Fish marketing in the northern mountains of Viet Nam

Fish marketing in the northern
mountains of Viet Nam

Raymon van Anrooy
Fisheries Policy and Planning Division (FIPP)
FAO Fisheries Department, Rome


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are jointly supporting the Viet Namese Government to achieve food security and alleviate poverty in three Northern Mountain provinces (Hoa Binh, Lai Chau and Son La) in Viet Nam through aquaculture development. Since 1999, the project VIE/98/009/NEX "Aquaculture Development in the Northern Uplands" has promoted aquaculture among the poor and vulnerable ethnic minority population in the three provinces. The project, which makes use of various participatory extension methods, has trained more than 5 000 farmers over the last few years in simple aquaculture techniques.

It can be said that the aquaculture development approach taken has resulted in a real success story. Many of the poor farmers who started aquaculture produce more than enough fish to cover household consumption needs, guaranteeing a large share of the total protein intake of the household members. Most of the farmers are now even able to market part of their production. In general, they market between 30 and 70 percent of their total fish production. The species most often cultivated are the following, in order of importance: grass carp, common carp, Indian major carps, bighead carp, silver carp, tilapia and Colossoma spp. Aquaculture development is continuing steadily, with more farmers starting to produce fish, and those farmers who are already established producing more fish each year. Thus, it was considered necessary to assess the local market for fish. This paper provides a summary of some findings of a fish marketing study carried out in the last quarter of 2001.

The market in Lai Chau town on a rainy day

Agriculture - Aquaculture production characteristics

A large majority of the farmers in the northern mountain provinces are poor and have only limited suitable land available for their farming activities. In their struggle for survival, they often grow various crops, of which rice, cassava and maize are the most important. In addition they generally have various small farm animals (chicken, ducks and pigs) and if better off, also one or more buffaloes. Fish was cultivated traditionally in the rice-fields in a very extensive way, by preventing the escape of indigenous fish that have entered the rice fields as small fingerlings with the water flow. Although this type of fish culture contributed to the diversification of farming activities and the risk-spreading behaviour of the farmers, fish production was very low and fish were not considered very important for the household diet. The active promotion of fish culture, including a focus on the opportunities for fish culture under the specific mountain conditions and on simple production methods, caused many farmers to dig ponds next to their homesteads and to purchase fingerlings to stock in these ponds and in the rice-fields. Initially, the purchase of fingerlings was difficult for the farmers, as they needed to travel large distances to the few hatcheries located in their or neighbouring provinces, and arranging transport was often expensive. However, a number of local people saw good business opportunities in fingerling trade, and now middlepersons and some hatchery operators make sure that, even in the most remote areas, fingerlings can be purchased at lower rates each year.

Among all suitable fish species, grass carp was, and still is, most preferred by fish farmers in the mountain areas, as the overall input costs, apart from the purchase of fingerlings, are very low. All feed for the fish is grown at their own farm, and often all family members are involved in cutting grass and feeding the fish, making it a joint activity that does not require too much time from each individual household member. However, in general, farmers stock a mix of species in their ponds and rice-fields to use the available water resource better and spread the risks involved in fish culture. Grass carp cultivation, especially, has encountered various disease problems (e.g. red spot) in the last years, resulting in a more cautious approach towards this species among farmers.

Apart from the fingerlings, the level of purchased inputs used in the production process of fish is very low, both for ponds and rice-fields. Hardly any chemicals or drugs are used, and feed is generally derived from the farmer’s own land. For the purchase of fingerlings, credit is sometimes obtained at an interest rate of between 0.5 - 0.8 percent per month. The main sources of credit are the Viet Nam Woman’s Union, which works largely with funds from the project, and the Viet Nam Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (VBARD).

Marketing characteristics

All fish farming households interviewed during the study consume part of the fish production within the household. The decision of which fish should be marketed and which should consumed at home is generally based on the market price of the fish and/or the ease of catching. Fish species with a high market value (e.g. common carp, grass carp) are primarily sold, while species such as tilapia and silver carp are commonly consumed at home and are therefore, not seen very much at the market. Indian major carps, such as mrigal and rohu, are generally considered very tasty and are sometimes consumed at home, although the prices at the market are comparable to those of grass carp for the larger-sized fish.

Fish farmers in the northern mountains use various harvesting schemes. Pond-culture farmers generally use multiple harvest systems (often between four and seven harvests), with relatively larger harvests towards the end of the culture cycle. Rice-fish culture and cage-culture (grass carp) farmers commonly harvest once per year, and they often make use of middlepersons for the marketing of their product. The reasons for not doing the marketing by themselves are many:

Time - Time is generally a constraint, as the farmer has to carry out much work at the farm around harvest time, especially if he or she is a rice-fish farmer. In addition, feed collection, pond and rice-field preparation and pond management are, all together, very time demanding. Fish are collected at the farm-gate by the middlepersons, limiting the time needed for marketing. In this respect, it should be noted that any time that is used for marketing itself is considered a waste by many of the farmers.

