Assam aquaculture

Rice and fish is the most common staple food of Assam. For many years, this subtropical northeastern state of India has relied heavily on imports to cater to local needs, currently at over 3.3 lakh tonnes annually. This is mostly due to its low inland fish production, which accounted for only 6.55% of the total inland fish production between 2005 and 2010. But a lot has changed since then, with renewed efforts to make up for the deficit with aquaculture. 

In the last decade, thousands of Assam residents have delved into the promising sector to help build local and profitable industry. The past six years have also seen a lot of support from the government, with at least 10,000 fish farmers supported through different state-sponsored schemes. Today, Assam is self-sufficient in fish with plans of exporting to other parts of India.

Assam’s booming aquaculture industry

The new cash cow has also given birth to a crop of successful entrepreneurs, who say aquaculture thrives on the available market inside the state, among other factors. Anup Sarmah’s Mahabahu Fisheries is one such success story. From humble beginnings- starting in just 30 bighas of water bed in 2016 – the project has grown to become one of the largest in central Assam with 210 bighas (70 acres) of waterscape. The project, funded by Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation Project (APART), is incubated under the Assam Agribusiness Growth Lab (AAGL).

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“Between 2020 and 2021, we did about 80,000 kg of fish in annual production while our fish feed mill is targeting 60,000 kg of fish feed in the current financial year. We’re also looking to expand our fish farm to about 200 acres of land in the next three years to raise production to about 100,000 kg of fish and 12,000 kg of fish seedlings annually. We’re starting with digging 90 more bighas of pond area in the coming days. We’ve even completed preparation for the production of 300,000 kg of fish grains annually,” Sarmah told EastMojo.

He adds, “It’s been a steady growth trajectory for us, and I can truly say that the aquaculture industry in Assam has come of age. It’s growing swiftly, and we’re thankful for the enabling environment and support of the government.” Other enterprises like the fish seed nurseries for genetically-improved fish seeds and the Gohpur Fish Farmer Producer Company (FPC) have also been developed by Mahabahu Fisheries Limited. But Sarmah is just one of the thousands of entrepreneurs who have become part of the fish revolution in Assam. 

Another notable aquaculture business in Assam is Aqua Blue Global Aquaculture Solutions, run by Farhana Tasneem and Razaqul Islam. The company deals in scientific production of fish, primarily for Assam, but also covers neighbouring states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, and Tripura.

Aqua Blue aims to entrench scientific methods in the fish production value chain. “We supply improved quality fish seeds, fish feed, and aqua medicines to farmers at the most reasonable rates. We also provide end-to-end support from nursing to harvesting stages, as well as finding better markets where they can sell their fish more profitable,” says Razaqul. Training is also a major part of their mandate; and using their model Fisheries scattered across all of Assam, they are showing farmers just how aquaculture is done with science, using semi-intensive and intensive systems.

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With an initial investment of Rs 30 lakh, their business has grown to record a turnover of Rs 6.5 crore in the last financial year. They continue to invest in expansion and technologies which can help improve and increase productivity and output.

Knowledge and capacity building are the central focus for most entrepreneurs in Assam’s aquaculture industry. This may explain why many of them are engaged in extension work and collaborating with local fish farmers to upscale their output. For the team at Jolkuwori, an aquaculture business established in 2018, the aim was to bridge the production gap by providing advanced solutions and affordable technologies, along with traditional fishing practices, to help improve the livelihoods of local farmers and boost activities within the aquaculture supply chain.

As co-founder and chief technology officer Dipankar Kashyap explains, adopting new technologies have made the business even more profitable for farmers. “Our bio floc solution with customisation options is a good example of a comparatively low-cost technology which brings about higher return on investment (ROI) than other traditional methods. Beyond that, we also offer free training and hand-holding support to our clients just to build their capacity and ensure their businesses perform better,” he says.

