Monday July 26, 2010
"Switch off the phone, switch it off," the group of "aunties" spoke loudly to a member of the group whose phone emitted extremely loud musical noises as the Air Asia plane from Penang was about to land in Singapore at 8.30 pm Monday July 26, 2010. But the old woman answered her phone in the Hokkien dialect: "I am in Singapore now. What did you say? Can't hear you well. Speak up, speak up..."
"The plane is going to crash if you don't switch off your mobile phone," one aunty shouted. "Switch off, switch off..your phone."
But no cabin crew or passenger rushed to take the phone off the culprit. Air Asia cabin crew had advised about switching off the mobile phone before the plane lifted off from Penang, but the language was English and Malay. The old Chinese woman understood neither and so she did not switch off her mobile phone. No Singapoeans died as the plane did not explode.
I was in Penang to visit a swiftlet farming consultancy, Crystal Swiftlets, www.crystalswiftlets.com, with my mentor. A vet there picked us up. It was a bright sunny day in Penang. I will just record briefly in draft form, my visit this morning before I get sucked into the daily routine in Singapore and don't record anything.
1. Swiftlet farming can mean big money as there is no need to provide feed for the swiftlets. Food can account for a big % of the production cost. They fly out to eat only flying insects (airborne and therefore healthy).
2. According to the consultancy, only 2 of around 15 species of swiftlets are worth investing. "In such situation, building a house for swiftlet production may result in losses if the wrong species come to nest," I asked. The consultant said that a site test would be conducted to see whether there is the useful species. This involved the use of vocalisation (music in CD, etc) and other methods by the consultancy.
The most useful species is Aerodramus fuciphagus which produces the high quality birds' nest in great demand. Its bird nest consists of white edible nest. 97.5% of the nest is made up of valuable glyco-proteins said to be good for the health of the consumer. The other useful species is Aerodramus maximus. Other species produce nests mixed with other twigs and branches.
3. Prices. In 2006, RM$4,000 - RM5,000/kg. l kg = around 110 nests. Wholesale price is around RM 40.00/nest.
4. Breeding cycle: 4-monthly. Weight of the adult bird is 8-10 grams. The birds have such short legs that they don't land on the ground since they can fly up again.
5. Swiftlet farming in Malaysia. It is a dirty smelly job and there are predators, the consultant said to me. There are scam investments asking people for money and then disappearing. Sungei Pantai and Alor Star syndicate claims they have >30 successful swiftlet farms. 1 farm produces 3 kg of birds' nest = RM9,000/month. A Penang couple tricked church goers into investing in their bird nest business and disappeared with the money. The Penang vet said that 80% of the farms close down.
5.5 storeys allowed in Malaysia now. Ground floor is housing for workers or holiday guests. Cost of construction around RM400,000. For 3.5 storeys, cost is around RM300,000.
Adult and bigger birds do not sleep inside the small nests. Baby birds fall down and die if disturbed. They cling onto the sides of the nests as they grow up. Within 3 days, a swiftlet will build another nest if people start removing the nest. "Obviously, the swiftlet will go away if nests or eggs get removed," the consultant said. The swiftlet lays a maximum of two eggs per season. If one egg is removed, it will not encourage more eggs to be laid unlike chickens. Eggs artificially incubated will result in weak flyers or birds that don't return to the nesting place. Adult weight said to be 6-8 g. I saw a dead swiftlet at the office. It was small but had long wings. Cannot walk on the ground as it has short legs.
A.fuciphagus nests further inside the house while A. maximus nest further out, the consultant said.
Rainy season, few airborne insects, affects production. The swiftlets need flying insects.
Attend courses at the consultancy:
1. Private individuals from Myanmar and elsewhere. Buy least cost players (RM140) to play the USB vocals to attract the swiftlets.
2. Big joint-venture private-govt company in Ho Chih Min, Vietnam was provided consultancy and had built 11 farms for the company. Now, the company wants to build another 22 farms.
6. "Just build a house in an area where the birds have access to flying insects and provide the appropriate environment including the vocal cries of A. fuciphagus," my mentor thought. "Not so easy," the consultant said. "There needs to be a site test to see if A. fuciphagus or maximus are present. A. fuciphagus produces 95 - 99% of the white colour in the nest with few % of feathers unlike other species. A. maximus produces 55%." South east Asia is the area where swiftlets are found. Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are the top producers of birds' nest.
7. Predators are many. Owls, snakes (green ones love eggs), bats, lizards and cockroaches (eats nest and baby birds). "I think the main predator is human beings," I said to my mentor. "If the birds' nests are so valuable, what is there to stop the workers from selling the nests enriching themselves?"
8. Government regulations in Malaysia. Land control (does not permit residences to be used for swiftlet farming or give licence yearly), veterinary control (audit of bird nests, check for nitrite contamination), export licence needed nowadays. Agriculture land may be the long-term solution. Can bird nests be produced in urban areas? Yes, if conditions are right. She said that Georgetown has around 500 bird nest farms, mostly in shophouses, according to the consultant. I don't hear any swiftlet farming in Singapore but then prices of land are higher here. In Malaysia, only 10% of the one-acre agricultural land is permitted for buildings for swiftlet production. The rest is for planting of dragon fruits (v. popular), mushrooms, fishes, holiday homes. Shophouses not encouraged. Licence is renewable annually. Consultancy sells speakers (music to attract birds to come into house and music to stay inside the house). Players to play the music. Both must match. Can fly >100 km per day. "Swiftlet farming can be done anywhere in Malaysia," the consultant said. "The environment must be suitable." 3 companies in Penang had their export licence revoked as their processed birds' nests were found to contain high nitrite levels.
Raw birds' nest. 3 types of bacteria checked by veterinary authorities.
Approval for building is very complicated.
Many investment scams. Kulim scheme RM500,000/investor share. Offers investors 80% of proceeds. Pumps to blow up insects for the birds to eat. Kulim, KL and Malacca firms raided for scams.
In my analysis, swiftlet farming is not a viable investment unless the investor does his own farming initially or has proper audit and financial controls as evident in the apparent success in Ho Chih Min joint-venture.