Focusing on Small-Scale Producers Is Key for Aquaculture Tech to Thrive in Southeast Asia

When you sit down to eat sushi or have smoked salmon for brunch, do you ever wonder where the fish comes from? Or how it’s produced? Or how it ended up on your table? Probably not – but just so you know, that piece of salmon that you often just casually pop into your mouth is a part of a multibillion-dollar industry — aquaculture. In 2018, world aquaculture production was 114.5 million tonnes, with a value of $263.6 billion. 

Aquaculture itself makes up a significant portion of the fishery industry, which in 2015, had a production of 199.7 million tonnes and presumably has seen an increase within the last five years. 

Fish like tuna or salmon may be top of mind when we think about seafood and we aren’t too surprised to learn that countries like Norway or Japan produce a significant amount of fishery products. But when it comes to seafood production as a whole, Southeast Asia is actually the leading region in the world. 

However, in spite of its large output, fisheries in this region still operate in very traditional ways that involve the use of old school nets and large amounts of manpower. These methods are low tech, inefficient and may even cause a negative impact on the environment. And although production has been growing year on year, production figures are sometimes uneven.

Many of the issues faced in the fishery industry can be solved with aquaculture technology that has already seen widespread use in other regions. So what’s stopping its implementation? 

Implementing aquaculture tech in Southeast Asia

Similar to the issues faced in the agriculture industry, the fishery industry is also one that is dominated by relatively small-scale fisheries operated by aging individuals. 

Not only do they typically not have the funds to implement new technologies, they often also don’t have the know-how that’s required when it comes to operating these new systems. 

This makes it difficult for big tech companies to enter and do business within the region. Small-scale fishery operators may not be the most suitable client due to their limitations in size, lack of infrastructure and limitation of growth. 

At the same time, research has shown that techniques that work for industrial fisheries aren’t always the best solutions for the small-scale fisheries prevalent in Southeast Asia. 

That said, there are companies and other research bodies that have been making headway into the region. Companies like JALA in Indonesia are looking for ways to manufacture aquaculture hardware efficiently. In Singapore, the Marine Aquaculture Centre’s focus is recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).

RAS makes it possible for fish farmers to cultivate popular fishes like salmon or trout, thereby reducing the region’s dependence on imports of these foods. It also helps to reduce water consumption and pollution, as well as risk of diseases.

Overcoming the tech barrier

Rather than attempting to force the acceptance of new technology, companies that have found a measure of success in Southeast Asia have done so by creating solutions that work within the existing landscape. 

Companies have to find ways to gain acceptance by appealing to local needs. For example, Xpertsea, which is a Canadian company, managed to get 150 Thai shrimp farmers onto their platform through a strategic collaboration with NGOs

In Singapore, where there is a lack of natural water bodies, Hitachi Aquatec Engineering is assisting the government with water management in order to maintain sustainability for a range of uses, including aquaculture.  

eFishery in Indonesia, which has products like a smart feeder, cloud-based dashboard and data platform, recently launched eFishery Fund that acts as a financing vehicle for farmers.  

Innovating to meet local needs

For a long time, tech companies have been attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole by trying to get small-scale fishery operators to accept their “high tech solutions”. 

However, investors like Michael Dean, founding partner of AgFunder, are beginning to realise that “in Asia, the sectors with the highest potential are food tech and technology that can assist smallholders”.

If the aquaculture tech industry wants to grow in this region, it has to cater to the existing market. It has to provide solutions that make sense to the producers in the region.

According to the Asia Food Challenge Report, population growth, rising affluence and changing consumer demands will be the main drivers for increasing Asia’s expenditure on food. In the next 10 years, this expense is projected to grow to $8 trillion, which is more than double its current amount. 

Many tech investors and companies are still looking into “trending” industries like fintech and ecommerce. But those with an eye on the future are betting on agritech. 

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