Challenges and setbacks

One of the major problems in aquaculture is the likelihood of anyone simply jumping on the bandwagon and beginning fish farming without the requisite knowledge. This craze to shore up supply and meet local demand for fish provides opportunities for revenue and a lot of unscrupulous businessmen are taking advantage of it. This is what model fisheries businesses like Jolkuwori and Aqua Blue are out to address by hand-holding and guiding fish farmers on the rudiments and scientific approaches to actualising quality fish products.

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“The problem of commission slabs, which makes fish quite expensive for locals, is another issue we’re trying to resolve. We’ve broken that part of the supply chain by buying directly from farmers and taking the products to market ourselves,” says Kashyap.

“Then there is the lack of knowledge and resources among many fish farmers. The government has done quite a lot, but a lot more still needs to be done to properly organise the industry and move our influence beyond the shores of Assam,” he adds.

This is one area that Razaqul agrees with, but adds that the low literacy rate of local fish farmers makes introducing scientific solutions pretty difficult. “These local farmers have been doing fish farming the traditional way for ages, and this has not yielded the kind of profit that aquaculture should naturally generate. This is a large-scale problem and we’re doing our best to take these best practices to them by teaching them modern ways of designing the production unit, studying the production environment and its natural fluctuations, understanding the stressors, such as pollutants, pathogens and parasites, etc.

“This knowledge is important. I didn’t have an aquaculture background, so it was quite tough to study, understand and adapt to the sectors. From technicalities and research to managing large-scale operations, it took a while to get the hang of it,” he says. Other businesses like Jolkuwori suffered severely during the COVID lockdown, especially due to supply chain disruptions. 

Prospects and way forward

The future of aquaculture in Assam depends largely on the commitment of farmers, entrepreneurs and government towards ensuring a more prosperous ecosystem for fish farming in the state. For individual players, that means doing more to boost their capacity and revenues. Aqua Blue Global plans to launch an online ecosystem exclusively for fish farmers, aqua-preneurs and aqua traders in India. The aim is to create a community where ideas can be shared and networking can be entrenched.

Jolkuwori which only had Rs 40,000 in initial investment has gone on to generate a revenue of 20.8 lakhs in just 18 months of incorporation. For them, the future holds a diversification plan into subscription-based A2 milk and its byproducts, with plans to deliver directly to farmers. “Our supply chain is ready; we’ve developed it, and we should launch this part of our business post-Rongali Bihu,” says Kashyap. There are also plans to expand their highly successful bio floc solutions to other parts of the North East and beyond.

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Some entrepreneurs are already notable for their giant strides. Mahabahu’s Sarmah, for example, was awarded in November 2021 “The Best Pisces Palak” by the National Fisheries Board, Govt of India. His indigenous Mahabahu Fisheries has a simple vision to transform his fish company into one of the largest in the country with an expansion plan that includes achieving 2,000 bighas of ponds in the next five years.

Entrepreneurship specialist Mohammed Afreen Rahman of AAGL, an APART initiative, says that Assam is a net importer of fish from states like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and even Haryana. “In the last 10 years, the fisheries sector has undergone a huge expansion in the state due to higher price for fresh fish. In my view, there are four areas where there is huge scope for our entrepreneurs: fish seed production, fish feed and other input production and supply, fish production, and connecting fish farmers directly to the markets by providing a viable logistics solution,” he says.

“But there are also certain key challenges faced by the fishery entrepreneurs such as unavailability of good quality fish seed, unavailability of nutritional feed, and market access, among others. To navigate those challenges, one should opt for quality seed production using modern technology, quality feed production – could be on a smaller scale –for their own stock of fish, and implementing logistics solutions by connecting farmers to the market, which Aqua Blue is planning to provide. Similarly, Mahabahu is also trying to provide a fair auction centre through their involvement with a farmer producer company,” he adds.

Annual fish production in Assam was put at 393,000 tonnes in 2021, up from 294,000 tonnes in 2017. This is a huge leap achieved by the hard work, tenacity and ingenuity of players in the sector. So, the next time you sit in front of a plate of smoked or fried rohu, catla or koi, you should remember the price paid by these gallant entrepreneurs striving to change the fish narrative in Assam.

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