Lessons learned from country visits and pilot country selection – Healthier Hens 6M Update
Healthier Hens visited three countries (Germany, Kenya, and the United States (CA and MI)) to further inform our decision-making process for the selection of a pilot country for a feed fortification intervention to improve egg-laying hen welfare. This post highlights how we went about it, how successful we were, how much it cost, what could be useful for others, what should be improved, and how you can help us improve the welfare of hens worldwide. All in all, we found that with proper planning, country visits are useful for fact-checking desk research outputs and uncovering specifics that can be successfully carried out with limited time and finances.
We believe this post could be of use to:
EAs interested in charity entrepreneurship, particularly implementing an animal welfare intervention in a new country/region;
People interested in learning what Healthier Hens has been up to;
Those interested in reading about our attempts to reveal key insights using limited resources.
We encourage every reader to leave feedback and/or questions about this topic in the comment section. Let’s improve together!
We wanted to systematically approach our country selection process as this decision could make a significant difference in our potential impact. We have previously spoken about our process of using a weighted factor model and desk research to narrow our selection of 51 countries to three. Once the top three countries – Germany, Kenya, and the United States – were selected, we conducted further desk research and were able to supplement key uncertainties and confirm assumptions with in-person visits. We settled on visits with a duration of three weeks, with pre-visit activities planned to give our in-person research a higher chance of success. This included creating a budget so we could identify areas where we could potentially save on costs and tracking actuals to see if those savings materialized. We also reached out to key stakeholders before arriving in each country, while keeping track of outreach efforts. This allowed us to reflect on the type and method of contact that resulted in useful information, a helpful reply, or a recommendation. There were differences between countries (e.g., in Germany, LinkedIn produced more results), but some similarities like the success of recommended connections could be replicated in most countries.
This country-selection methodology allowed us to reflect on which criteria were easier to discover online versus in-person and to create a research success rate, which allows us to track our goals. Being able to do this not only improves our future visits, but allows others to learn from our approach and improve on the methodology. We also believe it is important to reveal unexpected findings, as they might lead to new opportunities such as potential interventions (i.e., feed labeling requirement policy or the push for better welfare genetics). And, most importantly, we want to outline the limitations and bottlenecks we encountered as well as areas for improvement so these can be avoided in the future and when replicated.
Now that we have selected a country of pilot operations, we have started capacity building activities and continue our outreach efforts. Our recently hired full-time Country Manager is engaging with stakeholders to build connections and prepare for several research opportunities that are on the table. We do hope that EAs can read this report, learn from it, and successfully replicate our methodology, as we believe it is a cost-effective way to inform the choice of your country of operations. As we flash by our six months of operations, we are preparing for year two funding. Please reach out if you know of any funders who may be interested in supporting the links between diet and keel bone damage to improve farmed hen welfare.
Pilot country of operations selection process
It all comes down to trying to make the best decisions with the information available. Our first six months as a newly-founded EAA organization has seen the Healthier Hens team initiate capacity building activities to strengthen our position and start research activities to gain expertise in the field of layer hen nutrition, health, and welfare. We have also made a key decision throughout this period – a true milestone. We chose a pilot country of operations for the feed fortification intervention. As outlined in our introductory post, the selection process was multi-phasic, with scoping activities progressing from shallow desk research to in-depth assessments including consultations with local experts, animal welfare movement leaders, and, finally, in-person country visits. This funnel method narrowed the initial list of 51 countries down to three promising countries, which were visited in December 2021: Germany, Kenya, and the United States. The visits were intended to provide better insights into key uncertainties and allow for scoping on how feasible a hen welfare intervention focused on dietary change would be in each particular country.
The three country-scoping reports were then updated with the information gathered and an official selection was made in consensus with the advice from our advisory board. Please see the outline of the complete process for each stage of research and consideration here and/or read the final reports for Germany, Kenya, and the United States. We welcome any and all questions about our process and the country-specific findings, especially if you are in a position to include a hen dietary ask in your ongoing welfare campaigns.
