For a lot of Bruneians, employment within the public sector can be the be-all and end-all of career success, promising stability in this age of economic uncertainty and high unemployment.
Local youth Muhd Azhar Hj Abdul Aziz however, chose to go off the beaten path, opting out of an occupation with a fixed monthly income, for briny days under the sun rearing saltwater fishes on his floating fish farms.
As owner and founder of Nur Az-Zahra Aquaculture, Azhar is only one of a few individuals who have thrown caution to the wind and taken up the mantle as an aquaculture operator in Brunei Darussalam.
Having graduated with a Syariah degree from Egypt in 2016, Azhar was always conscious of the job market that awaited him at home, especially with the issue of unemployment always at the tip of the tongue of public discourse.
“With my degree, I could have been a teacher or a Syariah lawyer. Of course back then, like any graduate student, we were all hoping to land a government job when we get home, but we also knew that it was not going to be that easy,” said the 28-year-old.
Fortunately for Azhar, his family was also aware of this issue, encouraging him to manage his uncle’s fish farm at Sg Bunga, which at the time was in a state of decline, after being in operation for less than a year.
“Despite having no experience in aquaculture or fisheries, I didn’t fear the direction my family pointed me towards. I saw it more of a challenge than anything else and with their full support and blessings, I had to make it work,” he said.
And work he did.
Since buying over the farm, he has managed to grow the business exponentially, expanding from the previous 40 cages to 156 cages which are spread over two locations; one at Sungai Bunga, the other just off the coast of Pelumpong.
At Nur Az-Zahra Aquaculture, Azhar along with four other foreign labourers from the farm’s previous management raise five types of saltwater fishes namely; seabass, golden snapper, white trevally, red tilapia, and hybrid groupers.
“Because of my inexperience, there was a great learning curve I had to deal with. I had to open myself up, and ask questions from other people, mostly from veteran operators who have been in the business for two decades.”
“I also had to learn a thing or two from the workers because they knew more; they had the knowledge because they were the ones who were taking care of the fishes 24/7,” he added.
During its first year, Nur Az-Zahra Aquaculture managed to produce a modest one to two tonnes of fish in 2017.
This figure, however, has increased greatly over the years, growing up to six tonnes in its second year, and more than four tonnes of fish within the first 10 months of 2019.
“After the first year, we had to change the way we did things, in how we manage the feed and the speed in which we grade the fish batches and sort them into their designated cages,” he said.
The fishes, he explained, are sorted into cages according to the species and their size or maturity.
Failure to grade and sort the fish in a timely manner, he added, can be a detriment to the farms’ production, as it increases their mortality rate, either by insufficient feed due to overcrowding or cannibalism.
“We also made sure to bring in a new batch of 3-inch fingerlings to ensure that there is no break in our supply chain. So we really had to observe the life cycle of the fishes,” he continued.
Currently, Nur Az-Zahra Aquaculture only supplies to the domestic market, from local supermarkets like Sim Kim Huat (SKH) to popular restaurants like Pondok Sari Wangi.
Just last year, the farm started to supply seabass and crabs to Royal Brunei Catering’s Horizons Seafood Restaurant, which is a milestone that is not insignificant, considering the lack of customers the business had to begin with.
“I had to find customers myself, I would meet managers non-stop, and give them quotations because without any buyers we could not stabilise the business, we needed the money to cover the operating costs,” he said.
Azhar is looking to venture into the export market with the hybrid groupers that are reared in the Pelumpong site, which he believed to have a stronger market overseas than in Brunei.
“The fish that is in high demand in Brunei is the seabass which are the easiest to grow, we have even sold out a few times, where we had to source the fish from other fish farms.”
“However when it comes to the hybrid groupers, the market for them is stronger overseas than here because I think locals are just unfamiliar with it. But they have been identified by the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism for having high potential in the export market”.
The high mortality of the hybrid grouper though remains a challenge, and their fingerlings must be imported from outside the country, which he added, had inconsistent quality.
“They could be the future (for the fisheries industry in Brunei), but for us to venture further into this endeavour, but we need to learn more on its rearing practices and establish a stronger ecosystem for it here,” he continued.
Overall, Azhar has felt no regrets for walking the path that he is in now and is imploring other Bruneians to enter the aquaculture industry due to its economic potential and the fulfillment that it brings.
“I remember our first harvest, I was nervous during the days leading up to it, as someone without an aquaculture background, I worried about whether the fishes had enough feed and things like that.
“Alhamdulilah they were healthy despite all the trials and errors we had to go through, so to see all that effort meant something, to see the great results in front of your eyes, I felt proud and it made me think that everything was going to be okay”.
The Bruneian | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN