Madagascar shrimp farmer targets China’s wealthy

Published on
December 15, 2011

In another sign that China’s wealthy are on the radar of seafood exporters, Madagascar shrimp will be exported to the country in 2012.

Ram Avasarla, global sales director at Unima, is confident local consumers will pay for high-end shrimp.

“If they pay for Bordeaux and Louis Vuitton and salmon then why not for our product?” said Stephane Jackiw, commercial director at Unima.

French-owned Unima, which counts British retailer Marks & Spencer among its key customers, has been farming shrimp in Madagascar since 1994 but will bring a new farm online in 2012.

The attraction for a wealthy Chinese customer base is the size and the organic nature of the product, explained Jackiw.

“We farm five shrimp per square meter. In Thailand that figure is more like 200 per square-meter. Also we use only natural feed and don’t use genetically modified feed or medication,” said Jackiw, who claimed that Unima is the only prawn to have earned the Label Rouge designation from the French Department of Agriculture, a mark of its organic credentials. “If you want the best shrimp in the world you have to take care of the environment.”

Madagascar’s methods have also helped it avoid the disastrous white spot disease that’s ravaged Asian shrimp operations.

“Everyone moved from black tiger to vannemei so there’s less large shrimp in the market,” said Jackiw.

However, Jackiw conceded that would-be customers in China and elsewhere sometimes confuse his product with black tigers from Bangladesh and India. Another challenge is ensuring would-be distributor partners in China “have the right channels to sell the Unima product.”

Given Unima shrimp prices are 20 percent more expensive than Bangladeshi shrimp, Jackiw expects a long-haul effort of five to six years to establish a significant presence in China but expects to grow sales here to rival the company’s top markets: Spain, Portugal, Japan, the United States and United Kingdom, in that order. Employing 4,000 people, Unima ships 7,500 metric tons of shrimp a year from Madagascar.

The biggest challenge faced by Unima in China may be one of image. Fan Xubing, managing director of Beijing Seabridge Marketing & Consulting Co., a seafood marketing firm, believes that while demand is there for high-end product, Chinese buyers will have to be educated, in particular about nations like Madagascar, which remain largely unknown as sources of quality seafood.

“A lack of awareness means among Chinese consumers the seafood industry in Africa has an image of not being sustainable … Chinese consumers associate Africa with over-fishing,” said Fan.

To become players in the Chinese market, seafood associations will have to explain to the Chinese consumer that they have a quality and sustainable catch, he added.

Fan sees solid demand in local sushi bars and in a crop of high-end supermarkets. Key is finding a niche quality of the product worth marketing.

“In the case of Argentinian wild shrimp, for example, you have to tell the consumer it’s very good quality for sashimi but you also emphasize the red color has a lot of traditional significance in Chinese culture,” Fan said.

Largely farmed, Chinese shrimp suffers from a reputation for low quality and poor taste. Certain import destinations have scored an early significance with Chinese consumers including Norway, Canada, Australia and the United States. Spain is also catching on. Imports from Japan by constrast have struggled in the wake of the nuclear accident in that country this spring.

Seabridge has received queries from national trade councils and seafood representative bodies — among them Mozambique — seeking help to enter the Chinese market. He’s recently worked with Norwegian and Spanish exporters.

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