Indeed, not all news about abalone is bad. And what’s more, although the competition is hot – and getting fiercer each year – the SA farmed abalone industry is fighting fire with fire. With the recent establishment of the SA Farmed Abalone Export Council by nine of the country’s major abalone farmers, brand SA is set to flex some haliotis midae (the abalone species endemic to SA) muscle in global abalone circles.
In an approach similar to that of Wines of SA, the new abalone association’s mandate is to promote all SA farmed abalone in key international markets. Cultured haliotis midae will see its name up in lights, so to speak, with strategic advertising and promotional campaigns extolling its gastronomic virtues. The council plans to grow market share by building brand awareness among consumers and in the trade in primary markets, beginning with Hong Kong and moving onto mainland China.
Local abalone farmers, most of which operate in the Western Cape, began exporting shipments of the cultivated marine snail in 2000. This followed extensive and, in the most cases, expensive research and development into relevant aquaculture technologies during the late 1980s. Initial set-up costs are between R10- and R15-million per unit producing about 50 tons annually. Abalone farmers agree that it can take up to ten years to begin recouping the costs of set up. Most profitable farms have more than 15 years of experience behind them. Despite this, the local industry soon established itself as the western hemisphere’s leading supplier of farmed abalone in terms of both volume and perceived quality.
“The species is ranked as one of the premium ones, with good intrinsic qualities,” says Farmed Abalone Export Council spokesperson, Jacques du Plessis. “SA abalone farmers and exporters have created top-quality export products and brands that are in great demand, and which consistently satisfy discerning market requirements.”
Although experts say abalone farming is “still in its infancy” in SA, Marine And Coastal Management, report that 720 metric tons of farmed abalone – live, canned, dried and frozen – were exported from SA in 2006. And while the final figures for 2007 have not yet been released, du Plessis estimates approximately 850 metric tons of the product left our shores last year.
Unsurprisingly, China is the world’s leading producer of farmed abalone. It also consumes the greatest quantity of the shellfish. But, while SA has led the farmed abalone race for western countries up until now, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, California, Iceland, Israel and Hawaii are rapidly increasing their capacity for production and export.
“It was this increasing competition from other western producing nations that made us realise that we need to do something collectively as an industry to secure our position as the leading supplier,” says du Plessis, rationalising the genesis of the council.
It’s also an opportunity, he says, to counter the negative impact that the availability of poached SA abalone has on the industry’s image: “For sure, it’s an industry that faces many challenges – not the least of which is the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listing of SA abalone, and the resulting export complications and financial risks of shipments. Add to this that it’s an expensive business with ever increasing production costs, and it’s clear that there is a pressing need to grow market share by building brand SA.”
The South African Farmed Abalone Export Council was established in September 2007 and immediately set about developing a brand strategy. Consumer focus group research was undertaken in Hong Kong, the results of which will be used to arrive at positioning statements, an image and logo, and advertising and promotional material. The council also plans to participate in exhibitions and events in relevant markets.
“Once all promotional elements have been finalised and the brand standards set, members will be provided with guidelines on how to maximise these and their membership to benefit of their own businesses,” says du Plessis. “Members each have their own export sales strategies and will continue to operate independently in this regard. It is not the intention of the council to be the sales arm for the industry, but rather to promote SA farmed abalone as a superior product.”
Membership to the council is open to all SA exporters of farmed abalone. The nine current members represent in excess of 80% of the country’s total production. Du Plessis believes that the (five) abalone farms that have not yet joined the association are primarily in the early stages of their development.
“We expect that, given the benefits of our combined marketing prowess, most farms will become members of the council as they begin exporting,” he says.
(If you found this article interesting and would like to learn more about abalone, go to the Gastronomically Speaking category of this site and look for an article entitled Parleying Perlemoen.)
(First published in The Exporter, a Business Day supplement.)