Few industries in South Africa have as colourful a history with as dramatic fluctuations as the ostrich business. Unspeakable riches, royal associations and high-end fashion extravaganzas can be mentioned in the same breath as disastrous collapses, frustrations and disease.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
In a business as extreme as the landscape in which they flourish, the strange-looking flightless birds of the Klein Karoo continue to capture the imagination of consumers and the loyalty of diehard farmers.
Kobus Potgieter is no ordinary farmer. He is ostrich royalty. No kidding. His great-great-great-grandfather Armaans first shot wild ostriches for their feathers in 1846 and bought the farm Rietfontein with the money he made. Kobus’ grandfather Koos was one of three brothers who by 1910 had accumulated 6000 birds, making them the owners of the largest working ostrich operation in the world. Albeit not as elaborate as the houses of some of the other “ostrich kings” of the time, Koos also built an “ostrich palace” at Rietfontein, where Kobus Potgieter and his family continue the family legacy.
But on the day South visited the world’s oldest working ostrich farm, there wasn’t an ostrich in sight – the week before they had all been slaughtered after one bird tested positive for the H5N2 virus, better known as avian flu. Far from defeated, Potgieter is already making plans to buy new breeding stock.
“Ostrich farming is not for the faint-hearted. It carries huge risks and the returns are relatively small. Many farmers have given up over the years, but there remain many who believe in an upturn. For me the secret lies in keeping the size of ostrich flocks manageable and farming with a variety of other products that are not as vulnerable to fluctuations.
Ostrich leather and feathers are mostly luxury items which will not do well while the world recovers from economic recession, but when things are better the quality of our products will prevail. It really takes only one very famous person to love ostrich products for the entire industry to benefit.”
Potgieter has reason to be optimistic. Not only has his family’s ostrich business survived everything fate has thrown at it, in real terms ostrich products continue to do well on the international market – and South Africa is by far the leading producer.
South African Ostrich Business Chamber CEO Anton Kruger says the country has 75 percent of the world market, with the demand for especially ostrich meat exceeding production by far. “In a world where healthy living is becoming increasingly important, ostrich meat is king. It is a tasty, soft red meat with almost no fat, is rich in protein and contains no hormones or additives. Ninety percent of our meat is exported to Europe and the East, and still we can’t keep up with the demand. Today almost every part of the ostrich is being used and the industry has a bright future, despite the challenges,” says Kruger.
About 70 percent of the country’s 700 ostrich farmers are to be found in the Southern Cape, 15 percent in the Eastern Cape with the remainder scattered around the country. The industry directly supports some 20 000 jobs in the farming and processing sectors, and the ostrich business is responsible for tens of thousands more jobs in the fields of tourism, specialist crafts, by-products, transport, feed and veterinary services. The industry is worth R2 billion per annum in foreign currency and has R2,5 billion invested in infrastructure.
In the 1970s, ostrich leather became a new earner for the industry after a specialist tannery was established in Oudtshoorn and design houses such as Hermes, Yves St Laurent, Christian Dior and Nina Ricci started incorporating the supple, durable and distinctive leather into their designs. “The leather colours well and responds well to processes such as suedeing, which lends itself to wonderful design interpretations. While handbags, shoes and accessories have always done well, new applications such as upholstery, jewellery, jackets and formal wear have attracted much attention in recent years,” says Kruger.
The worldwide recession hit the leather industry hard because it is a luxury item, he adds. “In an effort to not lose the market entirely, we’ve embarked on a project in which the chamber provides master students at leading overseas fashion design schools with tanned, dyed ostrich skins that have to be turned into fashion items. The best items will be prototyped and exhibited and the overall winner rewarded with a trip to South Africa. The response so far has been excellent and three schools have agreed to take the project further by including ostrich leather in the curriculum for senior students. Attracting the attention of industrial and fashion design students to this extraordinary leather is exceptionally important as they will become the trendsetters for the next generation,” says Kruger.
