It is common to find Aminul Azim Hj Zainasallehen sitting still as stone in front of one of his many brightly-lit aquariums, vacantly observing for sometimes hours with nothing but a cup of coffee in one hand.
There is a sense of content in his dreamy gaze as he watches the vibrantly coloured tenants flutter about the fish tank; but these are not just mere fish in a community aquarium, in fact, they are ornamental shrimp and each individual is no larger than a literal thumbnail.
The 29-year-old Aminul, may possibly be one of the biggest ornamental shrimp breeders in Brunei who founded Shrimpculture Enterprise in late 2018 from the comfort of his own bedroom which housed his first two ornamental shrimp aquariums.
“I always had a passion for fishkeeping since I was a kid. When I was 12, I was gifted with an aquarium set-up I could call my own and that passion expanded even more from there,” Aminul shared.
Despite his prior experience, however, ornamental shrimp were uncharted waters for the aquarist, who at the time cared for only a handful of aquariums which fell by the wayside due to pursuing his studies abroad.
“When I was overseas, I lost all if not most of my fish so when I got back to Brunei in late 2018, one of the first things I did was visit some aquarium shops,” he shared.
It was then where Aminul saw his first ornamental shrimp face-to-face, the Red Cherry shrimp, now considered a common variety from the genus Neocaridina, one of the two main genera of ornamental shrimp that are largely bred and traded within this niche industry, the other being the Caridina genus.
“That was when it started, my first batch. I bought about 40 or 50 of them thinking that my years as an aquarist would make it easy, but within the next few days, all of them died,” he added.
The learning curve
“Right after, I did my research and found out that ornamental shrimp needed much more care than I initially thought and I think that this was one of the factors why they never really took off in Brunei,” said the shrimp breeder.
He shared that in 2018 and the years prior, though ornamental shrimp were available in the local market, they were few and far in between.
Those that do carry them however, only featured the Neocaridina, the “easier to care” and more “common” genus between the two main genera.
Due to this, knowledge on effective ornamental shrimp care in Brunei was scarce which led him to his own research and discovery of the aquatic parameters for shrimp.
“The tank’s water temperature, its pH value as well as its total dissolved solids (TDS) which indicates the amount of minerals in the aquarium water, these are the three main aspects that a shrimp keeper must keep in mind,” he said.
“Shrimps are sensitive; one thing off and the mortality rate will increase or their growth becomes stunted due to the inability to molt. They also need to be housed in a tank with a full nitrate cycle as even a hint of ammonia can kill them,” he added.
When asked whether the initial setback or the specific care requirements ever deterred him from continuing his journey, Aminul said it never did, that even though it began as just a mere hobby: “I saw that it had a business potential”.
Breed all about it
With his first batch of shrimp dead, Aminul was not hesitant on getting a second one, only this time he was much more prepared, acquiring the necessary equipment and chemical inputs that will ensure the aquatic parameters are met.
Since the ornamental shrimp industry in Brunei was still in its infancy, the 29-year-old had to resort to procuring items as well as a new batch of shrimp from our neighbouring countries, bringing in two varieties of Neocaridina, 30 of each kind.
At this point, the shrimp breeder jumped in with both feet after recognising its economical potential, however in order to achieve it, he had to start breeding.
After about six months with plenty of trial and error, the batch of 30 increased to 300 which was sold in May 2018 at $3 to $4 per shrimp.
This is the typical price range for the Neocaridina, due to its ease of care and its ease of breeding, which plays an integral role in the value of a shrimp, he noted.
“The price range of ornamental shrimp can range from $1 to sometimes $2,000. The cheap ones are often varieties that are easy to breed where it is guaranteed that the traits of the broodstock will be passed down perfectly to the offspring,” he said.
“The more expensive ones on the other hand, their genes are unstable, because they are mostly hybrids, results of cross breeding two different varieties with qualities and traits specifically chosen by the breeder, in hopes they would be passed down to the offspring,” he continued.
He went on to explain that the price on an ornamental shrimp ultimately does not lie on the genus or traits alone but the overall “size and grade” of the shrimp which is graded by the pattern colouration as well as its colour intensity and density.
The most expensive shrimp that Aminul has sold was a Caridina called the Red Fancy Tiger which was sold with a price range of between $500 to $1,000 and to date, he has sold about seven.
Fortifying the ranks
Having the care and the breeding process down pat, Aminul became more emboldened, spending the latter half of 2019 acquiring more varieties of ornamental shrimp, importing them from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, which he noted was “the Mecca for ornamental shrimp”.
From the three varieties he began with, this number quickly jumped to 11 varieties by the end of 2019 and more than 40 by early 2020.
His varieties however were no longer limited to just the Neocaridina shrimp, but also the highly valued Caridina as well as Guppies.
He revealed that one of the key turning points of his entrepreneurial journey was his trip to Pontianak, Indonesia.
There he met with a shrimp breeder that not only showed him the ropes, in terms of care and breeding but also its potential as an export product.
“They were telling me how the ornamental fish industry in Indonesia – which includes ornamental shrimp – is booming due to buyers from Western markets, and I just thought, that is what I want to do, to export shrimp I’ve bred myself,” he said.
Despite this new vigour however, there was one unwavering obstacle and that was the COVID-19 pandemic which severed his connections to suppliers due to issues in transport and logistics.
Eventhough Aminul was fortunate enough to have been able to import two shipments of shrimp in September 2019 and March 2020 – just before Brunei’s borders were closed – it was still a problem as the turnover rate for his live products were high.
“At that point, even homebreeding could not help me fulfill the local demand, which was the initial reason why I started to import more shrimp from outside, but with the pandemic, the supplies just stopped coming in,” he said.
Unable to supplement his ranks through imports, the shrimpbreeder decided to focus his efforts on breeding, selling aquarium accessories and homemade shrimp food to sustain the business, eventually amassing 5,000 shrimps by April 2020.
By July, he sold them all and at $10 each, the money earned was used to construct Shrimpculture’s first walk-in shop, nestled at the side of his house in Menglait where his current number of fish tanks amount to 500.
Shrimpculture’s first walk-in shop opened its doors on February 2021, just seven months after Aminul’s most lucrative sale and the reception so far has been astounding with sales of up to 250 shrimps per week.
Now as the effects of the pandemic lessen, the shrimp breeder is able to bring in new varieties of shrimp every two weeks.
From new to regular customers, the general response towards the new shop has imbued Aminul with the confidence that ornamental shrimps might not be a mere passing fad.
“The shop is not fully completed yet because at peak capacity, the shop will be able to hold about 1,000 fish tanks,” he said.
He added that despite the supply problems caused by the pandemic, he never waivered in his intended goal of bringing his live products to the export market.
“At this capacity, we are supplying more than enough for the local market, so obviously the reason why we are going this big is to ensure we have the density to cater to outside markets with eyes set on Borneo first,” he added.
With this goal already locked and loaded, for now the business management graduate is content on building the ornamental shrimp scene in Brunei, hoping to organise local ornamental shrimp contests which are prevalent in other countries.
“The dream is for Shrimpculture to eventually have a global presence and to join international ornamental shrimp competitions with our homebred shrimp. For this aspect, its actually less about the money but more towards taking the culture of ornamental shrimp keeping even further,” he said.
THE BRUNEIAN | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN