Kamis, 13 November 2008

Bird's Eye View - at last

Singapore, 11 November 2008
The New Paper - Reported by: Benson Ang

Finally, a peak into "man-made" bird's nest house. Owner are usually secretive, but the S'pore investors of four such houses in Kota Tinggi let The New Paper in. They say farming bird's nests this way can rake in big returns.

In Kota Tinggi, Johor, there is an old shophouse which is protected by an alarm system, strong iron grilles and two security guards to keep out intruders at night.
You might think there are valuable goods or cash inside, but no. All it holds is saliva. Lots of it.

The saliva comes from swiftlets, and the solidified fluid of the birds is the key ingredient in bird's nest, the exepensive Chinese delicacy some have termed "white gold".
The lucrative business of harvesting bird's nest using old buildings is not new - in 2005, The New paper reported that Singaporeans were renting these shophouses for that purpose. We also reported taht Malaysians were doing the same.

Trade Secret
However, the "technical know-how" of swiftlet farming has become trade secret of sorts. Most farmers will not talk about their method, fearing that they would be copied by rival farmers.

Last week, three Singaporean who have bought a partial stake in such swiftlet houses invited The New Paper in for a look.

Mr. Rufus Chua, 26, Mr. Francis Tay, 37, and Mr. Donovan Tiong, 30, have invested in four nesting houses, or "bird houses", in Kota Tinggi. The bird's nests produced are exported to China.
Mr. Tay joked that they can informally charge a few hundred Ringgit for just a short tour of bird house, but for The New Paper, it was free.

When we approached their most "matured" nesting house, three storey high, we could see tiny black birds hovering over it.
We entered. The sound of chirping swiftlets was so loud, we understood why earplugs were recommended.
Mr. Tay pointed us to the speakers which emitted the sounds, which were designed to attract swiftlets to nest in house.
With our torchlight switched on, we saw that the floor was covered with birds droppings, which are often used by farmers to "scent" the nesting ground.
The pungent smell was inescapable. Mr. Tay pointed too a corner where a humidifier (swiftlets like humidity) was clearly visible.
As workers in their helmets, headlights, face masks and boots proceeded with their harvesting, we saw swiftlets flying across the room. They were so close, we could hear their wings flapping.
We looked towards the ceiling and saw, on the wooden battens, two rows of white bird's nests. Several still contained the feathers of the very birds which made them. Some were empty and ready to be harvested. Others had a swiftlet still building the nest. Still others contained eggs, and a few held pink, featherless baby swiftlets.

$ 2,000 a kg
Mr. Chua said the "matured: bird house can produce at least 3 kg of harvest a month, with each nest weighing 8 gram to 10 gram. He added that bird's nest can fetch $ 2,000 per kg.
The three friends, who are investing in the venture through a Malaysia - registered company called Beaufort Asset Technologies, estimate that harvesting bird's nest ha an annual return of 18 per cent for the first 10 years.

Mr. Chua said:"We can make more from the house by attracting swiftlets instead of human tenants."
Mr. Tay said:"It's like a gold nest, or gold mine."
The group met four years ago at a business seminar, where they became friends, and started investing together.
Two years ago, they started buying vacant shophouses and converting them into nesting houses.
The three have also invested in real estate, financing, mortgaging, and are now looking into buying oil palm plantations.
When asked why they choose shophouses in Malaysia, Mr. Chua replied:"Well, we can't have a nesting house in Orchard Road. Malaysia's also not too far away and there's no langguage barrier."

In term of revenue, the investors revealed only that they collectively spent a six-figure sum to buy and convert the four bird houses. Now, after two years, they claim to have recovered 40 per cent of this sum.

Upkeep "minimal"
Most of the cost comes from paying the mortgage because the upkeep of the houses is "minimal".
The investors said they sell the bird's nest to a processing centre, but declined to reveal further details.

Mr. Tay said that producing bird's nest in shophouse is more effective than in caves because "you can control the environment, and save ob transportation cost and time".
But he qualified that not all nesting houses succeed. "There are many factors, like the house's temperatur, layout and amount of sunlight."

So are they producing natural bird's nest? Mr. Chua said: "Yes, only the environment is artificial."
And are they manipulating nature by producing bird's nests in shophouses? "No. We're just doing it in more controlled environment. And we're protecting the swiftlets from predators. The swiftlets are just our guests, who pay their rent through saliva."

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