Labour - Household labour is lacking; the size of the households’ workforce is often too small to be able to dedicate one or more person’s labour for a longer period to marketing activities. In addition, most farmers do not consider it safe to employ non-relatives to carry out the marketing for them, as they expect their employees will cheat them.

Local market prices and marketing margins - Once in a while, the farmers check the price at the local market for the products they produce. The market prices for grass carp and common carp generally range between 1.00 and 1.30 US$/kg, while tilapia costs between 0.70 and 0.80 US$/kg. Moreover, the farmers are aware that price of fish increases by around 0.12 US$/kg in the days before local and traditional festivals and holidays. With this information and the information they get from neighbouring farmers, they negotiate the marketing margin for the middleperson/market trader. This marketing margin is generally between 0.08 and 0.20 US$/kg, which is between 10 and 20 percent of the final consumer price. As prices locally do not show much fluctuation over the year, agreements between the farmers and middlepersons about margins are easily made.

Knowledge about keeping fish alive - Farmers generally do not know how to keep the fish alive during transport and sale at the market.

Transport means - As the local (commune) market sometimes cannot absorb larger quantities of fish, transport means are needed. However, not many farmers have access to their own transportation (e.g. a bike, motorbike or car) and public transport is limited (and thus scarce and expensive) or non-existent in the remote mountain areas.

Credit and direct payments - Middlepersons always pay the amount agreed upon to the farmers directly after the sale of the fish to market traders or consumers, which generally implies that the farmers get cash for their product one day after the harvest. In contrast, between 20 and 70 percent of the customers at the market buy the fish on credit and pay generally at the end of the month after having received their monthly salary, thus increasing the time between delivery of the product and receiving payments. Moreover, some customers at the market want to re-negotiate the price at the end of the month and thus, the middlepersons/market traders often encounter difficulties in getting the complete sum of debts.

Marketing skills - Farmers often consider themselves as not experienced in marketing. They lack marketing skills, such as negotiation and communication skills, and fear that they will get a much lower price for their product if they would market it themselves.

Fingerlings - Middlepersons sometimes provide fingerlings at (hatchery/nursery) cost price to farmers with whom they have a good relationship. In this way, they guarantee that the respective farmer later sells his production to him or her. The cost of the fingerlings is often deducted from the payment for the harvest.

Uncertainty - Many of the fish farmers are of ethnic minority origin (Mung, Mhuong or Tai), while the trade at the markets in the district and provincial centres is mainly in hands of the Kinh majority. Thus, uncertainty about the language, rules and regulations at the market is widely felt among the fish farmers.

Fish are generally brought alive to the market, kept in buckets and basins of different materials with water. The market traders (who are generally women) keep the fish at the market alive by providing oxygen through pouring water with plastic bags or just by hand movements. The latter often causes skin problems (weak skin and infections) for these women, but neither electricity nor oxygen or water pumps are available at the markets to solve these problems. Market facilities necessary for selling live fish, such as clean fresh water and shelter against sun and rain, are often not available, and the space assigned to them for carrying out their business is never as clean and hygienic as desired. In addition, there is no sewage system to get rid of the fish waste produced; therefore, blood and scales are dirtying the space continuously. The market tax/fee, which is generally between 0.10 and 0.20 US$ per day, is not directly used by the authorities to improve the market conditions and facilities.

Consumer demands and trends

The consumption of freshwater fish in the three northern mountain provinces has increased more rapidly in comparison to any other protein-containing product, such as pork and chicken. This in contrast to dried marine fish products (and to a lesser extent, also frozen fishery products), which have slowly gained a share in the local consumption patterns, and for which the demand now seems to have stabilized. The mountain population sees the increased access to fresh fish products as an opportunity to bring more variation in its diet, in which pork and chicken were the largest protein sources. In addition, foot and mouth disease scared many people away from meat, and the idea that fish is much healthier than pork is gaining ground rapidly under mass-media influence.

The current increase in availability of fresh (live) products that are guaranteed to be of good quality is very much appreciated by the consumers, who care more about freshness than about, respectively, the fish species, price or size of the product. At present, live grass carp of 1.5 – 2.0 kg is most preferred. Customers at the market generally demand chunks of decapitated and gutted large fish, while smaller fish are scaled and gutted to facilitate the customers. The weekend is the best period to sell fish, indicating that Saturday and Sunday are the days that most fish is consumed.

It is generally expected that the current increase in livelihoods will directly affect the demand for fresh aquaculture products in a positive way, and that the construction of a hydropower plant and a related dam covering parts of two of the three provinces will boost the demand even further in the next five years. The latter is expected to be caused by an inflow of more than 30 000 labourers who will work on the dam construction.

Considering the above, it can be concluded that aquaculture has a bright future in the northern mountains in Viet Nam. Freshwater fish has become an established product among a traditionally meat-consuming population. The increased livelihoods situation of the urban mountain population and the related increase in spending power leads to a boost in fish sales of between 20 to 100 percent per year. The fish farmers in the rural areas are the direct beneficiaries of this trend and are showing, in their turn, an important improvement in their livelihoods situation.