Did you know that ostriches are the largest living birds and that over 80 percent of the world’s population makes its home in South Africa? This is also home to 65 percent of the world’s market for ostrich related products, from feathers to eggs to the popular South African snack of biltong—which tastes a bit like beef jerky.
The ostrich industry is worth more than $70 million is a cultural touchpoint of South African history.So what’s next for the big birds?
Located in the Western Cape province of South Africa, Oodtshoorn is known as the “ostrich capital of the world.” Ostrich farming is big business here. Ostrich farming for feather harvesting has its roots in the late 1800s, when wearing the feathers became fashionable in Europe and America.
In the century since, ostrich meat has steadily gained favor, giving farmers another income stream beyond the feathers. Ostrich meat is a lean protein that provides a nice low fat and low cholesterol alternative to beef steak.
While the industry took a big hit in 2011 when an outbreak of Bird Flu led the European Union to ban the import of ostrich meat for four years, the industry is starting to pick up again now that the ban has been lifted. In 2015, more than 180,000 ostriches were farmed for their meat. This uptick in production is a great sign for South Africa’s economy, as the ostrich farming industry employs over 50,000 people.
During the four year ban, the industry took some important steps to mitigate the potential ruin they could have faced due to a bird flu outbreak. Luckily, during this time ostrich leather came into demand from fashion trends, with Prada and Gucci designing shoes, handbags and other apparel made of the supple leather.
The industry also learned to diversify beyond its reliance on fresh ostrich meat. Over the past few years farmers have developed production processes for pre-cooked ostrich meat, making South Africa the only country to market the meat this way. Chairman of the Ostrich Business Chamber, Francois de Wet told Bloomberg, ‘‘We are exporting about 600 tons of it a year and hope to increase this as the demand for the meat is rising because it has very low cholesterol and fat content.”
While the meat market is steadily rising again, Oodtshoorn also sees healthy sales of mementoes and decor made of ostrich products. The birds’ eggs are huge and sturdy, lending themselves well to lamp shades and other decorative objects. The feathers come in and out of style, and the leather has earned its place amongst the high fashion crowd. All in all, we can expect to see South Africa’s ostrich market growing even stronger as it upholds the cultural roots of a region deeply dependent on these giant birds.