This forum post will focus mostly on the three country visits that we carried out in November–December 2021. We saw them as a low-cost, high-benefit opportunity to reduce the uncertainties of our previous research efforts. For instance, though our initial data from the US and Germany may show high-quality feed, we were not able to find data from top manufacturers or fully integrated farms as that information is scarcely available online and often treated as a trade secret. The goal was to check key data points via activities such as testing feed composition, interviewing farmers to gauge bone fracture incidences and awareness, and speaking with local farmed animal nutritionists to help us answer questions from our research, e.g., about the current practices regarding feed phases, particle sizes, or ongoing national research.
Planning and costs
A time period of three weeks per country was chosen as the balance between costs and benefits for the country visits. Equal-rigor plans were made for the three countries that involved pre-, during, and post-visit stages, the activities of which are outlined in Table 1. Each of the activities was assigned measurable goals for minimum and maximum interactions.
Table 1: Description of pre-, during, and post-visit activities and priorities.
Types of activities
Highest priority activities
Table 2 includes an overview of the expenses incurred during the three country visits. An important note here is that the Healthier Hens co-founder team had the unique advantage of having a staff member from each of the three continents (i.e., Africa, Europe, and North America) that was, of course, taken into account when planning the visits (i.e., trying to reduce cultural friction to make the most use of the limited time available) and minimizing expenses. This also enabled specific savings along the way (e.g., using frequent flyer points, staying with friends, etc.).
Altogether, the three country visit expenses added up to $11.3k, which corresponds to 8% of our total Y1 budget. An important note is that the Kenya country visit was significantly more expensive than either of the other two, and much more expensive than our allocated estimate ($6k vs $2.7k). The high costs arose from relatively more expensive continental flights, higher local transport costs (mainly due to the necessity to hire drivers due to poor accessibility), consultation fees, and higher COVID testing expenses.
Table 2: Country visit details including total costs and major expense categories.
Total visit cost ($)
Major expenses (% of total)
US (Michigan and California)
Country visit implementation
Although many of the planned activities had to be canceled or held virtually due to COVID and/or more strict biosecurity measures in place due to local avian influenza outbreaks, we were happy to reach 69% of our outreach goals. We believe that improvements in our pre-visit methodology could have boosted this figure up to at least 75%.
We took a different approach to outreach implementation in Kenya to make the best use of one of our co-founders’ limited time (not FTE). There, we provided a stipend to a local volunteer to take on a higher workload and manage the arrangement of meetings with different stakeholders. This yielded immediate results – the Kenya visit boasted a higher success rate due to the well-developed personal and professional network of the volunteer in question. It did, however, contribute to the overall costs of that visit, further raising the expenses to more than double those of the other two countries (as seen in Table 2). In the long run, having chosen Kenya as the pilot country, allowing the volunteer to manage outreach has proven to cause us some difficulties as we struggle to convert the secondary contacts obtained into direct ones that we can make the most use of now.
Although the visits were rather brief, we found that pre-visit planning activities led to establishing several key connections in each country, ones that most likely would be instrumental if/when setting up. The findings also included insights into the status of the national animal advocacy movements and relevant legislative developments that were not uncovered during desk research. An example includes learning that it was a good time for hen welfare work as a new local NGO had recently been started and there were talks about forming a new farmed animal welfare coalition in one of the visited countries. A further example is the EA community: finding volunteers was generally tricky in Germany, but three amazing people were found directly and indirectly through local EA chapters.
Building initial relationships was most notably influential in Kenya, where personal connections seem to go a longer way. In general, physical presence definitely helped with getting useful information. Even when meetings were rescheduled to take place over Zoom, people seemed to generally appreciate us visiting the country; it appeared to legitimize our future plans in their eyes. Furthermore, the connections made and the overall volunteer pool made up a significant portion of the high-scoring applicants for our Country Manager role, including the wonderful candidate who was hired.
