Riding the tide in aquaculture

Crucial market: At the moment, more than 90% of Langbiru's farm produce is exported to Singapore.

BOTH Eric Dass Anthony and Adam Badri are engineers by training. But the quest for a new challenge led them out of their comfort zone and into Langbiru Fisheries, a Langkawi-based aquaculture company.

Founded in 2019, the company breeds and sells high value fishes such as king grouper, red snapper, golden snapper and silver pomfret.

Eric and Adam used to exchange thoughts on how to make food production more eco friendly and sustainable before they decided to take some serious action by putting their money where their mouths were. They started looking at their options and scouted for the right location.

“We looked at several options like chicken and cattle farming, but each of these industries has its own unique challenges that made our aim of producing a sustainable source of food production not viable, ” says Eric.

They finally settled on aquaculture because “with good farming practices and proper hygiene standards”, they believed they could make it a viable venture.They stuck to groupers for their popularity among Chinese restaurants and eateries across Asia.

While it is not a conventional aquaculture centre, Langkawi offered us some of the most ideal natural sea conditions."While it is not a conventional aquaculture centre, Langkawi offered us some of the most ideal natural sea conditions." --- Eric Dass Anthony

“One of Langbiru’s aims from the start is to produce pollution-free and high-quality seafood products with farms located further out from shores with better farm hygiene management, ” shares Eric.

With no prior experience or knowledge in aquaculture, Eric, who serves as the executive director, and Adam, the managing director, learnt almost everything they know about fish farming and the aquaculture industry through resources available online.

Combining their expertise in meticulous planning with the new rigour of dealing with live seafood, Eric and Adam engineered some innovative fish farming methods to stand out in the crowded live seafood product market.However, they learned that getting a successful harvest is just the beginning. Looking for the right markets turned out to be equally challenging.

Eric recalls their earlier days when he had to go from table to table, offering their fish to traders and wholesalers.

Many were sceptical of these groupers from a newcomer; understandably so. This industry has traditionally been dominated by multi-generation family-run farms.

But after a year of persistence and building their reputation, Langbiru’s groupers became the talk of the town. Fishmongers and wholesalers began looking for them.

The farm currently has 150 cages with the capacity to produce close to 185 tonnes of fish per month, the majority of which are exported to Singapore.

Before Langbiru settled on Langkawi, the search for a suitable place took the partners to all the main aquaculture hubs in the country. But none were found to be locations that met their expectations in terms of hygiene and quality standards.

“Initially, the plan was to set up farms in Pulau Ketam, given that this is an established aquaculture centre and has well developed infrastructures. But we knew we would not be able to meet our objectives with the water quality there.

“One of the biggest issues faced by fresh seafood producers is the lack of hygienic and suitable waters in the heavily industrialised West Coast. So while it is not a conventional aquaculture centre, Langkawi offered us some of the most ideal natural sea conditions and will be the main focus of our expansion going forward, ” says Eric.Langbiru takes great effort in ensuring that the quality standard is maintained, including the use of quality feed, maintaining hygiene by installing an incinerator to take out waste and setting up farms much further out from shores.Eric notes that most fish farmers are not willing to locate their cages more than 2km away from the shore due to factors such as maintenance, travel time and logistic costs. But Langbiru went as far as 8km out to the sea to ensure sufficient water depth and quality.

“The main difference is the fact that the groupers we farm are free of strong ‘fishy’ odour. This is a unique feature as even fresh fish generally carry smells that may be a hint of the quality and condition of the ocean or freshwater that they are bred in as well as the farming methods used for aquaculture, ” says Eric.

They also have hatcheries that produce various fish species such as tiger groupers, hybrid groupers, snappers and seabass and pomfret fingerlings for sea cage breeding. These are sold to local markets in the Klang Valley and exported to Singapore.

Also, given that the tourism-dependent island has been badly hit by the travel restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Eric points out that Langbiru is able to offer vulnerable groups in the local community, such as unemployed youths and single mothers, an opportunity at employment. This also enables the company to tap into a pool of ready workers to expand.

However, the logistical challenges of bringing the fresh seafood to market from Langkawi remain one of the main reasons why the island has not been the most popular choice for commercial fish breeding.

Currently, more than 90% of its farm produce is exported to Singapore. The company is also planning to expand its market with more varieties of seafood products through its subsidiary in Singapore, Andaman Marine.

According to Eric, the export market wasn’t its main priority when Langbiru first started. After all, Malaysia is one of the largest markets in South-East Asia for grouper fish.

But just when the fish farm’s harvest started coming on stream, the Covid-19 pandemic blew a big hole in the demand for seafood in Malaysia.

The export to Singapore became crucial for the company’s survival as orders from Malaysia, especially local Chinese restaurant chains, shrank tremendously in the wake of the pandemic.

The grouper is an essential feature at hotels and restaurants especially during festivals like the Chinese New Year celebrations.

The company has two farms off the coast of Langkawi and plans to build seven more around the island. It has also recently acquired the rights for a fish farming site in Sabah.

Eric says Langbiru will also start going downstream including processing and trading of fresh and frozen seafood as part of its expansion. The partners have set aside RM10mil for capital expenditure over time since the inception of Langbiru and this will help them grow their capacity and establish their presence in the market.

The company has been expanding using internally generated funds from the owners. But Eric says they will have to start looking at a larger pool of potential investors to get the right support as they take advantage of the growing market for quality seafood.Eric says the company is ready to consider minority stake sales to raise new growth capital to help fund its aquaculture expansion.

It is especially interested in institutional or strategic partners who can help them in building new farm capacity and provide them with access to new markets for marine products.

Eric attributes the company’s success thus far to the management team led by Adam.

But as the company grows in tandem with a growing market that is hungry for fresh quality marine products, Eric says real meaningful success for him and his partner comes from breaking new grounds and promoting a more responsible growth in the aquaculture industry.

Langbiru is also looking to invest in high-yield aquaculture technologies that can help the company increase its production rapidly and efficiently.

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