While feathers may have taken a backseat, they remain an important export material for fashion, entertainment and industrial use. About 350 000kg of feathers are processed by the Klein Karoo Group every year. Processing involves sorting, bleaching and dyeing in a wide range of colours before the feathers are stripped and turned into accessories such as garment fringing, multi-layer boas, shoulder capes, feather handbags, stoles, shawls, cushions and gift items. “The Moulin Rouge and Rio Carnival take thousands of kilograms of feathers every year to decorate the elaborate costumes of their trade. Even the tiniest feathers are dyed and used as confetti, which has become popular at weddings over the last few years. On the industrial front, ostrich feathers are used for their exceptional anti-static qualities in rollers that swipe the surfaces of vehicles just before the last layer of paint is sprayed.”
Kruger says new applications for ostrich products continue to be found by ingenious farmers, artists and entrepreneurs. “From pet treats and food to stunning hand-crafted homeware and jewellery, the ostrich’s shells, skin and feathers continue to inspire. Teaming up with producers of quality products, the chamber continues to aggressively pursue the local and overseas market to ensure ongoing awareness and long-term sustainability.”
The first official records of trading in ostrich products in the Klein Karoo come from around 1863. After realising that overseas fashion houses were paying incomprehensible amounts for feathers that could be obtained relatively easily and right on their doorsteps, the local farmers caught the chicks and harvested eggs from wild ostriches. The region’s economy rocketed as the price of ostrich feathers continued to climb. To improve the feather quality, ostriches with superior curly feathers were imported in a hair-raising expedition from the Sudan in 1911 and inter-bred with the local wild ostriches – creating the registered African Black ostrich that has dominated the market ever since. The First World War in 1914, combined with the advent of the open-top motor vehicle which ruined feather fashions, caused a major crash of the industry. An abattoir was built in 1960 and a tannery in 1970, developments which led to the exportation of leather and meat. Today the industry is highly regulated and represented by the South African Ostrich Business Chamber. The Klein Karoo Group is the largest buyer, seller and exporter of ostrich products in the country.
While H5N2 is not harmful to humans, infected birds are culled to prevent it from spreading to other farm animals, where the virus could mutate into more harmful strains. Stringent regulations demand that an entire flock must be destroyed, including eggs and chicks, if just one bird in the flock tests positive.
The most recent outbreak of bird flu in April this year was considered the most severe in history because it hit the heart of the industry in the Klein Karoo valley. Compounded by a weaker Rand and one of the longest droughts in living memory, which was only recently broken, the industry is expected to only recover fully in about three years. “In accordance with international requirements, the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) suspended all ostrich meat exports. While some processing activities for the local market have resumed, the process of re-entry in the European Union is complicated and we will probably only export meat again by October or November,” says Anton Kruger, SA Ostrich Business Chamber CEO.
At the time of going to print, some 27 000 ostriches had been culled on 23 Klein Karoo farms where birds tested positive. In cases of age appropriate birds, the skin and feathers were salvaged, but all meat was incinerated.
Kruger says while government compensates farmers, other producers are experiencing cash flow problems because no movement of ostriches is allowed in the quarantine area. “Despite these set-backs, the farmers of the Klein Karoo are resilient and have proved for more than a century that they can produce the very best and they will continue to do so.”
The farmers of the Klein Karoo have long realised that ostriches alone will not sustain them. Cleverly turning the funky-looking birds and beautiful farms into interesting attractions, the industry has successfully introduced show farms, ostrich riding and racing, tours, accommodation and restaurants serving ostrich meat and egg. On farms and in towns such as Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp, beautiful examples of “ostrich palaces”, churches and other buildings form part of an extensive heritage tourism component.
Leather, Leather Bags and Accessories
Cavalli, Great Brak River
Cape Cobra Leathercraft, Cape Town www.capecobra.co.za
Christin, Cape Town
Karoo Classics, Stellenbosch and Cape Town www.karooclassics.co.za
Lugro Ostrich, Oudtshoorn
South Cape Leather Tanning, Mossel Bay www.scot.co.za
Ulka Designs, Cape Town
Via La Moda, www.vialamoda.com
Woodheads, Cape Town (leather) www.woodheads.co.za