Ostrich farmers fall on hard times after tourism fadesHotels and restaurants are still shuttered, resulting in a massive drop in meat demand, farmers say.
Entrepreneur CP Sharma is not one to bury his head in the sand, but his ostrich farm in Rupandehi is facing hard times as the tourists still haven't come back.
His major customers are hotels and restaurants, and they have been closed for a year due to the coronavirus. He had got his hopes up after the lockdown was lifted last July; but six months later, business recovery seems as far away as ever.
“As tourist movement came to a virtual halt and arrivals still have not recovered, we are facing difficulties,” said Sharma who established Nepal's first commercial ostrich farm in 2008.
Located in south central Nepal, the ostrich farm is spread over 20 bighas and used to hold 8,000 of the large flightless birds. Sharma went into business with the aim of attracting tourists as part of his ambitious agro-tourism project.
In normal times, his farm used to sell 120 tonnes of meat per month.
“Demand for ostrich meat has plunged to 5 tonnes monthly,” said Sharma. Hotels and restaurants are still shuttered, resulting in a massive drop in meat demand, he added.
Ostrich meat is classified as poultry and is nutritionally similar to poultry. It is also expensive on account of its limited supply. The meat costs Rs1,450 per kg, with the boneless variety going up to Rs1,900 per kg.
“Hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu and Pokhara are our largest customers. But currently, there are no orders,” he said. He said his farm contained 5,200 ostriches which are getting older. “The daily expenses of feeding them come to Rs600,000.”
Adult males stand 2.4 metres tall and can weigh well over 100 kg. Most ostriches go to slaughter at 10-14 months of age. The ostriches at Sharma’s farm have grown to 24 months. Last year, the farm produced 600,000 ostriches, 300,000 of whom survived.
Sharma had seen ostrich farms in the Ukraine and saw great scope for a similar scheme in Nepal. In 1995, he returned and launched his agro-tourism project to generate employment.
In 2008, Sharma established Ostrich Nepal, the first such farm in Nepal, which is located in Gangoliya-1, Rupandehi between Butwal and Bhairahawa. The farm is spread over 20 bighas of land and is the largest in Asia, according to Sharma.
Tilak Raj Kadel of Chitwan joined the venture with a 10 percent stake. He pulled out of the partnership after additional investment became necessary. Sharma then decided to manage the farm on his own.
Sharma started ostrich farming with an initial investment of Rs130 million. He imported 1,500 eggs from Australia, and now Ostrich Nepal has grown to a Rs2 billion company, thanks to steady demand from exotic meat lovers.
Gradually, the farm started attracting domestic and international tourists. Many people who come to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, normally make a side tour to his farm. In 2012, the firm earned Rs1.5 million from ticket sales, making tourism a major source of income besides meat sales.
Sharma's farm where ostriches are reared commercially has more than 100 employees. Outside Rupandehi, there are 13 commercial ostrich farms with an estimated 960 birds combined.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic when demand for ostrich meat was at its peak, we started rearing ostriches in Dang and Suryapura in Rupandehi, which hold 8,000 birds in total. Both are now shut down,” said Sharma.
Ostrich, a red meat, is lower in calories, cholesterol and fat than skinless chicken while remaining high in iron and protein. When ostriches grow old, people don’t prefer to eat their meat. “The taste starts to degrade as the bird gets older. Even the Vitamin content in the meat decreases,” said Dr Prawej Alam, a veterinarian.
Apart from meat and eggs as food, their body parts such as feathers, bones and hide are used to make ornaments and have export potential. “Commercial ostrich farming has been growing across the country, but the government is least bothered to take ownership and promote it,” said Mahesh Yadav, another ostrich farmer in Rupandehi.