Swiftlet nests, which are made almost entirely of the bird’s own saliva, are a hot commodity in China where they are prepared in soups and known to have medicinal qualities as well as being an aphrodisiac. The Post’s Cheng Sokhorng sat down with Nang Sothy, president of the Cambodia Bird’s Nest Federation (CBNF), to talk about how the local edible bird’s nest industry has grown.
When did swiftlet cultivation in Cambodia begin?
In Cambodia, edible swiftlet nest cultivation began to really take off in the 1990s, during the UNTAC mission. After UNTAC mission finished, many of those serving from Malaysia started families with Cambodians and that is when building houses for the birds began. At that time, we also saw that investors from Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore were interested in the bird’s nest market and started operating businesses as well.
When and why was the Cambodia Bird’s Nest Federation founded?
The federation was set up in 2014 with 38 founding members. We established it in order to tap into the Chinese market because Chinese people believe that eating the nest will promote good health, make them younger and build up the body’s immune system especially for the elderly or pregnant. Additionally, the nest is an expensive souvenir that is given to family and friends.
The other reason we established the federation was so that we could share technical experience in building bird houses, or nests, for swiftlets in order to make sure that we have high-capacity cultivation and to make sure all the businesses don’t fail.
How has the cultivation of the nests changed over the years?
During the UNTAC time, most of the harvesting was natural by finding the nests in mountain caves, but this was very difficult work and a lot of the products would be destroyed by the journey.
So now we have switched to swiftlet farming and our current estimates are that there are between 2,300 to 3,000 bird nest farms across the country that can produce on average between 1,000 to 1,500 kilograms per month of unprocessed nests.
What areas in Cambodia have swiftlet cultivation?
The geographical locations for nest cultivation are primarily in coastal towns and mountains in provinces like Kep, Kampot, Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong. But they are also cultivated in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kampong Cham and Takhmao city in Kandal province as well.
What is the cost of investment for swiftlet farming?
For the scope of investment for farming and warehouse processing, it is anywhere between $100,000 to $300,000 depending on the size of the facility, what equipment is installed and purchasing the land. Currently there are about 10 warehouses that each need between 50 and 100 workers to process and clean the bird’s nests. The yield of nests is 1,000 to 1,500 kilograms a month, valued at around $600 per kilo. So the total revenue for unprocessed bird’s nests across the country is never less than $1 million per month. However, for processed and cleaned nests they are valued at $2,000 to $2,500, with total country revenue around $2 to $3 million. According to Japanese experts that have analysed Cambodia’s bird’s nest cultivation, we have high-quality products despite the fact that we are not as developed a country as our neighbours. The reason for that is because we still have good natural locations for the birds and strive for high-quality processing.
Where do the bird’s nests go?
We sell about 30 percent to the local market and another 30 percent to international tourists. However, because we do not have official export status, there are a lot of farmers that sell to brokers, who smuggle the nests across the border into Thailand or Vietnam. But the fact that smuggling exists creates the opportunity for fake products that are trying to compete internationally.
For instance, in 2008 when Chinese authorities discovered that fake nests were being sold from Malaysia, the price dropped by 50 percent. And after that, China has been a lot stricter with import standards.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.