Working with SMEs

SMEs & Action Research

Throughout SEAT’s investigations into the sustainability of Asian aquaculture researchers have been working with numerous small and medium enterpises (SMEs). SMEs are valued within supply chains as they are usually able to innovate in ways that are often more difficult for larger, less readily adaptive businesses. It is this flexibility which SEAT recognises as an important driver of sustainability improvements in farmed seafood value-chains.

The work between SEAT and these SMEs has taken the form of ‘action research’ and at least 24 SMEs have been involved between the different countries and products of the SEAT project. By using action research, SEAT has been able to address sustainability constraints as faced in the “real world and, in this case, prioritised by the SMEs themselves.

The whole process of action research, from the initial framing of the problem to testing possible solutions, is conducted through repeated learning cycles designed to achieve incremental improvements. Another advantage of the the direct involvement of SMEs is that it should enhance uptake of results. Here, Dr. Francis Murray, describes some of the issues surrounding shrimp farming in Bangladesh and  SEAT’s partnership with the SME, WAB International carrying out action research along the supply chain.

Enjoying a meal with a shrimp farming household in Paikgacha

Enjoying a meal with a shrimp farming household in Paikgacha

Issues in Bangladesh

One of the major threats SEAT has identified facing the whole Bangladeshi shrimp and prawn industry is failure to implement an effective post-harvest traceability system. The entire sector has been beset by recurrent (externally or self-imposed) bans different contamination incidents. Traceability has been a difficulty due to the highly fragmented nature of the pre-processing sector and a weak regulatory environment. It is estimated there are between 230,000 to 300,000 farms in Bangladesh so implementing an effective farm registration programme, a requisite for any traceability scheme, has proved challenging. It is not just the number of farms that make traceability difficult, even larger numbers of small-scale value-chain intermediaries handle the transfer and consolidation of products between the farms and processors.

Shrimp farming criticisms

Businesses involved in marketing of shrimp must also deal with the wider social and environmental critique of the industry. Several accusations have been levelled towards commercial shrimp culture in Bangladesh:

  • Erosion of livelihood opportunities for the poorest, landless groups by displacing more labour intensive agricultural land-uses,
  • Forcing other, nearby small-holder to change their land-use as a result of soil salinization and/or waterlogging
  • violence towards farmers and workers, and
  • Loss of mangrove cover.
Documenting coercive practices by external shrimp interests

Documenting coercive practices by external shrimp interests

Inspecting the evidence-base for such criticisms reveals that generalisations are often based on ‘worst-worst case’ scenarios which were selected for polemical impact and masks enormous variability in an extremely diverse agro-ecological environment. For example there are distinct salinity gradients across the main areas used for shrimp farming in South-West Bangladesh added to which this estuarine floodplain has been enclosed by 123 coastal polders and there are a range of attributes influencing alternative land-use opportunities.

There is also frequent confusion between the causes and effects of problems. For example, shrimp farmers are frequently accused of cutting dykes to access saline water. However shrimp culture may offer a mitigation strategy in extensive waterlogged areas resulting from drainage congestion associated with poor design and maintenance of flood dykes. In Bangladesh most mangrove loss has been due to historic conversion for low yielding rice production, which was in turn more recently displaced by shrimp production. Many farmers now rely at least in part on natural recruitment of wild juveniles (shrimp and fish) from the Sundaraban mangrove forest. Finally many detractors use simplistic comparisons of pre and post shrimp farming situations – but, such comparisons are complicated by marked changes in demography and livelihood opportunities over the three decades since shrimp culture has become established.

WAB International

One of the SMEs SEAT has been working with are WAB International, a European company producing Naturland certified organic shrimp in South-West Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, most shrimp farming is highly extensive, often relying on natural productivity and do not use commercial feed. This means that despite often-limited resources, farmers have little difficulty in meeting the additional requirements and costs for organic certification. Most of the problems with product quality arise between harvest and final processing; for example weight adulteration through water injection (known as ‘pushing’) of whole shrimp at intermediary assembling depots, or failure to maintain optimal temperature conditions along the chain.

Further investigations into coercive practices

Further investigations into coercive practices

WAB have been able to innovate by establishing a fully traceable (cold) chain of custody for shrimp collected from around 3,000 certified small-scale, extensive shrimp farms through local processing and European distribution. This is no small feat for a highly perishable product produced in remote areas with limited infrastructure under challenging climatic conditions. Using company records and field investigations, SEAT researchers have worked closely with WAB to understand the wider social impacts of shrimp farming in and around their clusters of organic producers.

Shrimp farms may look like aquatic “deserts” due to a paucity of vegetation on the surrounding dykes. However, underwater, there is rich biodiversity made up by the stocked and naturally recruiting aquatic fish and shellfish species co-cultured with the shrimp. SEAT has conducted research with WAB to characterise this productivity and its contribution to local food security. As well as this, researchers have also collected inventory data for shrimp & prawn Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) a highly systematic multi-environmental impact evaluation technique. This research itself was built on wider multi-disciplinary SEAT survey work conducted with over 400 shrimp and/or prawn farms over the entire South West and South East of Bangladesh.

All of this research was conducted on or around carefully selected clusters of farm derived from ‘sample frames’, which were developed at the outset of the research. In the case of WAB, a list of farmers that were or had been organically certified, and for the ‘integrated survey’, lists of farmers listed in a prototype national farm registration scheme. This meant findings could be generalized to specific production contexts with far greater confidence than a more typical case study approach. Early, provisional results indicate there are some very positive social and environmental outcomes associated with the WAB model. However selection criteria used in certification standards appear to predispose selection of more favourable locations for organic production clusters. Elsewhere, where there is a wider range of production scales and external influence, the research has pointed to more differential social outcomes. Future SEAT publications will document these findings, highlighting areas where improvement might be most readily effected.

Testing water salinity

Testing water salinity

Photo © Loni Hensler