A rising demand for meat and feather locally and internationally has created a new breed of millionaires who have abandoned traditionally farming in a move that is paying double what they used to earn.
The birds are especially favourite among customers for their velvety feathers and their protein-rich, low-cholesterol meat.
Majority of small holder farmers in the country and even exclusive farms rearing the much sought after birds now say though profits have oscillated in recent years due to entry of competitors in the market and tough laws that discourage many from venturing into the business, the profits are still far by any standards as market's appetite still soars.
Maasai Ostrich Farm in Kenya is one such farm that is on a roller coaster. As the only commercial ostrich farm in Kenya, and the largest in East and Central Africa with over 1,500 birds, it has endeavoured to keep up with local demand.
Although South Africa leads the world in ostrich meat exports, the success of the Maasai Ostrich farm in Kitengela is testament to the fact that ostrich farming could become more than a fledgling industry in Kenya.
"We have recently increased breeders from 200 to 500 to meet the increased orders for ostrich meat," says production manager Johnson Kithuka. About 70 per cent of the breeding stock is the red-necked Maasai ostrich. The rest are Somali ostriches and crossbreeds of the two sub-species. Some of the eggs are collected from the wild and incubated to increase numbers as well as genetic diversity of the stock on the farm.
The boom is partly due to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) lifting its 2003 ban on the sale of ostrich and crocodile game meat. Now the farm supplies ostrich meat to some of the country's top hotels and restaurants, where demand has leapt by up to 60 per cent during the last four years.
Leading hoteliers now say their customers have demonstrated a keen and growing taste for ostrich meat. "There has been an increasing demand for ostrich meat here. It's up 50 to 60 percent since late 2009," says Tom Gakunje of Samptchu Hotel Nairobi.
Demand for live exports is also on the rise, with markets as far afield as France, Holland, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), South Africa and China. "We have not penetrated the EU market in supplying meat because of the local high demand in Kenya. Also, the EU has many and costly regulations before accepting the meat in their market," says Kithuka.
The fleshy thighs of the birds are the only edible part. Unlike other poultry, the ostrich has no breast meat. The birds are slaughtered between eight to 18 months-old to ensure the red meat is tender. A well fed eight to ten month-old juvenile ostrich produces 45-50 kg of meat on-the-bone and sells for Sh1,000 per kg. Steak fetches around Sh2,000 for a kg, and Sh2500 for fillet.
One of the benefits of ostrich farming is that very little goes to waste. Musau Wambua, a leather craftsman based at the ostrich farm, says well-tanned leather can be used to produce high quality handbags, belts, and folders among other items, with export markets in Spain and South Korea. "To secure a quality skin, the birds are slaughtered at the average age of ten months and the skin is exported to South Africa for tanning," notes Wambua.
Ostrich oil, produced from ostrich fat, is used to help treat asthma and other chest complaints. There is also a strong demand in Nairobi for ostrich feathers for clothing, decorations and furniture stuffing. However, in an attempt to control poaching of wild ostrich eggs, sales of eggshells are prohibited in shops.
"If the birds are well kept, their value is fantastic," says Josiah Maritim, the Accounts Clerk at the Masaai Ostrich Farm. However, he admits that there are challenges. "Infectious and nutritional diseases are some of the major constraints, although they can be avoided with attention to detail in incubation and chick rearing," he says.
Another challenge for would-be ostrich farmers in Kenya is the excessive bureaucracy involved to permit farmers to operate their businesses. Kithuka admits that the tight regulations have been the downfall of other similar establishments. "If the regulations are softened, more farmers could once again pick up the farming," he says. "The Maasai Ostrich firm is now the only one of over 20 ostrich farms that were once licensed in Kenya."
But regulations are not the only constraint to running a successful ostrich farm: significant investment is required to set up the pens and incubation units for rearing the birds.
The lifespan of an average ostrich - 70 years - is surprisingly long. Even within the next decade, it is difficult to predict the evolution of the ostrich industry in Kenya, but worldwide it certainly seems to be an expanding sector and one which would benefit Kenyan farmers, if they could overcome the necessary hurdles for this fledgling industry to really take flight.
Written by Alice Muriranja for African Laughter
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