Improving seafood freshness at the port markets of Phu Quoc, Vietnam with Japanese seafood technology pilot

For three weeks in July and August, Meros senior analyst Hiroki Seki dove into the Vietnamese seafood industry, moving from Phu Quoc Island, the largest island in Vietnam and a part of Kien Giang province, to Rach Gia, the capital city of Kien Giang province, to Ho Chi Minh City, interviewing seafood experts, visiting fish markets and discussing the growing market for premium fresh fish. This research is all part of an on-going pilot project funded by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) to increase the incomes of fishermen and reduce food-loss by improving the freshness of the fish sold in Phu Quoc. The project is led by three fishery companies from Japan’s Yamaguchi Prefecture, the westernmost tip of Japan’s main island. The three companies, Yutaka, Fujimitsu and Nishi-F, aim to introduce Japanese technologies for maintaining fresh fish quality into Phu Quoc’s main seafood market, and Meros is supporting by investigating the regional market demand for fresh seafood among seafood end users in Phu Quoc, Rach Gia and Ho Chi Minh.

Seafood today is mostly sold at markets on the streets in Phu Quoc and is rarely sold at supermarkets. Seafood is sold by fishmongers who sell many kinds of locally sourced seafood such as horse mackerel, squid and octopus. These markets are visited by not only by general consumers but also buyers from the local restaurants. Therefore, the markets can get extremely crowded during busy times of day.

Fishmongers selling fish on the streets of Phu Quoc.

Two challenges dominated the struggle to maintain seafood freshness along the supply chain in Phu Quoc

1. After the seafood is caught, proper refrigeration measures are not taken on the boat, causing an immediate decrease in quality

2. After seafood is landed, the freshness deteriorates during the distribution process before reaching the end-users due to inadequate refrigeration.

As a result of these cold chain weaknesses, much of the seafood arriving at the Phu Quoc market does not end up sold for human consumption, but instead ends up as feed for farmed fish or discarded. To address these challenge, we are conducting a pilot project between January 2022 to August 2024 to introduce several Japanese technologies that may be able to increase incomes of the fishermen as well as decrease food-loss and maintain good prices for high quality fresh seafood.

Specifically, we are:

1. Manufacturing and installing a machine to produce slurry ice at the port in Phu Quoc

Slurry ice is a sherbet-like ice that can penetrate the fish, cooling its body temperature quickly. The machine was designed by Japanese companies Remice and Yutaka and manufactured in Japan. It will soon be shipped and installed at Phu Quoc port.

2. Converting existing ships’ wooden tanks to FRP fish tanks

FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic) fish tanks have a higher tolerance to heat than wooden fish tanks.

3. Bringing cold storage boxes from Japan

These boxes are made of styrofoam with a special coating and have enhanced heat-resistance. By putting the rem ice inside these boxes, fish can be transported from the harbor to end-users without a decrease in freshness.

Here is an example of bonito kept fresh using slurry ice in Amami Oshima, an island in Japan.

Over the next months, our partners will monitor the boats, like those pictures below, which installed FRP fish tanks filled with slurry ice to see whether this has improved the freshness of fish compared with fish caught by conventional methods. We also use the cold storage boxes to see whether the fish can maintain freshness all the way to the end users, such as restaurants and supermarkets.

But to make these cold chain investments sustainable long-term, it is critical to know- is there really demand from Vietnamese end users for fresher fish?

This was Meros mission. We investigated the interest in fresh fish among Vietnamese end users through interviews and visits with over 30 restaurants, hotels, and fish processing companies in Phu Quoc, Rach Gia, and Ho Chi Minh City.

And indeed, we found out that there’s very high demand for fresher fish, driven both by the growing hotel and restaurant industry, as well as the fish processing industry.

Development on Phu Quoc island is advancing rapidly, with many luxury hotels and an increasing number of tourists coming to enjoy its beaches and seafood delicacies. Hotels and restaurants are seeking fresher fish to meet the demand of tourists who are willing and interested in paying for premium seafood.

In Rach Gia, there are many fish processing companies and they too are looking for fresher fish. In particular they process squid in a large volumes into ready-to-eat forms, mainly for export. They are looking for fresher squid in order to produce higher quality products that they can sell at higher prices.

In Ho Chi Minh City, with rising incomes and a boom in Japanese cuisine, the demand for raw fish dishes like sashimi and sushi continues to grow. While Vietnamese consumers can already eat raw fish dishes at many restaurants in Ho Chih Minh City, this fish is often imported from overseas, such as salmon from Norway.