Although EAs, LinkedIn connections, and people found online were the initial contact points, the largest category of helpful contacts quickly became people recommended (secondary contacts) in Germany (Fig. 1a). Helpful contacts, here, are defined as people who i) responded and ii) provided useful information or iii) referred us to another person. Similarly, in the US, recommendations corresponded to the majority of the helpful contacts established, especially when the recommendations were part of in-person meetings with stakeholders (Fig. 1b). Out of the people reached out to, 46% and 24% resulted in useful contacts in Germany and the US, respectively.
Figures 2a and 2b show successes in getting helpful contacts per type of contact. This is measured as a ratio between the numbers of outreach activities, such as messages or emails, per type of contact (e.g., LinkedIn connections) and the numbers of contacts that turned out to be helpful. In Germany, LinkedIn turned out to be quite an effective tool for establishing helpful contacts. All in all, 1 out of 2 people approached via the different channels were helpful. In contrast, only 1 of 5 people contacted in the US yielded beneficial exchanges. Recommendations performed best, with a success rate of 50%.
Country feed quality – testing a key consideration
Comparing our desk research feed nutrient level findings with those of real feed samples analyzed on the ground was an important goal for our scoping work. For us, key nutrient levels are what define how impactful and, by extension, how necessary a feed fortification intervention would be in the given country/region. As can be seen in Table 3, only US feed analysis results fell within the value ranges uncovered via desk research. In fact, in the case of Californian feeds, all nutrient levels exceeded the desk research figures and met the desired optimal levels (green cells). Michigan feeds corresponded with or exceeded desk research values for calcium and phosphorus (blue cells) but met the optimal levels only for vitamin D3 supplementation. Germany was a mixed bag with suboptimal phosphorus levels towards both (red cells), corresponding with desk research calcium values, and meeting the requirements for vitamin D3. Finally, Kenyan feeds were found not to meet any of the three nutrient levels optimal for hen welfare.
Table 3: Median feed nutrient levels as determined during desk research and in-country visits. Red: below desk research and optimal value, blue: within or above desk research value but below optimal level, green: meets target optimal value.
|Calcium (%)||Phosphorus (%)||Vit. D3 (IU/kg)|
|Calcium (%)||Phosphorus (%)||Vit. D3 (IU/kg)|
In the end, although there was high alignment with desk research data or “better than” scenarios (blue cells), several shortcomings were identified and data on the real situations were uncovered (e.g., in the case of vit. D3 in Kenya, where no level is defined in the standard whatsoever), rendering the activity useful, with long-term benefits in the case of the chosen country.
Germany: before and after the visit (69.2% of in-person outreach goals achieved)
Desk research revealed that there might be room for improvement when it comes to feed nutrient levels. The feed market seemed highly fragmented, with many players competing. The country is well-known for legislative change in the animal welfare sector, often taking on a leading role in the region. Farmer knowledge was difficult to assess remotely. However, the widespread availability of information on layer hen nutrition suggests that there is a general consensus on what nutrients are important.
During the in-person country scoping visit, the established egg industry players were revealed to control the market and farm data. There are no regulations in place for minimal nutrient levels; however, recommendations from breeders are in place and are typically adhered to by the farmers. The interviewed small-scale farmers were price-conscious and were generally unaware of the keel bone fracture issue, as suspected. Although regular inspections are held at farms, relevant data are not generally made public. Feed mill representatives were rather hard to reach. Perhaps the international NGO status of Healthier Hens led to extra distrust. The tested feeds exhibited close to optimal key nutrient levels, with many high-quality products readily available on the market. The interviewed veterinarians seemed upset with the situation as they feel there is limited access for improving hen welfare on actual farms. The visit enabled getting to know the several NGOs that are active in the space of hen welfare, revealing that campaigns on breeding and hen genetics are being planned.
Kenya: before and after the visit (77% of in-person outreach goals achieved)
Key actionable takeaways from the initial scoping included discovering a lack of reliable feed nutrient level and commercial feed ingredient data that could be acquired online. This raised uncertainty of the corresponding final score given to Kenya, but also indicated that the sector lacks transparency and/or proper monitoring. It seemed that a significant proportion of the farmers chose to mix their own feeds due to economic constraints. Finally, the existent feed quality standards seemed suboptimal and suspicions of poor enforcement surfaced.
