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Feed production in the Mekong Delta: "Aquaculture Now!"

Mechanic noise from heavy machinery plays its own rhythm. At the same time, it´s both unpleasant and sort of soothing. The five-storey factory tower is a labyrinth of mixers, dryers, pipelines, cutting edge screen control systems and speedy conveyor belts.

Mechanic noise from heavy machinery plays its own rhythm. At the same time, it´s both unpleasant and sort of soothing. The five-storey factory tower is a labyrinth of mixers, dryers, pipelines, cutting edge screen control systems and speedy conveyor belts.

Join Blue Frontier Magazine´s reporter Øyvind Sveen on a tour in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, where EWOS runs a brand new fish feed factory.  Led by Morten Borge, Managing Director of EWOS Vietnam.

Øyvind Sveen

Øyvind Sveen

THE FISH FEEDER

- I´ll see you at breakfast. 6:30 sharp!

Vietnam is not all swaying hammocks, ice cold coconuts and lazy tropical days. Morten Borge, Managing Director of EWOS Vietnam, has no time to sleep in. Blue Frontier Magazine is granted a full day following in Borge´s footsteps as he finalizes the completion of the company´s new fish feed factory line in Long An, Mekong. No feed, no fish, no aquaculture. We´re in for an exciting insight into this essential cog in the blue harvest machinery.

The ambience at breakfast is hectic, but joyful when I arrive almost on time. Borge and two colleagues are ready to go. EWOS HQ is located in Phu My Hung, a new part of town. Wide uncrowded avenues and landscaped parks remind you of anything but Vietnam. It´s like a slice of Singapore or Korea, designed and created from scratch in the south of mildly chaotic and baking hot Saigon, which Ho Chi Minh City is fondly called here down south. Twelve million people call this home. Being the economic hub of the country, thousands arrive on one-way bus tickets. Every day.

Aquaculture Now

During our one hour drive through the lush greenery separating Saigon from Long An, the shop talk turns to new fish species and shrimp feed. The latter market is huge, and EWOS aims to expand and enter it full on. Visiting EWOS Canada bio chemist Bakshish Dosanjh delves into the fine art of developing feed recipes. Every species of fish demands a uniquely tailored balance of proteins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and fat. We´re talking hard science and years of lab RnD. Borge, seemingly unwavering, turns to his colleague Simon Sanguin and demands a new feed sample ready for testing - on Friday. Two days from now...

- I love the pace of this company, Borge states. - How we just go ahead and get things done. It reminds me of traveling when young, where you don’t talk about traveling; you just book your ticket, pack your bag, and off you go! It’s about starting processes, seeing where it takes you, and then deciding where to go next. 

No doubt, Morten and his team enjoy developing their branch of the EWOS adventure. Morten´s eyes radiate, and a cheeky smile hardly ever leaves his face.

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There is an energy in Vietnam that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. Nowhere!

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- Working in Vietnam has been a fantastic experience. I spent quite a bit of time in the region before I joined the company, so I had pretty much already assimilated culture and language, which helped. There is an energy in Vietnam that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. Nowhere! The population is young and driven. This is something I especially feel among my co-workers. 

The red tape, however, is firmly rolled out in the Vietnamese bureaucracy, as in most other countries. It´s something you have to deal with and adapt to. The company has made steady progress, and Borge feels his knowledge of the local culture helps a lot. And Vietnam is making steady progress, too. There are harder nuts to crack in the region.

- In this part of the world, his colleague says, some big neighboring countries demand that a detailed list of our feed ingredients are provided - and then they launch a state-run competitor pretty much straight away after getting their hands on the recipe. Combined with a strict weight limit on quota per bag for foreign producers - try ten kilos, as opposed to the usual 25 or 30 - entering such markets is borderline futile. At the moment, that is.

We reach the industrial zone of Long An. Industrial or not, emerald green colors still completely surround us. Picture perfect water buffaloes roam the vast field next door to the EWOS factory.  Upon cheerfully greeting his staff, I can sense a level-headed Norwegian management style in Morten. This is team spirit, top-down only when needed. After donning helmets inside the colonial style main office, we set off on a guided walk around the facilities.

