and chairperson of the Broiler Association.
“The military government had no concept of our suffering. Compensation was never more than five percent – and sometimes compensation was in the form of a mobile phone! When we asked why, we were told that communication was important,” she added.
Due to lasting bitterness about the lack of compensation provided, many farmers remain reluctant to inform the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development about suspected cases of bird flu.
“Farmers don’t want all their chickens killed, so they try to arrange their own biosecurity measures and just kill the chickens themselves,” said Khine Zar Win.
She added that the government itself isn’t announcing cases of bird flu – only one case was ever officially confirmed. In the 7 March edition of The New Light of Myanmar, it was reported that while a “controlled zone for chicken farms will be established [in Tamu] at the border with India to prevent an outbreak of bird flu… Myanmar has so far not reported any outbreaks of bird flu.”
The MLF is an NGO which was set up in 1999 and has 13,000 members, although it is only active in Rangoon Division – which Dr Hla Hla Thein asserts is unaffected by bird flu. However, if a case is suspected elsewhere, its representatives will travel to the area to investigate and will report to the ministry as necessary.
“MLF doesn’t have the technology to confirm bird flu – only the ministry does,” she said.
One of the core aims of MLF is to raise funds so that farmers can be adequately compensated in the event of loss, whether it be the result of culling or a market collapse – the latter of which has happened several times in previous decades. Since 2008, MLF has raised US$100,000, which was accrued through a 1 kyat payment being contributed to a fund for every chicken bought and sold in Rangoon’s markets and farms.
It also sets market prices as a means of helping local poultry farmers compete against the Thai-owned behemoth, CP Chicken, which entered Burma in 1997.
“CP would like to kill all business for local farmers. However it can no longer monopolise Myanmar’s poultry market because we’ve actively fought against it,” she said.
CP declined to be interviewed for this article or respond to allegations about its purported attempts to monopolise Burma’s poultry industry. According to Khine Zar Win, CP has a 50 percent market share in feeds.
Soon after Burma’s political reforms began in 2011, members of the international community stepped in to help develop the sector. The US Agency for International Development, for example, works with MLF to support local farmers by providing vocational training and spreading knowledge about the use of technology to keep production costs down.
Unfortunately, however, although one of MLF’s aims is to liaise with the ministry on policies and issues affecting livestock, the relationship isn’t productive, according to Dr Hla Hla Thein.
“The ministry people are just soldiers – it’s the departments that have the professional expertise, but they aren’t listened to. I always submit my ideas to the government – I recently suggested that the ministry hasn’t done us any favours by extending itself yet again to include rural development, and before that, fisheries. I’ve openly fought with the minister and one time he said to me, ‘You are the lady that talks too much.’ But I don’t care,” she said defiantly.
Burma’s poultry sector has a lot at stake – if the various problems confronting it can somehow be overcome, it could be a boom area for national economic growth.
Analysts have already predicted that Burma’s meat industry could explode over the coming decades. In a May 2012 article in FEED Business Worldwide titled, “Myanmar: Asian feed and livestock’s new frontier,” F.E Olimpo and Eric Brooks wrote, “With a population of over 64 million… ample untapped arable land and a per capita meat consumption of just 10kg, Burma contains the same ripe elements for exponential feed and livestock expansion that China had in the early 1980s and Vietnam in the late 1990s”.
Moreover, as Burma’s neighbours include the growing economic powerhouses of India, China, and Thailand – which have a combined population of 2 billion people –this “represents a great market for exports of meat, feed or both.”
At present, Burma exports negligible quantities of poultry to China and India through border trade, however Khine Zar Win told DVB that Vietnam and Korean investors are beginning to show an interest in setting up joint partnerships.
“Not all farmers have the opportunity to travel outside the country to learn new farming techniques. We want foreign investors to come here, which is why we hold three expos a year,” said Dr Hla Hla Thein.
Despite its enormous potential, it is uncertain whether foreign investors will simply feel too overwhelmed by the inherent challenges poultry farming in Burma presents.