The in-person visit provided key insights and filled important knowledge gaps identified through desk research. First and foremost, samples were collected and feed analyses were carried out that confirmed dietary inadequacies. Furthermore, interviewed farmers confirmed observing calcium deficiencies in their hens, reducing the overall uncertainty regarding how prevalent and relatively severe the issue is. Feed quality regulatory issues are much more prevalent and deep than previously thought (people were much more open to sharing about corruption and inefficacy issues in person). The visit also enabled gauging the intervention in terms of it complimenting rather than impeding ongoing efforts and campaigns with some of the core stakeholders (farmers and intermediaries, other NGOs). Finally, the visit allowed for more accurately feeling the temperature between the different stakeholders (i.e., identifying conflicts, distrust, cultural differences, etc.) that affected the implementation rating of the country.
United States: before and after the visit (61.5% of in-person outreach goals achieved)
Identifiable takeaways from our initial scoping included doubts about feed quality, as a government agency responded to a question about national standards by stating, “It is the responsibility of the animal feed manufacturer to ensure their product is safe and truthfully labeled.” This made us question the quality of products and assess the ease of a policy intervention. It was also difficult to discover the number of farmers buying or producing their own feed, so assumptions were made based on old scoping reports conducted by various researchers and industry alike. Finally, farmer knowledge appeared to be vast, as each state has its own Department of Agriculture and guides were easily accessible online.
The in-person research was able to clarify some of our takeaways identified from the desk research. Doubts of quality were unfounded, as California had some of the best feed in the areas scoped by the co-founders. Additionally, the feed we tested was at most misidentified on a label by 0.2% – there were feeds that had nutrient deficiencies, but they were properly labeled. Thoughts on policy intervention challenges were confirmed by a few NGO employees working on policy. Farmer knowledge might have also been overstated, as few farmers we spoke to knew about keel bone damage. We were also able to confirm assumptions about purchasing versus producing feed, because the visit allowed us to speak to farmers in person. They had not been so willing to speak over the phone during our desk research. Meeting farmers was also beneficial as it resulted in feed samples and allowed us to gauge their interest in a possible feed fortification pilot.
Among the indirect effects of these in-country visits, two out of three co-founders gained more insight into the space of animal feeds through hands-on learning and first-hand interactions with relevant commercial stakeholders, which is particularly useful for Healthier Hens. We also found that many of the insights gathered could be useful for animal orgs focusing on other issues or meta orgs assessing the space.
There were several aspects relevant to potentially implementing a feed fortification intervention that were either underestimated or came as a surprise. For example, many volunteers and experts ended up offering a lot of help and support for free. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of room for collaborative work and mission alignment.
Germany: might be getting close to pushing for genetic interventions – an important and crucial step in addressing the poor bone health issue in egg-laying hens. Although there were good high-quality feed options available on the German market, there was significant variation in nutrient levels among the tested samples. This was well-known by farmers, who expressed that ±15% is the industry norm. Finally, the language barrier was more significant than expected, especially among several stakeholder groups such as feed producers and millers.
Kenya: many of the engaged farmers confirmed issues with feed quality fluctuations and problems with price variability – aspects that cause a lot of tension between farmers and millers. Also, in-person conversations allowed for a much more honest and open discourse, revealing more insight into challenging issues such as poor performance of the regulatory body, instances of corruption, and the varying quality of expertise being offered to the farmers. On the other hand, there was a surprising amount of willingness to collaborate, even from some of the bigger commercial players. Finally, some vets and even farmers were familiar with and had observed poor bone health in layer hens.
The United States: farmers markets were a great place to meet farmers in an open setting, and worked around biosecurity concerns. The markets led to three connections and a feed sample. It also led to conversations with farmers who had concerns over large commercial producers’ cage-free claims without audits and enforcement in place. It was also surprising to find that states had different feed label policies. This revelation could potentially lead to an intervention if data shows stricter labeling policies leads to better feed quality. Coincidentally, the feed we tested did show this, as California (stricter labeling) had higher median nutrient levels than Michigan.
