With its economy opening, Myanmar scoping seafood opportunities
The Southeast Asian country of Myanmar remains a relatively unknown commodity in the seafood world.
With a population of 53 million, ranking it larger than South Korea and Canada, and more than 2,000 kilometers of coastline, according to the World Resources Institute, Myanmar’s potential as a seafood-producing state is significant. But a repressive military junta, which ruled from 1962 to 2011, restricted the country’s international trade, and as a result, the country’s seafood trade is approximately 20 to 25 years behind its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to Willem van der Pijl, the director of the Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal.
Van der Pijl, who has worked with companies and trade representatives in Myanmar since the country began opening itself to global trade in 2012, told SeafoodSource he believes the country has enormous potential to develop into a seafood powerhouse in coming years.
“In Myanmar, there is so much to tell, but right now, it’s all about potential and not on the ground reality,” he said. “There has been a lot of trouble in the country, and right now, the infrastructure not in place to really call Myanmar’s seafood industry developed. But most Myanmar businesspeople want to engage with the international market, and a couple of investors with the ability invest in infrastructure could realize a great part of the potential there.”
Siegfried Bank, a seafood and fisheries specialist with the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries (CBI), a branch of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Myanmar’s economy was never completely closed, but now, for the first time in a long time, it is much more feasible for Western companies to do business there.
“Myanmar is as big as France and has enormous marine resources and opportunities for farming. It is still at the stage where the government is doing an evaluation of its resources,” Bank said. “The challenge is in having to build infrastructure from the ground up. But something I appreciate a lot in Myanmar is that companies there have a great willingness to implement all kinds of market requests and requirements, from labeling, to sanitary issues, to sustainability aspects. I’m not saying tomorrow everything will be perfect there, but there is definitely a higher openness to consider and pursue advancements than I have experienced elsewhere.”
Since 2016, the CBI has worked with Myanmar to expand market knowledge and increase the country’s exposure, including on-the-ground training and subsidizing a national pavilion at Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, Belgium, according to CBI Program Manager Hugo Verhoeven.
“The CBI has tried to play a role in informing the governmental authorities and individual companies about the nuances of [European Union] market, and giving them exposure to the international market,” Verhoeven said.
Myo Nyunt, the managing director of Yangon, Myanmar-based seafood products firm General Food Technology Industry Co., and secretary of the Myanmar Fishery Products Processors and Exporters Association, told SeafoodSource at the 2018 Seafood Expo Global that the CBI, as well as the GIZ (a German international development agency) had been instrumental in readying Myanmar’s seafood economy for the global marketplace.
“CBI’s efforts at organizing the industry, at opening up our eyes to what we needed to do to fill in the gaps where they exist, have been very important,” Nyunt said. “We are really appreciative of all the help, as we are playing catch-up, and we want to make a better economy for our country.”
Expanding Myanmar’s seafood exports into Europe remains a primary goal for Nyunt’s association, but the country remains stymied by restrictions placed on it by the European Union in 2006, which only permits the import of wild-caught, frozen fishery products into the E.U. from Myanmar. Nyunt said Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries formed an action plan to address food safety deficiencies revealed in a 2009 audit, and has put in place a National Residue Monitoring Plan. Those actions should be enough to trigger the lifting of the trade restrictions, Nyunt said, adding that he expects that the results of a new audit, completed in February 2018, to spur the E.U. Parliament to permit the import of aquaculture products from Myanmar.
“Hopefully by September, it will be solved,” he said.
Last year, Myanmar exported 40,000 metric tons of seafood products valued at USD 710 million (EUR 597.3 million), but Nyunt said that represents just a fraction of the country’s potential. As Myanmar’s seafood sector modernizes, Nyunt and Bank identified shrimp, tilapia, carp, and soft-shell crab as the species with the most promise for export growth. Currently, 20 percent of Myanmar’s total seafood production is shrimp, and Nyunt said he thinks the country’s massive black tiger shrimp will become popular in Europe and elsewhere.
“Demand is there. And our companies have the shrimp. But of course, we can only start flying them after there is an export opportunity,” he said.
Besides the E.U., other markets Myanmar is keen to enter or grow in include the United States, Canada, Japan, and South Korea, according to Tint Wai, senior national advisor in Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries Trade Development Program. Wai said he would like to see his country diversify its exports to become less dependent on Myanmar’s largest trading partner, China.
“We know these markets are big, prices are good, and also demand is very high,” he said. “We [are] try[ing] to develop our processes to the standards of the E.U on quality, food safety, [and] traceability. We are changing [our] methods from traditional [ways] to try to comply with E.U. requirements, and we are working hard, as we feel like have been behind for many years,” he said. “If we can develop our aquaculture sector, there will be more options to expand into new markets. Otherwise, we will only be depending on China, so we are working to have another option, market and achieve a better price.”
Last year, after Myanmar’s first year exhibiting at Seafood Expo Global, Wai said he was surprised at how many European buyers traveled to Myanmar and visited the companies there. Seeing that promise, Nyunt said the government and private companies are working closely together, along with groups such as the STIP, CBI, and GIZ, to pass the major hurdle of the E.U. regulations, but that many in the seafood industry already have larger ambitions once that is achieved.
“We believe we have to go step by step –that we can’t rush the process, because we know there are a lot of things we need to fix, and there are a lot of E.U. requirements we need to be sure are met,” Nyunt said. “At the same time, those companies that are already exporting are doing so based on long-term relationships with buyers. And while we are now exporting a lot of raw, base materials, in the future, we want to be more involved with value-added products.”
But those ambitions could be checked by current events in Myanmar. Last year, Myanmar was once again in global news headlines for the government’s persecution and alleged ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya minority.
STIP’s van der Pijl said the threat of sanctions against Myanmar is now a concern for international companies involved with the country. But he said maintaining trade relations with Myanmar is vital for its development.
“It is crucial to continue to trade with Myanmar in order to continue the dialogue. The international community should continue to put pressure the country, but should not withdraw entirely, as that might have a negative impact on the whole situation there,” van der Pijl said. “Most Myanmar business people want to engage with international markets, and economic arguments usually are persuasive ones.”