The challenging journey of trying to sell tilapia for chicken prices

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Ramon Amaral raises tilapia for the domestic market and bets on a growing increase in consumption

Chicken, a consumer phenomenon in Brazil due to its more affordable price, takes a more prominent place on the consumer’s plate when the price of beef begins to weigh heavily on their pockets. It is no coincidence that the country has become the second largest global producer, with 14.9 million tons in 2023. This is what veterinarian Ramon Amaral, co-owner and director of Brazilian Fish, thinks about this every day, but “pulling the sardine” to your plate. “I want to make tilapia cost the same price as chicken,” he says. “I decided that my mission is to make tilapia more accessible, so that everyone can eat it.”

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The mission is not simple, but what Amaral wants makes sense as a long-term business. In 2022, the country produced 550 thousand tons of tilapia, a number 3% above the total for 2021, with a tendency to expand in 2023, a year that has not yet had its data finalized. The species represents 63.9% of the national production of farmed fish, according to the Brazilian Fish Farming Association (Peixe BR), an entity of which Brazilian Fish is a member. Also in 2022, a survey by Peixe BR, with 4,200 people across the country, carried out in partnership with the Axxus Institute, showed that 83% of them are sure that the healthiest animal protein is fish.

Located in Santa Fé do Sul, a municipality in São Paulo on the border with Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazilian Fish belongs to the Ambar Amaral Group, which also works with beef cattle farming. The vertical project, with production and slaughterhouse, processes 11 thousand tons of tilapia per year.

There are 3,500 cages on seven farms. There are also 14 hectares of water in a tank excavated to produce the fry. The creation at the source of the Paraná River is in the aquaculture park of the Ilha Solteira hydroelectric plant reservoir, with total production in this region of around 30 thousand tons of tilapia per year.

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Brazilian Fish should confirm growth of 30% this year. For 2024, an increase of around 80% is expected from investments of around R$35 million in a new breeding center, in biofertilizer from industrial waste (51% of the fish) and in a genetic improvement laboratory. “Next, our next investment will be in the production of vaccines for fish, a product that we buy today”, says Amaral.

The initial production of biofertilizers is 1 million liters per year. For this, only 4% of the waste from tilapia production will be used. At the slaughterhouse, the goal is to go from 50 tons of tilapia processed per day to 80 tons. This is because, with the improvement of fish genetics, Amaral believes that food conversion, currently 33% in fillet for each animal slaughtered, could increase to 43%. The strategy means bigger fish that gain weight faster, which is exactly what the poultry industry has done in recent decades.

Brazilian Fish has 3,500 cages on seven tilapia farms

Amaral wants to reduce the current conversion by 15%, which is 1.5 (1.5 kilos of feed to fatten one kilo of fish). “You can pass on the value. As we have more income, this impact will reach the final end”, he believes. Today, a kilo of chicken fillet costs around R$20 in the supermarket, while tilapia fillet costs three times as much.

To accelerate the conquest of this market and save time, the focus is on innovation. The brand has 17 products made from tilapia. In addition to fillets, there is a line of frozen foods with bait, ground meat, dumplings, kibbeh, bundles, pururuca and dishes made with four cheeses and parmigiana. At the end of October 2023, Brazilian Fish took first place in the Seafood Innovation Show award, during the Seafood Show Latin America (second international fish marketing and technology fair), in São Paulo, by showing what it is bringing to the gondolas: tilapia drumsticks.

Sônia Ambar, Ramon’s mother, is president of the Ambar Amaral Group and serves as product director at Brazilian Fish. Furthermore, she is a member of FMA (Forbes Mulher Agro), a group of executives created earlier this year by Forbes Brasil. “I really believe in this new thing we are bringing. The coxinha is going to be a hit”, says Sônia, highlighting that the snack is part of an investment strategy that could reach R$ 1.2 million for this product alone.

Coxinha was born from a family challenge, but that is not the only thing that drives the R&D sector. Watching where the fish world heads is on the agenda. In the first half of this year, Sônia was at fish fairs in Iceland and Spain. “I found a machine that makes ice cream in different shapes, which are fun for children. I intend to bring this machine to Brazil,” she says, and is already testing ingredients. “I want to reach the ideal consistency and flavor for the new product, expected to be launched in 2024.”

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Sonia Amaral, president of the family group, and Ramon Amaral, at Seafood 2023

But the trips also serve another purpose: export, currently just 5% of Brazilian Fish’s production. For the USA, for example, the first occurred in 2014, with sales still sporadic. Most of the shipments abroad are fish skin, to Taiwan, and scales to Japan, which began in 2019, after tough negotiations that took five years, according to Amaral. “We have customers who are waiting for the authorization to send fish to Europe, but for now it is prohibited,” he says.

The embargo began in 2018, with the European continent alleging unsatisfactory Brazilian health issues, which, according to industry leaders, are trade barriers. In 2022, fish exports from Brazil generated US$23.8 million, a volume 15% compared to 2021, with tilapia responsible for 98%. On the world stage, the country still has a tiny share (1%), while chicken flies high, with 35% of the global market.

*Report published in issue 113 of Forbes Magazine, accessible via app (iOS and Android) or in print.

The article is in Portuguese

Tags: challenging journey sell tilapia chicken prices

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