A life after service

After 25 years in the military, Hj Zaini ventured into aquaculture with no formal training or business background. A decade in, he’s holding his own.

It’s 8.30am on the dot when I pull into the parking of Mangrove Paradise Resort – my agreed time and place to meet the owner of Surinam Enteprise, Lt Col (Rtd) Hj Zaini Hj Damit.

Standing front and centre of the entrance, wearing a striped, tucked-in polo tee and a black back pack is a man glancing at his watch.

This must be Hj Zaini, I thought, and by military standards – I am probably already late.

As we walk to the jetty where a speedboat awaits us, the 52-year-old – who retired from the military in his early 40s – points to a structure floating on the river under a mile away.

“We farm along the open river,” he says.

Surinam’s floating fish farm, located opposite Mangrove Paradise Resort along Kg Sungai Belukut, not far from Kg Ayer.

Once we arrive, we take a seat at the small staff house that over looks the farm. Hj Zaini’s pulls out a laptop to deliver a presentation – but makes it a point to first credit mentorship and a government supported financing scheme – as the two essential developments that got his business off the ground.

“When we did patrols in the navy we would come upon fishermen,” said Hj Zaini. “That was literally the extent of my knowledge of fishing. But I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know – as long you are open to learn.”

He had an acquaintance Hj Mahadi, who he had touched based with while he had served in the Ministry of Defence. Hj Mahadi is more famously known for being the owner of Magrove Paradise – an accommodation resort built over the water, not far from Surinam and other floating aquaculture sites.

“At the time Hj Mahadi had floating cages right next to the site where Surinam was eventually built,” said the 52-year-old, whose farm is located in Sg Belukut, not far from Kg Ayer. “So for six months I learned the ropes in business. I became his driver, studied how he operated, and opened my mind to his advice.”

At the end of 2007, Hj Zaini obtained the rights to construct a floating farm and secured  $130,000 in total under the Enterprise Facilitation Scheme. $50,000 was needed to build 50 cages, each a three by three metre structure made out of wood that are supported on plastic drums.

A shelter for staff to stay, fish stocks and feed as well as a speedboat and vehicle were the other sizable expenditures to kick start the farm, which produced 800 kilogrammes of fish – mostly sea bass – within its first year.

The following year, Hj Zaini and his one staff produced almost seven tonnes of fish, peaking in 2011 with an output of 9.6 tonnes.

Hj Zaini holding a sea bass weighing just over a kilogramme. The fish are brought in roughly three inches in length and are typically grown for nine to ten months where they reach a weight of 800 grammes, before they are ready for sale. Sea bass fetches a price in the region $10 a kilogramme at local markets.

“I may have retired from the military, but I wasn’t retiring my life,” said Hj Zaini, whose site was named a model farm in 2013. “I approached the business not as a hobby, but as the main way to support my family.

“A lot of people see fish farming as a way to make a quick buck, but if you take a look at how many have failed to sustain themselves – you will know that it is hard work. Especially when you are farming over river water – and you cannot necessarily control the water quality or tide.”

The start of the business was particularly challenging as monthly repayments were required, even though the first fry of fish had yet to grow to market size.

“There were times where I had to dip into my own money to make the repayments,” said Hj Zaini. “But I always remembered my dad’s principles – to never compromise on responsibility and commitment to who and what has allowed you to survive.”

Seabass feeding on food pellets. The fish farmed at Surinam are fed a combination of imported pellets from Vietnam and blended fish from local catch.
Seabass feeding on food pellets. The fish farmed at Surinam are fed a combination of imported pellets from Vietnam and blended fish from local catch.

Hj Zaini has now expanded his farm to hold 87 cages, and in 2014, he launched a hatchery in Tutong under a separate business, Adeela Sdn Bhd, as part of a wider strategic move to cater to an “under-served” link along the aquaculture value chain.

“One of the issues that local fish farms face is the supply of the fish fry, part of which is still imported from abroad,” said Hj Zaini. “So we decided to open a hatchery. To ensure that supply that was more consistent, not just for Surinam but to open up opportunities to sell to other farms as well.”

Not all has gone to plan however. The quality of river water surrounding Surinam, the reliability of water piped to the Tutong hatchery and the fluctuating supply and demand in the recent economic downturn are all challenges Hj Zaini has to contend with if his business is to expand beyond its current point.

“There are many obstacles that we have yet to overcome,” says Hj Zaini as we board the speedboat back to the jetty. “But one thing is for sure. I never second guess my decision to get started in the first place.”