Aquaculture Now

FULL METAL RACKET

Mechanic noise from heavy machinery plays its own rhythm. At the same time, it´s at the same time very unpleasant and sort of soothing. The five-storey factory tower is a labyrinth of mixers, dryers, pipelines, cutting edge screen control systems and speedy conveyor belts. The nerd in me is reminded of the Jawa Sandcrawler vehicles' interior from Star Wars, a feeling later confirmed by my camera snapshots. Borge is enthusiastic.

- It’s fun being part of building something from the start, and especially something of this scale, he shouts. 

- Just seeing how the factory takes shape and grows into what it is today. We produce close to 6000 tons of pellet feed monthly. That’s about 200 tons of raw materials arriving in trucks every day. On average, the equivalent tonnage of finished product goes out daily.

The football field-sized warehouse for finished product is nowhere near half full. Sales are up. The bags hardly stop by here before they´re shipped out to customers. Currently, two factory lines are in motion. The 6000 ton per month capacity is set to nearly double next week when the third line starts operating. Rising demand has to be met.

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It’s fun being part of building something from the start, and especially something of this scale

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We leave the factory floor heat and step into the tropical heat outside. The rising tower gleams new and fresh under the blue sky.

- We employ 180 people. We run three shifts per day, seven days a week. We never stop other than for maintenance, Borge says. 

Well. Sometimes they stop. Running a business in an emerging market is all about adapting to your surroundings. While EWOS follow strict codes of operations globally, the rule book still lacks a few finely tuned chapters. What do you do, say, if your factory gets haunted by ghosts? This happened a short while back on this very spot. The whole day shift packed up and left when ghosts were spotted sitting on the roof of the tower. In broad daylight. Morten was in his city office at the time, unable to confront the looming spirits. A staff meeting was hastily called the next day. They expected Morten to outright laugh at them. Which he didn´t. - I believe that my workers believe they saw ghosts, he stated. Local Ghostbusters, which in Vietnam means monks, got called in to chase the spirits away. Monks still visit regularly, performing rituals. It has helped; the ghosts are yet to reappear.

We take a moment to admire the vegetation outside the open office windows. Borge recently found a huge snake on his book shelf while turning up for work. It´s all part of being close to greenery. 

- Sustainability is at the core of EWOS, he says. As is RnD. Vietnam has its own research facilities in the delta and cooperates closely with the RnD division back in Norway. I ask him about the sustainability of his fish feed. He says that they have cut down on animal ingredients in feed and increased traceability. This branch adheres to the same standards as the rest of the EWOS group. Many farmers have traditionally used trash fish as ingredients, which is very harmful as it randomly drains the oceans. EWOS looks for the best local suppliers and frequently discuss green techniques with them. Together, they pick up info and learn from each other.

Aquaculture Now

DELTA FORCE

The Mekong river is majestic. No less. According to WWF, it´s the tenth longest river on Earth, sustaining the same biological diversity as the Amazon. Sixty million people depends on the Mekong to survive. We leave Long An and start our journey deeper into the delta. Our destination is the town of Can Tho, where EWOS has its sales division. In three hours, Morten is to hold a meeting with his sales staff.
- Most of our customers, and indeed aquaculture operations, are located in the Mekong Delta, Morten informs me. - People here are known for their hospitality. They become like friends after a while. This is important in Vietnam where business is largely built on relationships and trust. Yes, it can be frustrating, coming from a western background and just wanting to get to the point and talk business. It doesn’t always work like that here. Patience is needed. In a typical meeting with a fish farmer, we might meet over a meal or a cup of tea, without talking any business. It´s a process of forming and maintaining a relationship. Vietnam has a high context culture. Things are rarely directly spoken, but more “understood” in a larger context. A direct approach can come across as crude or impolite. The Vietnamese are sensitive, and there is a great deal of sentiments involved.
Asked to give BFM a quick roundup of the market, Borge happily lectures on. Vietnam is one of the world´s largest producers of fish. The industry has grown at an astonishing pace, from close to zero production of fish feed in the mid-90’s. This year well over one million ton of Pangasius fish will be farmed mainly for exports, up from only 50.000 tons twenty years ago. When including other fish species for domestic consumption, around 2 million tons of fish are farmed in Vietnam in 2015.
At one point over 100 feed companies for aquaculture operated in Vietnam alone. The industry grew too fast. Today the industry is slowly returning to more healthy levels, with consolidation in both feed and farming. A large number of competitors have now closed their doors, with mostly the serious professional players left dominating the field.

