The path to sustainable fisheries runs through Viet Nam - Q&A with UNCTAD economist

19 October 2018

Economist Mussie Delelegn tells us why UNCTAD has partnered with a Vietnamese university to create a sustainable fisheries training centre.

UNCTAD recently formed a partnership with the Nha Trang University of Viet Nam to open a new centre of excellence to train people working in fisheries and aquaculture in African and Asian least developed countries.

With the first training course set to kick off on 29 October, we sat down with Mussie Delelegn, an UNCTAD economist working on the programme, to discuss why Viet Nam is such a success story and why the UN body concerned with development through trade chose to partner with this particular university.

Q: Why Viet Nam?

A: I think Viet Nam is one of the few developing countries in the world that has made significant progress in tapping into the potential of the fisheries sector for social development.

Viet Nam is the fifth largest producer of fish in the world and the fourth largest producer of aquaculture, and there is a lot that countries can learn from the Vietnamese experience.

I think the official production for the last ten years has been growing on average by 10%. This is huge by any standard. And the exports of the official sector in Viet Nam today generate close to $10 billion. That is huge coming from one sector from one of the developing countries in the world. About a decade ago, Vietnam’s total fishery exports in value terms were not more than $2 bilion.

And the biggest success for Viet Nam is not from the catch fish. It's from aquaculture. Today, aquaculture production accounts for 55% of the total fishery production in the country and generates close to 80% of export revenue. Also, the fishery sector along the value chain employs as many as 10 million people. Close to 80% of the employment is in the aquaculture sub-sector.

Now, the success for Viet Nam from aquaculture and also from the catch fish has led Viet Nam to transform the sector into one of the vibrant manufacturing hubs in terms of producing seafood – for example, processed food and frozen fish.

Q: What are the development aspects of Viet Nam’s success?

A: I had the opportunity to visit a processing firm based in the city of Nha Trang that employs 3,000 people, and 98% of the workforce are women. So, it has a social and gender dimension as well.

Also, the income level for people working in the fishery sector is comparable to those working in the manufacturing sector. So, it has substantial impact on poverty reduction.

There’s also the notion of sustainability because the more you develop aquaculture the more you can reduce tensions on the natural catch. Overfishing is a problem. The depletion of the fish stock is a challenge.

One point which distinguishes Viet Nam is the degree of market penetration. Viet Nam exports to almost all over the world, to developed countries.

For one of the firms I was talking about, 50% of the exports are destined to the United States, 30% to the European Union, 20% shared between Japan and South Korea. This means that Viet Nam has managed to meet high food safety and quality standards required by developed country markets and consumers.

And they are not only exporting to these countries but are exporting to the high-end market – to the hotels directly, to the supermarkets. Many developing countries, especially in Africa, are not able to do this and are there unable to get the higher prices offered by high-end markets.

Q: How does Viet Nam’s story differ from the other developing countries’ experience with fisheries?

A: For example, in Africa, one of the countries with the longest coastline and with huge marine resources is Mozambique.

We’ve estimated that Mozambique has the capacity to produce two million tonnes of aquaculture fish and an additional two million from freshwater fisheries. This is our estimate. But what Mozambique is able to produce today is not more than 70,000 tonnes from aquaculture.

Another country that has rich potential in the sector is the island nation of Comoros. But there is no single fish that Comorians export to international markets because they can’t meet international standards. More than 70% of exported fish from Africa, on average, are destined for the European market, yet there is no single fish that comes from Comoros. So, there is huge potential but untapped potential.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, has done fantastic work in terms of exporting shrimps to the international markets. But the Bangladeshi fish is most of the time destined to wholesale markets, which do not provide premium prices. You must go to the high-end markets, such as supermarkets and hotel chains, to maximize export revenues from the sector

Q: How did Viet Nam achieve its success?

A: There are several factors.

One is that the they really followed the export-led investment strategy. They targeted the fisheries sectors that have global demand – the big shrimp prawns and the pangasius – and they deliberately expanded the production and the export of the sectors that bring high value, high return.

The government of Viet Nam has also provided incentives to mobilize the country’s private sector in the production and export of fisheries, which most developing countries in Africa could not afford to do – partly due to limited financial resources and partly due to misguided policies.

Now, the problem in most of the African countries is that even when they farm fish, they only raise the fish that they have.

Viet Nam also created vibrant institutions – the training centres, the universities, the laboratories – to make sure the fish produced either from aquaculture or from catch fish is safe to consume and meets international standards.

Q: Why did you decide to partner with Nha Trang University?

A: The university is one of the largest institutions in Viet Nam – it was established in 1959.

It hosts a 15,000-strong student population and has many faculties with expertise and experience in fishery sciences, fishery food processing technologies, aquaculture.

Secondly, it already has an international network of universities. I met students from Namibia pursuing their Master's degree in marine sciences and environmental policies. I met students from Nigeria. I interviewed students from Liberia, and there are students from Sri Lanka. There are even students from developed countries, such as Norway.

We would like to harness this potential for the benefit of the trainees we will be bringing from least developed countries in Africa and Asia.

Q: What will the training courses cover?

A: The first module looks at the fisheries sector as a major economic sector. The second component deals with the methods and systems necessary to develop the aquaculture sector. And the third module will consider the social dimensions, as I was saying, the gender aspect, the potential poverty reduction and employment generation, as well as some of the labour standards applicable to the fisheries sector.

And we’ll bring in the certification process – meeting international standards is going to be one of the modules.

So, the course is going to have between five and seven modules.

Now, one important element of the training course is that it’s not only theoretical. They will have on-the-job exposure. They'll visit the processing sites, the fish landing sites, the aquaculture farms, the fish feed processing plants.

Q: How long will the course be?

A: The minimum will be two weeks and the maximum three weeks for the initial phase. That is what we are planning for now.

Gradually, the course is going to expand. In fact, the intention from the Vietnamese side over the next two or three years is to transform the regional centre of excellence into a major training in fisheries sciences at Master’s and PhD levels.