Visit limitations and bottlenecks
Several overarching issues limited how much practical information we were able to gather. COVID and bird flu outbreaks, for example, caused big issues in some places, especially by preventing access to farms and participation in industry events. For the US, managing two states in one visit was very tricky – in light of this, we recommend either allocating more time per state or handling states as countries in order to better allocate resources and research at comparable rigor. The significant differences uncovered in the US (e.g., in feed quality, labeling regulations) strengthen the argument for treating the country as a completely heterogeneous region.
Finding volunteers was more challenging in Germany and the US than expected. On the other hand, the pool of potential volunteers in Kenya was vast but came at an unexpected cost—volunteer work is commonly remunerated in the region.
Areas for improvement
Having the help of dedicated volunteers on the ground was instrumental in ⅔ of the cases. Knowing that in advance, we would put more effort and better planning towards finding volunteers/local interns interested in the work and set clear plans for them to succeed in gathering the core info needed for decision-making.
LinkedIn seemed to be an effective initial communication channel in Germany. Gearing towards utilizing the tool more could be an approach of high marginal value. An example could include finding people with well-developed LinkedIn networks in countries of interest and screening their contacts to avoid having to go through cold contacting.
Although three weeks seemed to work well in ⅔ of the cases, it was probably so because many of the planned meetings and activities did not end up happening (e.g., due to change of plans, disease outbreaks). It is likely that four weeks could have accommodated for the dual-state US visit better and, probably, accommodated more activities (i.e., approaching 90% of the initial targets) during single country visits under more normal circumstances, should they be foreseeable.
Country selection and plans
After completing the in-person visits, one more round of weighted factor model (WFM) assessment was carried out to compare the different countries as options for the pilot country of operations. Criteria such as the co-founder-perceived likelihood of feed quality being a welfare issue, feasibility of the intervention, the “pro-animalness” of the country, how complete reports were, and cost of operations were included in the final vote. In the end, principal investigators’ votes were given more weight when calculating the final scores, and the successive rounds (i.e. going from 50+ countries considered and shallow research, all the way through the top three and in-country scoping) of WFMs affected the considered countries differently:
Germany did not change ratings substantially (started out as #1 and finished at #3), slowly dropping in score with each iteration;
the US has slightly increased in score (from #5 initially to #2);
Kenya has seen the most dramatic increase (from #17 to #1), with the most significant increase during the desk research stage, and retaining the top spot after the in-country visits.
Now that we have chosen our country of pilot operations, we are in the process of establishing Healthier Hens in Kenya. This includes registering as an official entity and creating first networks and groups of potential collaborators. To streamline this process, we have successfully carried out a hiring process for the position of full-time Country Manager. Having a committed person always on the ground is already helping our efforts to remain visible and available to our stakeholders and to ensure that we are aware of any developments in the field of layer hen health and welfare in the region.
Among our capacity building activities, we will also engage with supporting local groups working with cage-free campaigning. Finally, we have research plans to cover the baseline assessment of layer hen welfare in Kenya – an insight that is scarce throughout the whole continent. Via these activities, we intend to gauge the prevalence of keel bone damage in hens kept commercially cage-free on Kenyan farms and to expand our network of potential partners for upcoming pilot activities.
Possibly replicable and applicable lessons learned
In-country visits can be very beneficial to uncover important specifics. It turned out to be possible to get good data and contacts with a small amount of resources, especially when paired with the regional expertise and perks (e.g., amassed frequent flyer points, established LinkedIn network) of the co-founders. Pre-visit activities need more extensive planning than we initially carried out, and specific activity effort allocation is country-specific. Among subsequent talent pools for hiring, most promising contacts came from the people engaged during the country visit. Personal contacts also generated a list for potential future hires.
How you can help Healthier Hens
Support us by sharing contacts with people living and/or working in Kenya. We also have a lot of research activities lined up and room for funding. Donations are more than welcome to support our work to help the hens. We are filling a funding gap of $200k for Y2 operations. We would also like to support other EAA orgs in including feed quality among their asks and ongoing campaigns.