- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa It's the odd truths about ostriches that make them susceptible to myth: The birds are fast, pack a lethal kick, their hides are big in Japan; but the feathered creatures also bruise easily, drop dead from stress and it's not unheard of for people to ride them.
"But it's a myth that they stick their heads in the ground," said Gerrie Botha, general manager of Grahamstown Ostrich Abattoir, one of South Africa's biggest ostrich slaughterhouses.
The big-bird business has been a major source of income in this country for more than a century, earning South Africa about $210 million a year as it produces 65 percent of global ostrich goods. But while southern Africa continues to have the world's highest ostrich population, Spain, Australia, the United States, Germany and Poland are beginning to make headway in various niche markets, according to the South African Ostrich Business Chamber.
Yet South Africa's beak-to-talon savvy about all things ostrich, including hatching eggs and wooing picky markets, remains unshakable. And this would all be myth if the country's ostrich experts hadn't pulled their heads out of the sand a decade ago.
Originally, South Africa's ostrich business was a limited affair. The law dictated that farmers could only slaughter their birds at one location, run by a farmers' cooperative, and not every producer knew where the exports went.
"The legislation forced ostrich farmers to transport their livestock unnecessary distances, which can be dangerous," Mr. Botha said. "If the traffic was bad, or the weather just too cold, you could show up with a truck full of dead birds."
So in 1991, a group of farmers from Eastern Cape Province approached Mr. Botha, then the supervisor of the Grahamstown general livestock slaughterhouse, to work out how to get a facility close by for all farmers. Like most of those protesting the apartheid government's policy at that time, Mr. Botha and the Eastern Cape farmers decided the best route was the illegal one.
During the next three years, an ad hoc co-op of Grahamstown ostrich farmers illicitly slew birds. As the foul play progressed, it started paying off: The more they slaughtered, the more they learned. This meant they could learn to slaughter and process more and better.
"Our learning stage was critical, since the government had always kept its industrial expertise as close-guarded secrets," Mr. Botha said.
By the end of 1993, South Africa's illegal ostrich products had found their way into European and Asian markets at a rate of 100 ostriches per day. By then, the Grahamstown abattoir had even added a progressive sensibility to its practices by removing pigs from its premises. Markets in Muslim countries would later respond with enthusiasm.
But in 1994, the restrictive law was lifted. It could have been the result of the marked increase of farmers fleeing from single-site production, or it may have been because the original system was too costly to maintain. Either way, the industry has seen considerable growth since. Now there are nine export-driven ostrich slaughterhouses around the country.
And it was up to the Grahamstown pioneers to uphold a better standard for the industry at large. First, they had to buy the municipal abattoir they had been using illegally all this time. They did this by selling shares to farmers at 500 rands ($50) per "slaughter space," with smaller producers paying larger ones to kill their birds.
By 1996, 91 farmers had bought the facility and renamed it the Grahamstown Ostrich Export Abattoir Ltd., now shortened to GOA.
Fund raising was not the only hurdle. Because of lack of confidence that the new company would last, the skilled municipal abattoir staff refused to sign on, and GOA had to find its own work force.
"We had to train 52 new workers within a period of two months," Mr. Botha said. "It involved a concerted effort on behalf of all the shareholders, but we managed to pull it off."
In the process, GOA's business model evolved into something of an empowerment broker for shareholders: GOA assumes processing and packaging responsibilities, while the farmers decide where the product goes.
"One farmer may only want his meat going to dinner tables in Paris, while he only wants his hides going to a contact in Tokyo," Mr. Botha said. The company now has a slaughter capacity of 200 to 250 ostriches per day about 48,000 annually.
Though leaving the marketing to individual farmers may seem risky, Mr. Botha said it works because it plays on personal provider-client relations. The shareholders have since formed other product-specific groups, such as Philippe and Ostrimark, both in Grahamstown, which export hides.
Under these subsidiary arrangements, processors like Philippe tan and dye ostrich hides their specialty while the livestock contributors decide whether they will become boots in Japan or jackets in England. Philippe then follows up with packaging and transport.
Norman Bester, a manager at Philippe, said each ostrich hide fetches $140 to $150. Meanwhile, ostrich feathers, used for decoration and cleaning fine machinery, bring in about $5 to $15 per bird.
But the profits don't stop there.
Ostrich meat is rapidly catching on as both Western and halal (the Islamic equivalent of kosher) consumers become more concerned about health. Ostrich is "the other red meat." It is lean, low in cholesterol (lower than chicken) and has a taste that resembles beef.
So far, GOA meat exports bring in about $30 per bird, but the company is experimenting with processing techniques that not only will make its products more profitable, but also will be enticing enough to break the strict Food and Drug Administration meat-import regulations in the United States.
GOA already has a loyal clientele in the European Union, the Far East and various Muslim countries. With restriction-busting as a GOA specialty, the United States could in time become another major market.

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