By Pearl Lee
February 5, 2018
TOUTED as the caviar of the east, edible bird’s nest is said to be the most expensive animal product consumed by humans.
The RM5 billion industry, with roots in Southeast Asia, has the potential to enter a new dimension and local bird’s nest farmers are set to fly high under a new order.
Indonesia has for long dominated the bird’s nest export chart. But massive land clearing and haze in the republic in recent years is giving Malaysia an advantage to meet demand for the product in China.
Having played second fiddle to Indonesia for years, Malaysia is en route to, once again, directly export raw edible uncleaned bird’s nest to China.
This is a significant milestone given China’s ban on direct import of raw bird’s nest following the 2011 scandal where harvested nests from Malaysia were tainted with high levels of nitrate.
Under the Protocol of Inspection, Quarantine and Veterinary Hygiene Requirements for the Exportation of Raw, Uncleaned, Edible Bird’s Nest, more than 10,000 Malaysian farmers will be able to export uncleaned bird’s nest directly to China.
Sweet deal for farmers
Industry players say the new deal, which came through under the watchful eye of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, will see local farmers selling raw nests directly to the authorities here who would then export the product to China.
A RM30 million laboratory in the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park in Guanxi, will see raw bird’s nest from Malaysia inspected and cleaned.
Malaysia produces 380 tonnes of bird’s nest a year but is only able to clean and process 60 tonnes.
The government is hopeful the new initiative will reduce the smuggling of bird’s nest.
Only 19 local processing plants in Malaysia have received the Chinese government’s approval to clean raw bird’s nest before export.
It is believed there are hundreds more processing plants, and the end products are being smuggled out of the country.
With 60,000 bird houses in the country and 20,000 industry players, the direct sale of raw bird’s nest is set to boost the income of local farmers.
Federation of Malaysia Bird’s Nest Merchants Association honorary president Datuk Tok Teng Sai said farmers are ecstatic now that they can sell raw edible bird’s nest to China.
“The farmers want to know when they can start doing so,” said Tok, who represents farmers and merchants.
“I must commend Ahmad Shabery as many before him including (Tan Sri) Noh Omar, (Datuk Seri) Ismail Sabri Yaakob and even (Tan Sri) Ong Ka Ting were unable to secure such a deal for farmers.”
Tok said the plant in Guanxi is fitted with the latest equipment to process bird’s nest.
“Eight Malaysian investors went to China,” he said, adding that the Chinese are even waiving rental for two years for Malaysians who invest there.
“It would make sense for Malaysians to invest in China as the Chinese will source for labour. Many in Malaysia face problems securing manpower here,” he said.
To ensure raw edible bird’s nest is sent to China without any hiccups, the Malaysian government plans to introduce a single collection stream.
While it is expected to reduce smuggling and regulate pricing, talk is rife of a possible monopoly.
To eliminate monopoly, Tok suggests agencies, including the National Farmers’ Organisation (Nafas) or the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama), take the lead.
“The agencies responsible must be the ones determining the price of raw bird’s nest. It can be RM6,000 per kilogramme for example. But if the price goes beyond that, then farmers should be given the option to sell to other parties.
“This will eliminate any party from monopolising the industry.”
Tok said the ministry should also consider setting up a consultative committee comprising the government and private sector to ensure all quarters are represented.
“Farmers should also be given soft loan facilities to stock up.”
Tok says the government should ensure local processing plants are not abandoned when the new order comes into effect.
He said cleaned bird’s nest can be sold for up to RM8,000 per kg to China but traders there sell it for up to RMB28,000 (RM17,250) per kg.
“If we only send raw bird’s nest, then local processing plants will not benefit. The government should look into this to ensure a win-win situation for all.”
High quality product to stand out
Increasing the profit margin for farmers will encourage others, especially retirees, to venture into the trade.
Benjamin Chai, who has been building swiflet houses in Sabah and Sarawak for the past 15 years, said building the correct bird’s house is the main ingredient to a successful business.
“Eighty per cent of breeders in Malaysia fail because they don’t know how to build bird houses,” said Chai.
“They think you just need to build a house and the birds will come. That’s wrong.”
Chai, who has built 32 houses on agricultural land, said swiflet farming is a lucrative business.
He added farmers should start small and only expand their bird house when they have about 2,000 to 3,000 nests. A two-storey 20x72ft house costs between RM170,000 and RM180,000.
“If you maintain the house, you will see the returns after three years. And the returns will feed you forever,” he said.
Chai said the essential factors in building a bird house include location, building material, humidity level, good ventilation as well as sound system to not only entice swiflets but make the birds feel safe as well.
With the bird’s nest industry expanding, Agrobank is expected to offer attractive financial facilities to industry players including farmers.
The financial institution, which focuses on the agricultural sector, has been offering credit facilities to industry players since 2008.
But over the years, the bank has been more selective in its credit assessment, given the uncertainty of the local industry.
However, a visit by the bank’s chairman Tan Sri Mohamad Zabidi Zainal and his team to Selangau, Mukah and Sibu, last month is an indication the bank is on board to ensure the new Malaysia-China bird’s nest deal is a success.
It is understood the bank is looking into offering financial facilities to industry players and an announcement is expected in due course.
The future of bird’s nest industry looks bright. It could very well join the Musang King as Malaysia’s champion product.