Ismail Fauzee had a wealth of experience to prepare him for his current role, having joined MIFCO in 1996 as a junior officer. He rose to take charge of the company’s finance department before the various parts of MIFCO became fully integrated after 2013, and was appointed as CEO in February 2019. Here, he discusses MIFCO’s plans to take the Maldives’ unique fish produce to more of the world’s markets, and boost the brand’s reputation for quality and sustainability
What is your vision for MIFCO and the fishing sector in the Maldives, and what are the key challenges as you take the industry forward in your new role?
My challenge is to turn MIFCO around and make it into a profitable company, even at this difficult moment in the international market in terms of prices. Our main difficulty is our limited processing capacity, which means that only 20 percent of our catch is sent to our processing facility, and the remaining 80 percent goes to markets in Bangkok as frozen fish. That means we are forced to accept the price set by the international market. Formerly, we enjoyed better prices as a traditional fishery, using the pole and line method that is 1,000 years old. Now the daily catch is around 200 metric tons, rising to 300 metric tons in the high season. We are planning to start boosting our processing capacity from June 2019. Another problem is that the 41-year-old Felivaru processing plant is in the north of the islands, while most of the fishing takes place to the south, so a lot of transport has to be arranged to send the fish to the cannery, and this is costly. Sometimes, we have to use fishing vessels for additional transport purposes.
Our fleets are not big, so this is another challenge. We have 15 vessels, 10 of which are for fish collection, and we need to replace old vessels as well as invest in upgrading our harbour facilities. To overcome these challenges, we have to get a better price on international markets for MIFCO products. We plan to increase our processing capacity from 50 to 80 metric tons and eventually get to a point where we are canning 100 metric tons of fish a day at Felivaru, but this will take time. In the meantime, we are working on a plan to send fish to Thailand under a co-packing agreement so that we can start exporting to European markets from there.
In February, MIFCO was exhibiting its products at the Gulfood Trade Show in the Dubai World Trade Center. Do you expect to achieve results by establishing trade with the Gulf region?
We received very positive feedback at Gulfood, and there was plenty of interest in buying our products. About 50 or 60 distributors visited our stall, and we are still negotiating with them in terms of their specifications. We have sent out our price plans and samples, besides our product specifications. So, we made very interesting contacts, and plan to make more next year. We want to access the Gulf market, and we are ready to export. We have the product. My challenge is to reach more markets. We promote pole and line fishing and seek a premium for this unique Maldivian product, as it is recognised internationally by retailers such as Marks & Spencer in the UK. We are planning to access more markets on a business-to-business basis, and hopefully this year we can sell to places such as South Africa, the Gulf, France and Spain, negotiating for better prices.
MIFCO markets itself as the cleanest and greenest fishery in the world, using the world’s most sustainable fishing method. What makes Maldivian fishing so special?
Our fishing is unique and environmentally friendly. The Maldives’ fishing crews catch bait at night, then fish in the morning and catch each fish one by one, returning to harbour in the afternoon to sell their catch in the market. We maintain this traditional way of life and, in doing so, ensure there is no harm done to the environment.
The fishing industry is the nation’s second-biggest economic sector and employs around half of the country’s workforce. How do you envision the sector’s future?
I see very positive prospects for our fishing industry, in part because so many young people are attracted to the sector. I can see many developments taking place as the sector becomes more fully equipped. The size of fishermen’s dhoni boats are increasing, and we are seeing dhonis getting more involved in tourism through marine safaris, multi-day fishing excursions and leisure fishing. The next generation will certainly be involved in new and different kinds of fishing activities, and the challenge for us is to encourage this diversification. The fishing industry has a highly positive impact on communities, and it remains very much a family-oriented activity.