The tall flightless birds who call the warm, red earth of Australia home were brought here by Hassan Ali Rahman three years ago, when he set out to establish the region’s first emu farm.
GIRDASUR, Kurdistan Region – Hidden among the hills at the end of a dusty dirt road, from afar the farm appears like any other in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
You can hear them before you see them: a faint drumming becomes a low grumbling as you draw nearer. When the makers of this unrecognizable noise at last come into view, there is no mistaking that this farm is anything but ordinary.
“My neighbour thought I was crazy. Now he’s talking business with me,” Rahman reflects as he steps outside, squinting under the bright morning sun at the tidy parcel of land roughly halfway between Erbil and Kirkuk that he now calls home.
“I lost two businesses here. This one I will keep.”
Rahman says the impetus to start an emu farm in Kurdistan was born out of the desire to do something unique that also held financial promise.
To learn the ropes of emu farming, Rahman attended a one week training course in the Indian city of Mumbai, followed by online research and reaching out to emu farmers around the world.
Rahman grew up in Kermanshah, Iran, and spent three years in prison in the 1980s for criticizing the authoritarian Islamic regime. “After I got out, with the help of the UN, I moved to Sweden in 1989 to start a new life,” he says.
Rahman would go on to establish an international telecommunications company that would take him around the world, before eventually settling in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2007.
To get the emus to Kurdistan, Rahman slogged through nine months of paperwork and spent 70 million Iraqi Dinars.
Despite his pre-emptive measures to ensure no red-tape would stop him — and the birds — the emus spent 37 grueling days stuck at the Umm Qasr Port upon their arrival in Basra.
When Rahman finally received approval to move the birds, the deeply entrenched corruption of Umm Qasr reared its face, with everyone Rahman encountered seeking bribes between $100 and $200 to let him through.
After a total of 70 days on board the ship and a tiresome journey overland from Basra, the emus arrived in Girdasur in February 2013. The birds, with their evolutionary aversion to wind and rain, spent a month recovering under the care of Rahman and his nephew Sina, the farm’s veterinarian.
“They were very weak when they finally arrived – those poor birds,” Rahman recalls.
Rahman began his farm with 208 emus – equally divided among males and females. Emus start producing eggs after two years and in one season a healthy pair can produce 50 eggs. Rahman hopes to increase his mob up to 7,000 birds by the end of this year.
Anticipating further growth in the years to come, the farm was built to accommodate 15,000 emus.
Rahman admits that starting the emu farm entirely on his own has been difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) paid one visit to the farm while he was completing the initial paperwork, but since then has not given his project any further attention or financial support.
He says officials from Baghdad have shown much more interest, paying three visits to the farm and even offering financial support if he switched his license to Kirkuk. But for Rahman, the dangers and difficulties of doing so are not worthwhile.
The officials from Baghdad were so intrigued with Rahman’s undertaking that two months after their initial visit they established the bemusing Department of Ostriches inside Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture.
Rahman thinks his unique idea will help inspire other farmers to think outside the box and pursue their own creative agricultural initiatives. “Part of our business plan is to support other farmers to start their own emu farms,” he explains.
Rahman says they will sell pairs of emus to local farmers for $700 and provide medicine and veterinarian services free of charge. After seven months he will offer to buy back the pair for $1,400, or alternatively buy the oil and feather products from the farmers.
Their biggest hopes for production are pinned on the sale of natural emu oil. Its moisturizing properties are excellent for skin and hair and it can also be used for a host of medicinal purposes – topically to relieve muscle and joint paint, ease inflammation and heal cuts. Orally, it is believed to help as a cough syrup, aid in weight loss and lower cholesterol levels.
Rahman says he is also banking on the sales from leather products like wallets, bags, belts and shoes, as well as feathers and crafts, made from painted eggshells, to bolster his business.
Fresh meat will be sold at local supermarkets for $18 per kilogram. The lean and slightly sweet meat can be cooked in a variety of ways, Rahman’s wife Halleh, the farm’s marketing manager, explains.
Rahman and Halleh both concede that something as unfamiliar as emu meat will take some getting used to before there is a steady demand.
As perplexing as his farm may be, Rahman remains indifferent to skepticism and criticism, and fiercely devoted to his beloved birds. “You have to focus on the emu,” he says.