Experience in Africa and Asia shows that, by working in a cluster, farmers can improve economies of scale and increase their bargaining power for inputs, such as fish feed or hatchery seed supply.
Over a dozen farmers are part of two cluster groups that have been formed in the Western and Central Divisions of Fiji through the efforts of SPC’s Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems (FAME) division and the European Union-funded Increasing Agricultural Commodity Trade (IACT) project, in consultation with relevant government departments and farmers.
These farmers were assisted through technical assessment of their farming methods and production output. Teams from SPC and MFF’s Farm Development Unit made recommendations to farmers about a range of improvements in their operations and equipment, covering aspects such as pond design, farm management practices, post-harvest handling of fish, and proper record keeping. By attending regular cluster meetings, farmers who previously did not know each other have been able to share knowledge, share vital equipment like harvest nets, and coordinate better to regularly supply fish to markets.
Mosese Ratuki, Chairman of the Tailevu cluster group, has been farming tilapia for over four decades. As a thriving farmer, Ratuki says that, because tilapia farming is not labour intensive, it gives him enough time to concentrate on livestock production. As well as tilapia farming, Ratuki runs a dairy farm and a piggery.
Farmers like him are benefitting by working in clusters to learn specialised techniques like fish sampling. This helps farmers identify the right size of the fish to harvest.
"Harvesting fish with the right weight ensures a better profit margin as we can sell fewer fish but still earn more money. Being part of the cluster has also made it easier for farmers to access farm materials," he added.
Since the formation of the clusters in 2013, SPC and MFF have been closely monitoring the production performance of the farmers involved, and so far the results have been positive.
"The production of tilapia by the participating farmers in the Central Division cluster in the 2013–2014 period has doubled, in comparison with the 2011–2012 period prior to the IACT project intervention. Production for the Western Division cluster is also expected to increase significantly," said Jone Varawa, a member of the SPC aquaculture team working with the clusters.
Varawa explained that, in a cluster model, some farmers may ultimately choose to specialise in one aspect of the fish custody chain, such as in hatchery production, fingerling nursery, or feed manufacture. Other farmers then 'cluster' around these nodes of aquaculture services and are able to concentrate their own efforts purely on fish grow-out.
One such example has been the lead farmer in Tunalia, Nadi, who is producing all-male tilapia fingerlings by the more advanced incubator hatchery technique. Any surplus of tilapia fingerlings beyond his own requirements are now offered for sale to other tilapia farmers.
Varawa, who is the Aquaculture Production Technician for the IACT project, presented a scientific paper about the success of the farm cluster strategy in improving tilapia production in Fiji at the World Aquaculture Conference in Adelaide, Australia last month.
"The farm cluster strategy helps commercial tilapia farmers in Fiji to take responsibility for their own aquaculture services and farm inputs, rather than relying heavily on government support which is better directed toward small-scale farms growing fish for food security. This is a welcome development for farmers who will be able to better respond to the market demand for fish and contribute towards improving food security in the country," he said.
He added that commercially-minded farmers can adopt the farm cluster strategy to build the industry to another level beyond what is possible through government support alone.
The IACT project is also assisting clusters of aquaculture producers in other Pacific countries, such as the cage culture tilapia farmers in Lake Sirinumu in Papua New Guinea, and the marine ornamental giant clam farmers in Palau. There are also plans to introduce this cluster strategy to seaweed farmers in Papua New Guinea, and to tilapia and prawn farmers in Vanuatu.