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Association set to drive bird’s nest ecosystem

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Feathers and droppings are removed from swiftlet nests before they can be eaten. Heng Chivoan

Association set to drive bird’s nest ecosystem

The Khmer Swiftlet Association (“KSA”) has been recognised by the government as an official platform to support development of the local edible bird’s nest ecosystem, and bolster exports of the woefully untapped commodity, with particular consideration to the Chinese market.

Consumed for its perceived health and wellbeing benefits, local edible bird’s nests are generally made from the dried saliva of the white-nest swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) found throughout Southeast Asia. Traditionally, the processed swiftlet nests are double boiled with rock sugar to make a delicacy known as “bird’s nest soup”.

KSA president Suy Kokthean affirms that the association has wasted no time after being awarded the distinction by the Ministry of Interior early this month.

He told The Post on March 8 that the KSA has been “working hard” to improve the construction and management of nesting houses, rearing practices and processing of the nests among its ranks, and ensure that products meet quality standards and are better-positioned to reach larger consumer bases.

Kokthean argued that the edible bird’s nest is among the world’s most prized commodities, above all in China, and hence more investment in the field would yield in greater incomes for gatherers and drive national economic growth.

While recognising that Cambodian edible bird’s nests today sell for relatively low rates, he maintained that the market was not facing any major threats. Regardless, the KSA aims to bring the product to a broader audience and guarantee higher selling prices for the sector – especially on products to be exported to China, he said.

According to Kokthean, the KSA’s main tasks are to encourage investment and provide knowledge, new research and solutions involving nesting homes and care for the swiftlets; improve the quality of edible bird’s nests; and identify, assess and develop potential export markets, especially those in China.

“The Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement entered into force [on January 1], thus providing opportunities for the export of Cambodian edible bird’s nests to China, the market with the world’s highest demand, where [access] is seemingly easier than it had been in the past,” he said.

The owner of a swiftlet nesting home in Koh Kong province, who asked to remain anonymous, said he jumped on the bird’s nest bandwagon four years ago, but that the undertaking was still unprofitable.

The nest gatherer said he and nearby peers expect windfall profits, should Beijing allow Cambodia to formally export the commodity to Chinese shores.

He said the nests “can only be collected once ever two or three months, and they won’t fetch high prices – mine is a family-run operation after all. If they could be exported to China, rates would definitely go up”.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Cambodia has submitted a number of proposals to the Chinese government to export agricultural products such as longan, peppercorn, durian, pomelos and edible bird’s nests.

Ngin Chhay, head of the ministry’s General Directorate of Agriculture, previously told The Post that his team was working with the Chinese private sector and authorities to export Cambodian edible bird’s nests to China.

However, he identified two major sources of obstacles to that plan: negotiations with Beijing, and domestic issues.

He elaborated that Chinese authorities only consider a single product per country at a time to import. There is also a domestic shortage in factories and cottage industries to process bird’s nest, he said, adding that, by and large, they fail to meet Chinese standards.

“Cambodia has yet to set up an ISO-certified processing plant,” he said, citing research conducted by authorities.

The KSA president said that each year, the supply of edible bird’s nests falls more than 1,000 tonnes short of Chinese demand, citing research.

Although no official studies have been conducted, Kokthean said, annual production in Cambodia is most likely less than 100 tonnes, even though environmental conditions in the Kingdom are “good enough” to build more nesting houses.

He said uncleaned edible bird’s nests currently hover in the $650-$700 range per kilogramme in Cambodia whereas those in Malaysia would fetch $800-$1,000, and cleaned ones locally go for between $1,600 and over $2,000.

For comparison, Cambodia Bird’s Nest Federation president Nang Sothy told The Post on February 15 that uncleaned edible bird’s nests would go for $480-$750 per kilogramme then, and cleaned ones in the $1,500-$3,500 range, depending on quality.

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