In a city like Cape Town, you can buy chicken on just about every street corner, whether it’s braaied chicken claws from a pavement take-away, or plastic-wrapped breasts from an upmarket superette. Chicken is one of the most popular animal proteins for South Africans.
We eat about 1 725 000 tons of it every year (that includes chicken meat for our pets). It’s not clear exactly how much of this meat is locally produced and how much is imported, but we estimate that about a third of it comes from abroad.
Cape Town-based photojournalist Masixole Feni decided to find out where some of the Mother City’s popular chicken comes from, and how it gets here.
Feni tracked four value chains, depicted below, that supply chicken meat to his home city to see what this can teach us about the local food system. In each case, he started with the customer and tried to track the value chain back upstream to see how close he could get to the source of the live animals.
On this journey, he discovered that it’s not that easy to travel the routes that feed chicken protein into our urban food system.
There are many obstacles along the way that make it difficult to connect the different nodes in the value chain, or find a neat route from farm to fork.
Feni wasn’t able to get onto one of the chicken farms that sell live birds to informal traders because of concerns about avian flu. He also couldn’t get beyond the supermarket that sold the packets of chicken feet to traders because store managers were unwilling to engage. And he couldn’t get to the source of the wholesalers who supplied frozen chickens to the spaza shops or independent ‘micro-convenience’ neighbourhood stores, for similar reasons.
This might explain why it’s so hard to work out precisely how much of South Africa’s chicken meat is farmed locally, how much is shipped in from Brazil and the United States, and how that impacts on local production, price, and quality.
Most opaque of all was where the chicken came from. But similarly hard to track, was where all this chicken meat goes after the retailer has sold it to the customer. Who ends up eating it, where, and how?
These obstacles present themselves as ‘gaps’ in the following photo essays, telling us that the food system is not as easy to chart as we’d like to think, and that the food system can be hidden from us in the most unexpected ways.
Many Capetonians shop ‘for the pot’ from informal traders who deal in live chickens.
These traders buy birds, often retired laying hens, from the gate at poultry farms on the outskirts of the city and transport them to their trading site. Since the recent avian flu outbreak, there has been a shortage of birds for this market. Traders say they can’t buy directly from farms as quarantine measures are in place, meaning they have to buy from a middleman – a wholesaler – which eats into their own profits.
There are different groups of people who frequent these traders. Some customers come here to shop for their own meals, happy to slaughter and ready the birds for the pot themselves. Church and community groups are another regular customer. Alternatively, some of these birds are sold on to a second tier of traders, who slaughter and prepare the whole or portioned uncooked chicken for sale from a road- side stall in other parts of the city, like these at the Site C taxi rank in Khayelitsha. This story shows the importance of traders who cater to different customer needs across the city.
The recent outbreak of bird flu has hit the live chicken traders in this story hard. Where in the past some traders would travel to the farms to buy birds, farmers now claim that they have no birds to sell. The traders suspect that the farms are choosing to rather sell directly to larger operators with more bargaining power, such as the wholesaler pictured above. This allows these operators to established a level of monopoly that leaves the traders no other viable option for sourcing their stock. This wholesaler is a few minutes’ drive from where the traders sell, but was unwilling to reveal the source of its birds. This extra link in the value chain increases the cost of the birds and squeezes the women’s profit margins. This shows how a shock in the system, like an outbreak of disease, can hit the smaller players in the system the hardest.
These sellers usually pick up new stock on Saturday mornings and bring it to their well-known trading site on Govan Mbeki Road on the edge of Philippi, about 25 kilometres from Cape Town’s city centre. These traders, mostly women, work long hours seven days a week. They do business in the outdoors with no shelter from the harsh elements, including the notorious ‘Cape Doctor’, the southeasterly wind that scours the peninsula in summer.
They pay ‘promoters’ – usually younger men – to encourage passing customers to buy from them specifically. These salesmen then help customers by loading the birds into cars or taxis. They are paid a set fee, rather than a commission, which means the women traders may make a loss due to multiple price-takers along the value chain.
A second tier of traders enters the picture. Operating from Khayelitsha, these traders buy the birds from the live chicken traders and transport them to the nearby Site C taxi rank about 13 kilometres away, where they slaughter the birds, clean them, and prepare them for sale to passing commuters. Traders are shown here unloading their just-purchased stock in Khayelitsha.
Many individuals, families and church and community groups travel to these traders to buy their live birds, choosing to prepare the chickens for the pot themselves. In this way, some chickens exit the value chain here, while others still have some way to go.
Once the birds are slaughtered at the preparation site, just behind the taxi rank, they’re scalded in boiling water to loosen the feathers, and plucked. They’re then portioned into different cuts to cater to customer preferences.
Traders take great care in displaying the various chicken cuts to attract customer interest. This kind of stall gives convenient and nutritious options for commuters who may not have time to travel to the live chicken traders, some 13 kilometres away, or to prepare the birds for the pot themselves. These commuters can pick up whatever cut they want on their way home from their long day of work and travel.
