This is no quiz time requiring a google search. This is a story of a woman who dared to keep ostriches. She has eventually mastered how to keep them alive, and many other farming possibilities, writes Brian Mutebi.
It is the largest living species of bird. It lays the largest eggs of any living bird. Distinctive in its appearance, with a long neck and legs, it has the fastest land speed of any bird. The bird can run at up to about 70 kilometres per hour. It is the ostrich, the large flightless bird on earth.
The bird is native to Africa but rarely domesticated. However, one woman ventured into breeding them, on her farm.
Beatrice Lubega started this rather unusual business in 2000. It was due to her passion to rear animals and birds, and unique species for that matter.
Lubega’s farm is located 214km from Kampala, and about 210km to Kakuuto Trading Centre, via Masaka on the route to Mutukula, Uganda’s border town with Tanzania. It is a four kilometres drive on a marrum road through the savannah grasslands in the typical plains of Kooki. At the foot of Kasoga hill in Kasoga village, Kakuuto Sub-county, Rakai District, is where the majestic birds are reared.
Meeting the ostriches
The female and her three chicks take shelter from basking in the midday sunshine while the male moves around around making territory. The chicks appear big enough but they are just five months. That’s how giant ostriches are. The birds are in three breeds; the black-necked, blue-necked and red-necked ostriches.
To have ostriches domesticated, one must have clearance from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
Lubega was certified in 2000 to do that. The first parent stock of eight birds was got from Masai Ostrich farm in Kenya. However, breeding and multiplying them was difficult. Lubega, her husband and farm workers had no prior experience or knowledge in rearing ostriches. For instance, they thought the ostrich eggs could easily hatch in an incubator like chicken eggs. They did not succeed.
“Many of the eggs did not hatch. A few that hatched, the chicks were either deformed or died after hatching,” she says.
The problem started from power fluctuations while the eggs were in the incubator. Power disruptions affected the eggs’ temperature and the eventual hatching. Secondly, the way the eggs were handled on the farm was improper.
“I thought I was being a careful farmer by removing every egg that was laid and stored it somewhere in a basket before taking it for incubation but this was actually tempering with its natural process,” reveals Lubega.
The transportation of eggs to the incubator machine in Kampala, over 200km away was another challenge.
In 2006, after six years of struggling and counting losses, advice from a Dutch consultant to allow local breeding of the ostriches on the farm came in handy.
The consultant observed that the transportation of eggs to Kampala on bumpy roads damaged the chalaza of the eggs affecting the hatching process. He recommended that the birds be allowed to breed naturally on the farm.
Laying of eggs
An ostrich lays about 15 eggs a month, an egg every two days. The laying of eggs is during the dry months of the year, that is February and June.
The male ostrich prepares the ground, digs a hole about one metre wide or its single stride and one foot deep, enough to fit its body during brooding. It pours a layer of lake sand on which the eggs are laid. The sand generates the necessary warmth for the eggs to hatch.
“This is what we did not understand in the first place that ostriches prepare a natural environment for their eggs to hatch,” notes Lubega, “When we understood that, we started registering success,” she adds.
What Lubega does now is to put grass over the place where the bird lays her eggs. The female broods over the eggs during day while the male does so at night. This takes 42 days for the eggs to hatch.
Hatching and feeding
The chicks have no feathers on the belly and on the legs. Lubega explains that for the first six days, ostrich chicks do not feed on anything but on the yolk in their internal body system.
Thereafter, the chicks begin to feed on sand grains. And out of cheer innovation Lubega tried feeding them on chopped watery black jack and sukuma wiki.
“We knew that black jack contained mineral salts which would be healthy for the chicks but we were not sure of ostriches. We were just experimenting,” she says. It has however worked wonders. Today the vegetable is a regular meal for these birds.
As the chicks mature, they are fed on a mixture of maize bran, soya, sun flower seeds, crushed bones and silver fish (mukene). The feeding is accompanied with water. Feeding is three times a day. The birds are dewormed regularly and sprayed over to prevent infections.
Female ostriches have grey feathers while those of males are blackish. The male organ is in the inside of the body only visible when it is passing waste. A female ostrich becomes fertile at six years.
Ostriches are vulnerable
It might be the fastest land bird, but the ostrich, Lubega says, is a very vulnerable bird with very soft bones.
A slight crash on a hard surface can break it bones. At this farm, the ostriches breed in large paddocks and Lubega says workers are warned against doing anything that would scare them into running and hitting on wood trees forming the paddocks.
Ostrich products and benefits
• Ostrich skins are mainly used for souvenirs. Skinning requires certification from UWA to prove that it is not as a result of poaching on the birds
• Ostrich feathers are fixed on pieces of wood to form dust brushes
• Ostrich riding
• Ostrich meat
• Bird watching as a tourism activity
• The farm is being used as a research station for local and international students.
how I started
Beatrice Lubega qualified as a social worker but her passion was to practice farming. She got a job as a social worker but her aspirations to become a farmer never died. She used her savings to buy land, 15 acres, at first. She planted a banana plantation. She would buy more land, and one idea was added to another.
Today, Beatrice Lubega, the owner of Kakuuto Mixed Farm that sits on 355 acres of land, is one of the enterprising farmers in Rakai District.
On the farm, Lubega is casting her farming nets wide and deep. From rearing ostriches, geese and chicken to guinea fowls, from cattle, goat and sheep to donkeys and horses. She seems to have learned the principle that in business, you never put your eggs in one basket. She practices fish and crop farming too with an oranges, maize, banana and coffee plantations, pines and eucalyptus trees.
Lubega’s farm is the only one that breeds ostriches in Uganda. She endeavours to make her farming unique by rearing unusual breeds of animals. She has seven horses and four donkeys. The sheep are the white feather horned sheep. The guinea fowls are of various breeds. There are the white spotted, black spotted and grew spotted. The cattle are the boran breed. The ostriches, horses and donkeys Lubega says are for research and tourism purposes. The cattle are for meat and milk.
Part of Lubega’s 355-acre farm is a swamp which has enabled her practice fishing farming. She dug four fish ponds in which she rears male and tilapia.
Lubega has also built a souvenirs shop on the farm. Therein are ostrich products like skins and brushes made from ostrich feathers, among others.
Looking after horses and donkeys
Lubega started with two horses in 2005. In 2009, she bought four donkeys. They are fed twice a day on maize bran, vegetables that include carrots mixed with rock salt (ekisula), among others. Their bodies are washed with shampoo. “This is aimed at making their hairs smooth,” says Jerzio Sseggali, the farm’s manager. Their nails are also filed. They are sprayed with biotical every week to avoid ticks.
Her crop farming activities include a banana plantation, cassava, paw paws and an orange garden intercropped with maize. The oranges are on three acres from which she harvests 10-15 bags every month.
What it takes
Lubega is guarded on how much she earns from her big enterprise but says it is a lucrative venture. Her advice to whoever wishes to venture into agriculture is: “You must have interest in what you do.”
• Passion must drive what you do.
• Community support in form of providing labour.
• Family support including children who work on the farm and her husband who studied tourism have been resourceful.
Lubega’s challenge is that she has not applied modern methods of farming like mechanised agriculture and irrigation, and Rakai being a relatively dry area, her farm is affected by drought. This is attributed to lack of adequate capital.
“I have basically used personal savings. I tried to seek funding from Naads but I was told that my budget was too big for them to fund,” she says.