Rabbit farming in Kenya dates back from the time the missionaries first set foot in Kenya during the 19th century when the first exotic breeds were introduced and the subsequent colonial period which helped it to spread to other parts of the country. Communities in Central Kenya were the early adopters but they viewed rabbits as pets or children and dog food. However, over the years the rabbit has gained wide acceptance as alternative food and livelihood, spreading to other communities to become the fastest growing enterprise in Kenya today. The highest populations of rabbits are in Central, Western and Rift Valley while Coast, Eastern and Nyanza are slowly catching up.
Initially rabbits were not recognized as part of the livestock system by policy makers. By 1983 there were no records of studies and research work done concerning rabbit genetics, nutrition, climatic effects, economics, health and diseases. In 1982 GTZ and the government initiated a national program on rabbit production where the National Rabbit Center at Ngong FTC, and other multiplication centers at Machakos, Embu, Wambugu FTC and Kilifi were established to supply the breeding stock to rabbit farmers. The initial breeding stocks were imported from Germany. A few farmers from Central Kenya and Rift Valley and other institutions like Egerton University, Kijabe Mission Center and ILRI also supplied rabbit breeding stock. The support by government for rabbit production in eradicating malnutrition and poverty is also to address the challenges in the diminishing land sizes and reduction in area for crop production.
In setting up the multiplication centers, the objective of government was to supply 3 million rabbits by the year 2000. But this did not happen due to insufficient supply of breeding stock and a waning government extension service. For quite a long time rabbit rearing has been left to institutions such as 4K and Youth Clubs, women and self help groups, schools and government training centers. Now adult farmers are steadily showing an interest in rabbit production and consumption, thereby increasing the demand for breeding stock such that the few multiplication centers cannot cope. The current rabbit population is about 600,000 heads.
The increasing cost of beef, mutton and poultry; increasing awareness on matters to do with health; and rabbits being a cheap source of proteins have also motivated many farmers into rearing rabbits. Public and private actors are also taking the enterprise very seriously and are now playing an active role in popularizing it because they realize that why raising rabbits is a worthwhile venture. The popularity of rabbit production also arises from a growing market due to population growth, urbanization and tourism.
The common rabbit breeds used in commercial production are California White, Flemish Giant, New Zealand White and local crosses. Major constraints in rabbit rearing are poor husbandry practices, inadequate breeding stock, socio-cultural issues, high cost of commercial feeds and low technical skills in rabbit management.
Marketing of rabbits poses a major constraint as there are no organized markets. Rabbit farmers identify their own markets individually whereby arrangements are made with local consumers, hotels and restaurants for the disposal of mature rabbits. Sales have mainly been for live animals which were not based on weight, but now this is gradually changing with the setting up of rabbit meat butcheries in certain parts of the country. Tourist hotels offer the best prices for rabbit meat. Selling rabbits as breeding stock is more lucrative because they fetch higher prices but also more challenging.
A wide cross section of rabbit farmers uses non-commercial production systems. The main sources of feeds are vegetables and fresh farm byproducts. Use of high quality forages and legumes are limited but presents a great opportunity to increase production and profits. Other opportunities are in selection and breeding for efficient animals that grow fast to reach the market early. Use ofArtificial Insemination is another opportunity that can be used for rapid multiplication of rabbits.