Irvine’s Zimbabwe: Inclusivity key in African poultry sector

Zimbabwe-based integrated poultry company Irvine’s Africa has grown from 13 employees in 1957 to now having a presence in 22 countries across Africa, stretching from neighboring South Africa to Ethiopia.

Residents in one of Irvine’s staff villages.
Residents in one of
Irvine’s staff villages.

Zimbabwe-based integrated poultry company Irvine’s Africa, has grown from 13 employees in 1957 to now having a presence in 22 countries across Africa, stretching from neighboring South Africa to Ethiopia. 

The family-owned business is the largest poultry producer in Zimbabwe, supplying approximately 70 percent of locally consumed chicken. It is fully integrated, operating breeder facilities for broilers and layers. It is Cobb’s longest-standing distributor, through to processing and egg-packing stations, and supplies equipment and veterinary medicine.

In Zimbabwe, the company produces 900,000 chicks each week, 250,000 in Botswana, and 200,000 in Mozambique. Yet only 30 percent of Irvine’s chick production goes back into its own business. The remainder goes to other smaller integrators and small-scale farmers that produce from 100 to 5,000 birds.

Craig Irvine, company director, says: “We believe the real competition in the African market is not another producer down the road, but rather the global poultry industry and the largest, most efficient players. For this reason, we consider it paramount to improve efficiencies in our own operation as well as our clients’ and to provide technical support and hands-on training to improve performance.”

He continues:  “Our Zimbabwe model has been replicated into the other African countries as our clients have taken Cobb genetics, followed our example, and formed their own integrated business with contract growers, farms and processing.”

The company has built its business by following four key strategies.

Day-old chick supply

Irvine’s sells 500,000 chicks per week, which equates to the production of 900 tons of chicken per week, thus giving the small-scale sector approximate revenue of US$170 million per year.

It is estimated that 5,000 people buy day-old chicks from Irvine’s per week. Based on these numbers, at least 32,000 families rely on Irvine’s day-old chicks to make a living.

In addition to supplying chicks, however, the company also offers a training program for small-scale producers, which includes courses on brooding, feeding, hygiene, equipment use and veterinary practices. It also provides information on how to build housing and manuals for small-scale production.

“Over 25,000 people are trained in basic poultry keeping by our corporation each year,” Irvine said. “A full extension service is provided to customers, and this is backed by a modern veterinary laboratory so any problems can be dealt with locally and quickly.”

Irvine’s Zimbabwe also distributes chicks through 50 “one-stop shops” across the country. The shops sell chicks, feed, equipment, disinfectants and medication. It has also established small-scale poultry houses at schools in every province in the country to provide training and assist youths in starting poultry production operations through the National Youth Centre and Young Farmers groups.

“Poultry producers in many Sub-Saharan countries do not have easy access to suppliers or support, so we focus on building relationships where we can offer both of these services,” Irvine explains.

“Through this support, we help clients take their business to higher levels of production and profit, which, in turn, meets growing demands for protein from local fast food outlets, restaurants and grocery stores. It is our belief that helping to develop small-scale poultry production is vital to the success of all business sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa.”


The company sources as many of its products locally as possible to sustain industrial and rural agricultural production. Irvine’s purchased US$13.5 million in local products in 2014, comprising 30,000 tons of corn and 9,000 tons of soybeans.

The company also has worked with a number of contract growers through training and development to provide high-quality live broilers for processing. These growers produce 180,000 broilers per week, valued at US$31 million per year.

“The total value Irvine’s contributes to the rural economy through either our day-old chicks or purchasing of raw materials is estimated to be in excess of US$180 million per year,” Irvine said.

Technology and sustainability

Irvine’s ongoing effort to improve animal husbandry also led the company to embrace new technologies throughout its operations.

In addition to meeting food safety standards and certifications, the company has put quality assurance methodologies into practice and has its own feed mill to control the inputs going into their birds and eggs. Irvine’s works with its suppliers as key partners. One example is Alltech, where both organizations work together to bring knowledge and expertise to the farm.

“We have been aggressive in adopting new technologies,” Irvine said. “We have been able to differentiate ourselves from our competitors by utilizing technologies such as in-vitro vaccination and building a brand new state-of-the-art feed mill.”

The company has also adopted an extensive water monitoring program. All water used in its Zimbabwean operations is treated through two treatment plants and the company practices a water conservation policy, which resulted in a 22 percent reduction in water consumption in 2014.

Lighting used in the housing complexes has been converted from incandescent to energy-saving lights in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of energy production and save on costs.

Employee and community focus

Irvine’s also strives to provide accommodation and a healthy lifestyle for its employees.

The company has 460 dwelling units, each with three rooms, a kitchen and shower facilities, electricity, purified water and a sewage system. In total, the company houses approximately 2,500 people.

In addition to housing, it also operates two primary schools that educate up to 800 pupils each year, and runs two medical clinics. Other projects include building chicken houses at rural schools. The company provides the house and the first batch of chicks and feed free of charge, along with technical assistance. The model chicken houses are used to teach children and the local community how to look after chickens, and they also generate income for the school.

Obstacles to overcome

While Irvine’s continues to grow throughout Africa by strengthening its local partnerships, the company recognizes the African market has its challenges.

“Africa is still at a very early stage of development. Although the continent represents 17 percent of the world’s population, it only accounts for six percent of global gross domestic product,” Irvine said.

“The continent is fragmented with 57 different legal systems. Governments are constantly changing regulations and many governments do not yet understand what is needed for significant agriculture development.”

Other challenges are communal ownership of land, lack of agricultural equipment, informal and underdeveloped supermarkets, poor infrastructure and transportation, an insufficient power supply and a shortage of skilled, educated labor.

Despite this, Irvine’s believes new entrants in the African marketplace can succeed by working in partnership. 

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