Laos - A land of opportunity for fish farmers

The following article appeared on PM Blog on 17 December 2013:

Imagine a country rich in biodiversity, bathed in sunshine, welcoming to inward investors and with a population of kind and thoughtful people who must be among the friendliest on the planet and you will begin to get an understanding of Laos. Tucked away in South East Asia, landlocked between Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and China, Laos has a population of only 6.5 million, but it is growing rapidly and is expected to reach 8 million by 2020.

Unusually, for a landlocked country, the people of Laos consume a great deal of fish. Every Laotian eats around 30 kg of fish and aquatic products like frogs, snails and crabs, per year, compared to an average of 20 kg per person in Europe. The fish comes from the mighty Mekong River and its tributaries which dissect the country. Unbelievably, there are more fish in the Mekong River than in the whole of the North Sea, but with a growing population and greater demand for fish, even the mighty Mekong will not be able to meet the needs of the Lao people. The government of Laos needs to double aquaculture production from 100,000 tonnes to 200,000 tonnes per year. They look with envy at the success of their neighbours in Vietnam who export over 150,000 tonnes of Pangasius (catfish) fillets to the EU every year and they are determined to emulate that success. But first they have to produce enough fish to feed their own people.

There are 5 different kinds of aquaculture currently prevalent in Laos including the production of rice and fish grown together, fish ponds, cages, hatcheries and integrated livestock and fish operations. Already a few enterprising and bigger-scale fish farmers have appeared on the scene. Three Lao brothers run a major business on the Gnum River near the capital city Vientiane. They are fattening common carp in over 50 cages, employing 15 staff. Common carp can grow to 10 to 20 kg at maturity. 
About one hour’s drive outside Vientiane, there is a major hatchery comprising many concrete tanks and ponds. The owner - a Lao woman - imported spawn from China and Russia and produces a wide variety of fingerlings of tilapia, common carp, catfish, aquarium fish and even soft-shell turtles. She supplies fingerlings to pond, cage, rice cum fish and oxbow lake enterprises for growing on to maturity.

There is a successful rainbow trout farm in the north of Laos and near the old capital, the stunning UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang, the biggest tilapia hatchery in Laos is run by former prawn trawler skipper Andrew Hepburn from Fraserburgh, in Scotland. He produces over one and a half million tilapia fingerlings a year to sell on to subsistence farmers, who raise them to maturity in cages and ponds to feed their families. Andrew Hepburn aims to open another hatchery near the Thai border next year to produce an additional 1 million tilapia fingerlings and he is even installing his own cages to raise fish to maturity. Tilapia fatten rapidly feeding on river and pond weeds and algae and Andrew has shown the Lao villagers how to use pig dung to fertilise their ponds to help the growth of algae, which can then sustain large numbers of fish.

There are a multitude of opportunities for enterprising fish farmers in Laos. The Mekong River has 14 tributaries and many ponds and reservoirs associated with hydro-power projects. All are crying out for exploitation by fish farmers. The government says that there is a massive 1.2 million hectares of water available for aquaculture in Laos, out of which only 40,000 hectares is currently used for that purpose, mostly in wetland areas.

80% of the economy of Laos is agriculture based and the government’s vision is for exports of fish and farm products, but as a desperately poor country (over one third of the population live below the international poverty line of $1.25c per day) they have no money to invest in new technology or equipment to help the expansion of these key sectors. They want to expand fish farming in 17 provinces, but at $5 per kg to purchase fingerlings, the government of Laos says it is too expensive for farmers to diversify.

There are only 5 or 6 species of fish that can be bred domestically for human consumption, but as well as a lack of finance, there is a lack of knowledge on how to increase their number. Most farmed fish are reared to maturity during the rainy season, which lasts for many months in Laos. The ponds and reservoirs that fill up during this period provide the perfect environment for subsistence fish farmers who grow the fish only for domestic use. The government of Laos needs help to expand expertise, expand production and even, eventually to start a fish export trade like Vietnam. They have introduced new laws which should attract inward investors, offering good terms for land acquisition and tax breaks for up to ten years for successful businesses.

With the economy growing at a rate of 8.1% annually and with average inflation at around 5.8%, Laos is a beautiful land of rich and diverse opportunities, particularly for pioneering fish farmers.