PONTOON

- The variety of my work is something I really like, Morten quips. 

- From meeting with Vietnamese authorities in Hanoi one day to visiting fish farmers in the delta the next. Sometimes big industrial farms, other days small scale fish farmers where you find yourself sitting on a small pontoon on the river, discussing supplies of feed while drinking green tea, legs crossed in lotus position.

For three hours, this green water world rolls by the car windows before an enormous suspension bridge lifts us into Can Tho. The sales staff meet us for late lunch in an outdoor restaurant. Delicious seafood fried rice appears quickly in china bowls. If Vietnamese culture is to be summarized in one word only, it has to be food. Eating dominates everything, and when the Vietnamese don´t eat, they talk about eating. And they spend. In a rapidly developing economy, you see new quality restaurants everywhere packed to the rafters while shiny shopping malls still fail to attract anyone. Outside their food courts, that is. Even during the toughest of times - of which Vietnam has seen plenty in the last century - enjoying meals kept the spirit up. The story of the ´wooden fish´ is a prime example: Many families kept a fish artistically carved from wood in their kitchen. When there was nothing but rice to eat, they served this fish drenched in soy sauce, chili, and herbs - just in order to make dinner look inviting. Time after time after time. You can't but admire such pride.

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Sometimes big industrial farms, other days small scale fish farmers where you find yourself sitting on a small pontoon on the river, discussing supplies of feed while drinking green tea, legs crossed in lotus position.

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Lunch melts into sales meeting in their office next door. This reporter has been living in Vietnam for several years, and can confirm that Borge is one of preciously few foreigners who has mastered the local tonal language. His sales pitches, team rallies, client visits and factory small talk is all executed in quite a fluent Vietnamese. Only occasionally does English phrases make a quick appearance. Carefully cherry-picked snippets of Norwegian glossary are reserved for the rare moments when he hits the wall. I leave the EWOS staff to it, and head down to the river esplanade for a stroll. On a boat trip through Cambodia, I experienced sections of this river so wide you couldn´t see land on either side. Yep. Majestic is the word.

AQUACULTURE NOW

The aquaculture industry in Vietnam has faced challenges, which is to be expected of an industry that has grown so fast and has yet to reach maturity. Long term, Borge can’t see how his industry should not have a promising future. Few places in the world are more suitable for fish farming than the Mekong delta river system with its favorable climate for fish farming. The main drivers are there, with the world’s population growing. And with it, an increasing demand for fish. 

Behind almost any environmental problem, of course, this global population explosion lurks. Vietnam is certainly no exception. In the last 40 years, they´ve grown from 20 to 90 million. For the heavily populated Mekong region, it´s getting severe. Large swathes of coastal mangrove forests got clear cut to make space for prawn farms while vast jungles and swamps made way for endless rice fields. Several afforestation programs have started up recently, but hardly on the scale needed. The result is rampant soil erosion. Combined with rising sea levels due to climate change, the region is sieged by constant salt water intrusion. 2015 is the worst year on record so far. Politicians have to step up and just go ahead with whatever it takes to reverse the process globally. After all, environmental protection is the single one political topic everyone benefits from. How this is even debated is beyond me. Like a river, sustainability has to run through everything we do.

Before sunset, we head out on a boat trip. It´s by far the best way to soak in the atmosphere of Mekong. While the rivers and canals of Saigon are suspiciously free of boats, here life is lived on the water. Bright blue fishing junks, carmoisine red wooden canoes and myriads of cozy green houseboats dot the blue water. Smiles are everywhere to be seen.

What´s in store next? Morten Borge and his team are toying with the idea of enhancing the sustainability element further. Currently, trucks deliver raw materials and transport the feed bags two kilometers to the local shipping port. This step could be skipped by building a port directly adjacent to the factory. As everywhere in the Mekong delta, tributaries run close by. This is river country. Only a few meters of river grass separate the facility from open water. 

Accompanied by a glass of icy Tiger beer, we round up a busy day in perfect fashion. Gliding past overhanging bushes and water coconut palm trees, it´s crystal clear that this aspect of local aquaculture business life is one part anyone could easily adapt to.