Chicken feet are a popular street snack, part of what we call the ‘walkie talkie’ two-pack: birds’ heads and feet. They’re part of a vibrant trade of poultry offcuts, including gizzards, that make it mostly into informal markets in different ways, where they’re sold packaged, either ready to eat, fresh, or frozen. They’re not commonly found in supermarkets in wealthier parts of the city.
Some of the street traders in Mfuleni who sell braaied chicken feet source their bags of ‘walkie talkies’ from a Goal outlet in Mfuleni. Goal is a small supermarket chain that operates in Philippi, Khayelitsha and Mfuleni, outside Cape Town. But this particular shop manager wasn’t willing to engage with the researchers, so they weren’t able to find out where this specific batch of ‘walkie talkies’ originated.
This stock was packaged but not branded, so it’s likely that it came from the supermarket’s own butchery section. Chicken suppliers tend to be efficient about using up the entire bird, leaving nothing to waste and finding markets for every bit of the carcass.
The trader cooks a batch of chicken feet and wings over the coals at his open-air stall in Mfuleni. He has set up his stall to catch people passing by on foot through the neighbourhood. Poultry ‘offcuts’ such as chicken feet are popular throughout the informal markets, with some of the live chicken traders also selling uncooked feet offcuts.
Braaied chicken feet are cheap, portable, and tasty. Anitha Binqose enjoys her chicken feet right where she’s just bought them, but they’re particularly popular with kids on the way home from school.
There’s a neat, industrial, and tightly regulated conveyor belt-type system that takes broilers from the farm, and delivers boneless, skinless, clingfilm-wrapped protein pieces to our local high-end supermarkets. It’s an efficient and well-oiled industrial machine, and the outcome for the consumer is a guaranteed standard of quality and safety. In this very clinical process, the consumer and animal are distanced from one another, and the essential ‘chickenness’ of the product disappears.
The Woolworths brand of poultry products available in its stores countrywide comes from three different suppliers. One of these is Elgin Free Range Chickens, which has six poultry farms around the Elgin and Grabouw area, about an hour’s drive east of Cape Town. Elgin Free Range Chickens has its own abattoir, processing and packaging centre in Grabouw, so by the time the poultry leaves the business, it’s packaged and ready for sale. They sell predominantly to Woolworths and deliver to the chain’s Cape Town distribution centre at least once a day, sometimes more. When they deliver, they have a 15-minute- window arrival time at the distribution centre. If they do not arrive in this time slot, the product might be rejected.
Woolworths has three distribution centres in South Africa – here, in Montague Gardens in Cape Town, and two more in Johannesburg and Durban. This one employs 700 people. Elgin Free Range Chickens products are trucked to this Cape Town centre, which services the 76 Woolworths stores around the province, as well as to the other two distribution centres. Staff monitor all products’ temperature carefully.
Woolworths’ Cape Town distribution centre is tightly regulated, and engineered for efficiency, temperature stability, and the best use of space. The chain has even designed its own shipping crates to reduce wasted space in its trucks, “otherwise you’re paying to move air”, according to the distribution service manager. In the end, it’s about maximising profit and ensuring food safety.
Only a few hours after leaving the Elgin Free Range Chickens processing and packaging facility, and after passing through the distribution centre, the chicken arrives on the shelves of this Woolworths supermarket, the Waterstone store in Somerset West.
This is an everyday story of a simple but nutritious meal: frozen chicken pieces bought from the corner spaza shop in Mfuleni. The shop’s Somali owner, John Yusuf, buys his stock from a Somali-run wholesaler in Bellville, normally towards month-end. The convenience of his store’s location means that customers can walk here to do their grocery shopping. The meat is affordable, convenient, and wholesome, and people can buy each day what they plan to eat that evening.
John Yusuf stocks up at a wholesaler on Durban Road in Bellville about once a month, depending on sales. He buys ‘Mamas Pride Chicken’ and ‘Mummies Chicken Portions’ frozen and in bulk. The researchers weren’t able to find out where the wholesaler sourced this stock.
These types of wholesalers are important sources of a range of mainly food products for traders all around Cape Town.
Yusuf provides an array of products at his small neighbourhood spaza shop. These products include food like the frozen chicken pieces, but also cleaning products, toiletries and other household essentials. The survival of his business depends on his ability to cater directly to the needs and buying habits of the people in the immediate area.
Many convenience stores in communities like Yusuf’s are vulnerable to crime, so shopkeepers like him operate behind makeshift security grilles. Most of his customers, such as fellow Mfuleni resident Khonono Koopman, use this private spaza shop because of its convenience.
Khonono Koopman takes the short walk from the spaza shop back to her home. The fact that the store is around the corner and has long trading hours allows her to shop as she needs things.
Back at home, Khonono Koopman prepares and serves this deliciously simple meal.