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“There’s no book for fish farming – You have to learn on the job!”
Head of Business Development
Rong Yao Fisheries
Some people are born with a burning passion for farming; for others, pragmatic concerns about the food security of our nation are paramount. Formerly from the legal industry, Alawn Koh, took his first steps into the world of aquaculture out of a growing concern for the food security of our country.
Since then, Alawn has taken on a multifaceted role as Head of Business Development at Rong Yao Fisheries, leading his team with an unwavering commitment to the future of our nation’s sustainability.
Alawn Koh delves into the many facets of running a fish farm as a thriving business.
Unlike farmers like Leow Ban Tat, I didn’t join the industry because of a passion for the subject matter. Leow Ban Tat used his retirement fund to start his endeavour – now, that’s really passion!
I used to be in law, and it was only over the years that I began to understand this industry just a little bit. I’m motivated by a more pragmatic concern – we really need to safeguard our nation’s food security.
Farming is not an easy industry and has a different set of challenges from law. It’s very dynamic – fishes may suddenly die en masse, or suddenly lose appetite, or perhaps you notice a lot of them develop some physical issues.
So one must respond very quickly, find out what happens immediately by bringing them to the lab [if they get sick for example]. We currently have a tie-up with Temasek Polytechnic at Tampines, so that we can respond immediately if anything crops up with the fish.
It’s basically a management role. Managing people was not really a skill I had to worry about at a law firm. Language barriers can be a problem, as our workers are from China and Myanmar – we still have to resort to sign language sometimes, but we’ve picked up each other’s languages over the years.
But I really take my hat off to them [for their diligence]. When we first started out in 2011, they were memorising keystrokes on the computer to use Excel.
Farming has different challenges, largely to do with fish mortality. If you import 10 bottles of coke, you’re going to sell 10 bottles of coke, but you can’t say that with the same certainty for fish.
The same goes for feed consumption and cost—there’s no formula for it. This year alone our feed supplier has increased their price 3 different times. But the price of our fish did not increase.
It helps a lot in drafting out contracts with other parties. But in law, if you don’t know something you can still read up on it. In farming, I find myself learning along the way through trial and error.
I relied a lot on the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) when we first started, and even now they’re the true experts and have a lot of the knowledge and experience. We’ve become close friends over the years.
Trial and error, knowledge and experience. The lao jiao (veterans) in this industry have been around for fifty, sixty years and Rong Yao Fisheries only started in 2011, so I think of us as relatively new. There’s always more to learn!
I’m grateful for the friendships formed over the years, both with my staff and the SFA personnel. Those on the ground are working extremely hard and helping all of us farmers.
“The title of Business Development may be there, but I do pretty much everything from operations to sales,” Alawn says with a laugh. “It’s pretty broad [in terms of job scope] – One leg kick all!”
Unlike other members of his team, Alawn only finds himself at the sea once or twice a week to manage his staff at the farm. The rest of his time is devoted to training, managing the farm’s data systems, liaising with suppliers, managing the farm’s sales and customers and handling the head office’s legal matters.
Alawn Koh shares his insights into the hard work that’s needed for our local fish farms to thrive.
You are what you eat, and the same can be said for fish! According to Alawn, feed consumption accounts for up to 70% of business costs—it’s testament to the quality of feed being used at local fish farms.
In Alawn’s opinion, the success of local aquaculture hinges on finding the right balance between leveraging high-tech solutions—which may be more expensive to operate— and managing the cost of fish for the local consumer.
With the recent food export bans from our neighbours, Alawn believes that our nation’s food security may now be foregrounded in the minds of Singaporeans. In his opinion, sustainable farming will play an increasingly important role in safeguarding Singapore’s food resilience.
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