Sunday, September 23, 2007

Building capacity of small-scale shrimp farmers

“Thailand is the major exporter of shrimp, but the majority of the exports, about 40 percent, are going to the US. The portion going to the EU is only a little more than 4 percent, yet the EU is the number one global consumer, more than 50 percent. What are the major drawbacks preventing Thailand exporting more?” wonders Dr Dhirendra Prasad Thakur, an aquaculture research specialist at the Asian Institute of Technology’s aquaculture and aquatic resources management programme.

Understanding the problems and devising solutions and training remedies should boost the incomes of many poor farmers and improve access to the European Union market. Dr Thakur has set out to do just that with the help of funds from the Small Projects Facility. “The aim is to find a way to increase shrimp exports to the EU and spread the benefits to the smaller-scale shrimp farmers.”

Tariffs are not the big issue, even India and Vietnam sell more of their shrimp exports to the EU than Thailand. The problem is more fundamental: the shortage of information and market access barriers facing Thailand’s small-scale shrimp farmers, typically those with shrimp ponds covering less than five hectares.

“Nearly 80 percent of the shrimp farms belong to smallholders. The problem for the smaller scale farmers is they are only getting the domestic price, they are not benefiting from the export market. There is a knowledge gap, they are relying on middlemen,” says Dr Thakur.

Clearly, smallholder farmers are struggling to get their fairshare of the market. “When we see the industry in Thailand in general we see a social imbalance. Only about 20 percent of the people involved in the industry are getting most of the benefits, for the rest of the farmers involved in the industry their conditions have not improved much in the years I have been studying them since 1994,” says Dr Thakur.

His study will try to establish exactly how much shrimp from small-holders is making it into exports. Everyone agrees this is far less than their share of production. Suspicion lies in quality, food safety, marketing and a lack of negotiating power.

He is also asking hundreds of small-scale shrimp farmers, in Rayong and Nakhon Sri Thammarat provinces, about their shrimp farming knowledge and practices. That information will help identify knowledge gaps and develop training relevant to local conditions. As well as better farming and food safety practices, farmers will also receive advice and information about marketing.

“Thai farmers are good at day-to-day management, but lack knowledge about environment impacts and lack access to information about marketing. We hope to use local experts to help them improve quality and form groups to bargain for better prices,” says Dr Thakur.

Experts, farmers, officials from the department of fisheries met in April to discuss the findings and lay the basis for training programmes. These will take place in July or August 2007 through half-day sessions, each for 20 farmers, leaving the other half of the day for taking care of the shrimps.

“Seafood safety and product quality guidelines will be taken mostly from the EU. The most complete documentation we can find is from the EU. We will take this information and communicate this to the farmers through outreach via training and brochures and develop some audio-visual CDs or DVDs,” explains Dr Thakur.

Follow-up studies will examine the effectiveness of the training and implementation. Experts, farmers, officials and shrimp processors and exporters will discuss the results at a workshop, probably in September 2007 when the project ends.

Dr Thakur thinks the research and training will not only upgrade the skills and prospects for smallholder shrimp farmers but also improve Thailand’s economic relations with the European Union.

He sees this project as only the beginning as it only tackles the export side of the trading relationship. He hopes to devise a project and elicit cooperation and funding to bring European importers into the equation.

“It would have been nice to have some activity where we could develop links with importers. We need people from the EU-side, from the importers, to help identify best practices. Social issues are also important. If there is a social imbalance in developing countries, developed countries will not be happy. We should have a workshop to bring together importers, exporters and shrimp farmers.”

In the meantime, SPF financing is helping to identify the problems and barriers facing tens of thousands of hard-pressed smallscale shrimp farmers in Thailand, and provide them with the knowledge and skills that can help them increase their earnings and improve their livelihoods.
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