We visited a Japanese restaurant in Rach Gia that serves a variety of sushi and sashimi, mostly sourced from overseas. Japanese cuisine such as sashimi and sushi is increasingly popular in Vietnam, and demand for raw seafood ingredients sourced from Vietnam is growing

The pilot fishing expeditions in Phu Quoc using the new technologies are expected to be completed by the end of this year. If we can demonstrate capacity to maintain greater freshness in domestically caught seafood compared to conventionally caught seafood, along with strong market demand for fresh seafood at restaurants, hotels and processors, similar initiatives may begin in other regions of Vietnam. If all goes well, in the near future, it might be possible to enjoy delicious sashimi and sushi from domestic Vietnamese fish in many restaurants and hotels across the country.

We were so appreciative to the dozens of Vietnamese seafood end-users who shared their views and experience, including a fish freezer manufacturer in Ho Chi Minh City (left) and the chef of a Japanese restaurant in Phu Quoc (right).

If you are interested in learning more out this project or Meros’ wide range of other experience in Vietnam and in global seafood and fisheries, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Meros back from conducting successful food safety seminars for Kenyan peanut processors

Meros just returned from a week in Kenya as part of the JICA SHEP program to work with local consultants to conduct a series of training programs to support entrepreneurs in the peanut butter processing industry. The Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment & Promotion (SHEP) program is a market-oriented agriculture program originally started by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Kenya in 2006 in increase farmer incomes with the philosophy of supporting farmers to “grow to sell”, not just “grow and sell’. The SHEP program has had remarkable success cases in increasing farmer incomes and has been replicated by JICA in other countries in Africa.

Kenya is now in its fourth cycle of JICA SHEP programs. In 2021 JICA SHEP initiated a new pilot project to support micro-entrepreneurs in crop processing. Peanut butter production in Homa Bay was chosen for this pilot. This year’s focus was to support the peanut butter micro-entrepreneurs’ efforts to develop a sustainable local industry.

Located in the eastern part of Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria, Homa Bay is one of the most important groundnut production areas in Kenya. There is an emerging industry of young entrepreneurs who roast, grind, and process groundnuts into peanut butter. The Homa Bay peanut variety is called Homa Bay Red, which has a particularly high oil content and produces a smooth, creamy peanut butter.

However, discussions last year with producers and processors, including local agricultural extension workers, revealed that major hurdle for these young entrepreneurs was the process of obtaining food safety certification.

To grow their businesses, these entrepreneurs aim to sell their peanut butter to wholesalers who will be able to place their products into retail supermarkets. However, food safety certification has become a minimum requirement for wholesaling to supermarkets and other retail chains and is an unavoidable step for expanding into the channel. The challenge is that preparation for this certification requires internal plant maintenance, HACCP plans, lot control books, and various other types of record keeping that many of the entrepreneurs are not yet prepared for.

To help the micro-entrepreneurs get ready for food safety certification, we worked with local Kenyan counterparts, local agricultural extension agents, professional organizations, and Tom Mboya National University to conduct two intensive 3-day food safety seminars for the entrepreneurs in March and May.

The first session in March covered food safety basics and product standards for peanut butter, labeling and packaging, as well as GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice). This included guidance on choosing proper locations and premises for the processing, proper clothing while in the processing facilities, proper heating and cooling, the appropriate techniques and machinery for accurate weighing and measurement, as well as proper standards and techniques for cleaning. The participants could all practice their skills on university equipment.

The second session in May was more in-depth and practical, inviting a food safety certification organization to present on the next steps. The seminar focused on group work to review how to use a grain moisture meter, how to keep records and lot numbers, how to compile company rules and procedures, how to analyze risks in accordance with HACCP and create a HACCP plan for the company, as well as review the documents and procedures required to apply for food safety certification.

The participants in these workshops had all been nominated by the local agricultural extension staff as being among the best and brightest entrepreneurs in the region. Despite the tough 3-day course schedule, the peanut butter entrepreneurs all actively participated and had excellent, positive attitudes.

Under the slogan “Food Safety First, Money Later,” several of the participating processors have already begun preparing to apply for food safety certification this summer.

In future seminars, we plan to further address the issue of aflatoxin (toxic mold that can easily develop on some seeds and nuts), which is a major risk to peanuts, as well as business development topics such as ensuring a stable peanut supply and creating market development plans.