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Fish tales

2017_mar_westcoast

Image Credit: Yasir Iqbal

Frozen food maker WestCoast is betting on tilapia to boost India’s nutritional intake—and the company’s bottom line.

Kamlesh Gupta is vegetarian but he made his fortune selling prawns. The finance graduate from Temple University, Philadelphia, began his business 20 years ago selling shrimp seeds. Today, his Mumbai-based WestCoast Group is one of India’s leading frozen food manufacturers dishing out around  80,00,000 kg of prawns a year.

Now, Gupta is looking for more on his plate. Sensing the potential of India’s largely unused water bodies, the 48-year-old businessman wants to ride on an aquaculture boom in India and farm fresh fish in the country’s lakes. Two years ago, he set up a fish farm at a popular picnic spot between rolling hills an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Pune in Maharashtra where he breeds sea bass, basa, and tilapia.

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WestCoast farms tilapia, sea bass, and basa at Panshet Dam in Pune. 

Gupta expects tilapia, a fast-growing freshwater fish sometimes dubbed “aquatic chicken”, to be his next big catch. Tilapia, native to Africa, is finding favour across the world because it is rich in protein, breeds quickly, and is cheap to farm. “I want to serve cheap protein to the masses,” says Gupta. “The common man can’t afford chicken or red meat. Tilapia, therefore, would be a revolution.”

To be clear, tilapia as a nutrition source for the masses is an idea floated by the Indian government and its fisheries department. The species is easy to farm, resistant to most diseases, and requires little antibiotics. More significantly, it sells for as little as Rs 100 per kg—chicken can be Rs 50 more, and prawns sell for Rs 700 a kg, if not more.

Hence, authorities provide easy access to finance through the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development to set up fish farms. Some state governments provide further subsidies. But, so far, interest has been limited to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Gupta’s WestCoast has now widened the pool to India’s western states.

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Last year, the company sold 300 tonnes of tilapia. 

The domestic market has enormous potential. India is among the top three seafood producers in the world, but consumption lags way behind. Over 900,000 tonnes of seafood worth $4.7 billion (Rs 29,689.9 crore) was exported in FY16, according to the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA). In contrast, the per capita consumption of fish protein stood at less than 2 grams a day, the same as land-locked Chad in Africa.

WestCoast is hoping to change the balance. Its big bet on tilapia is taking shape near Panshet Dam, about 50 km southwest of Pune. From a distance, the first sign of activity is a row of neatly aligned metal strips bobbing gently in the water. Get closer on a raft, and the strips turn out to be cages where fish are being reared in captivity. WestCoast has installed 120 cages in the reservoir and plans to instal another 1,800 in the next two years over an area of 2,000 hectares. A similar facility is in place at nearby Varasgaon Dam.

The company has also got clearance from the Rajasthan government to repeat the programme in Mahi Bajaj Sagar Dam in Banswara. That facility will have 4,000 cages by 2020. Once these facilities get going, WestCoast hopes to sell tilapia in local markets and the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi.

Buyers in these regions also benefit as they get fresh fish, instead of frozen or chilled sea fish. Sangram Sawant, founder and CEO of Pescafresh, a seafood delivery service, agrees serving fresh fish is a challenge. “The acid test is repeat customers. No one comes back if the fish is not fresh.”

Gupta hopes the tilapia farms will pay off. Last year, the company sold 300 tonnes of tilapia, and expects to put 10,000 tonnes on the table by the end of 2018. He says WestCoast expects revenues of Rs 250 crore from these two facilities alone by 2020. The company’s revenue was Rs 572 crore in 2016.

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Tilapia is not new to India. It was introduced in 1952, but authorities banned tilapia farming in 1959 in a bid to protect lakes and indigenous fish because it was crowding out other species.

Between then and now, however, tilapia has grown in popularity in the world market. It is valued second only to salmon in the U.S., where it is one of the most popular fish on dinner tables. While India kept away, Taiwan, China, and Indonesia became the largest producers of the fish, accounting for much of the 5 million tonnes produced annually.

The growth was largely due to the development of a genetically improved strain of tilapia, called GIFT tilapia. Developed in 1988 through selective breeding—by international fisheries research organisation WorldFish and its partners from the Philippines and Norway—the genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) was less nutrient hungry, and easy to farm. The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Aquaculture (RGCA), the Chennai-based research and development wing of MPEDA, has succeeded in raising its own GIFT tilapia, and provides farmers with the seeds. WestCoast too sources seeds for tilapia from RGCA. “The regular tilapia is ferociously carnivorous, it is a fish that causes a lot of trouble,” S. Kandan, project director, RGCA, tells Fortune India. “GIFT tilapia, however, is different. It can be fed small fish as well as plankton and soy.”

WestCoast might have plunged into fish farming recently. But it is competing with some of the biggest players in the business such as Avanti Feeds, though Avanti hasn’t expanded to tilapia so far. Despite growing competition, industry experts see enormous potential for freshwater farming in India. Nitin Nikam, technical head of aquaculture at WestCoast Frozen Foods, wrote in an RGCA publication that India has an inland water reservoir resource of 4.2 million hectares. “If one considers only 10% of this suitable for aquaculture and if 1% area of this reservoir is allowed for fish-cage culture, India could yield 45 lakh tonnes of fish per year,” he wrote.

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The company sells the fish to distributors and at its retail store in Mumbai.

WestCoast, for one, is hoping to replicate its success in prawns with tilapia. For a company that started out as a provider of feed for prawns, it is now a fully integrated seafood company with business in prawn farming, refrigeration, processing, distribution, and retail. Besides exporting, the company sells its frozen Cambay Tiger brand prawns through third-party sellers; has an e-commerce website,
cambaytiger.com; and a flagship store, the Cambay Tiger Sea Food Mart in Bandra, Mumbai.

Gupta is betting big on tilapia. He believes its price will be a big draw. “Those in metro cities can afford fish at Rs 500 a kilo but not in the smaller cities,” says Gupta. “I agree, it won’t have the texture of salmon or rawas, but it will give you the protein needed.”