Christo du Plessis majored in finance and accounting. He worked in fresh produce exports, Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) retail, and short-term insurance industries. The last, both for a start-up and some very big corporations.
After working as CFO in The Kingfish Company, he accepted the challenge of becoming CEO at Matorka, an innovative Arctic char farming operation based in Iceland. Because of his 15 years of experience in land-based farming and his proven achieved sector-leading productivity results, this appointment seems more than suitable and pertinent.
Do not miss the chance of discovering the thoughts and impressions of an aquaculture expert, who says in his own words; I preferred being in a smaller organization, rolling up my sleeves, and working with tangible products!
Your experience in aquaculture is exquisite and varied. Which were the main reasons why you choose aquaculture as your path to growth?
My background lead me to apply for the CFO position at Abagold Limited, a land-based abalone farmer. Here, I ended up spending 12 wonderful years learning about land-based aquaculture.
Then, I moved to Europe and spent more than 3 years with the Kingfish Company during some exciting times. The business has grown tremendously and set itself up for further exponential growth.
These are two very different organizations each with unique challenges and opportunities. I love the complexity and seemingly unlimited potential to keep improving and optimizing production. Also, all the complementary disciplines involved in intensive aquaculture.
To what extent can aquaculture learn from other sectors, keeping in mind that it is initially a more ancient industry?
I think the “traditional” aquaculture industry using sea cages to produce millions of tonnes of product per year is an advanced industry. When it comes to land-based aquaculture, there is room for further development.
Industry players need to decide to either be commodity producers, which requires a larger scale to make an impact and be efficient, or stay smaller and distinguish their products by building brands that speak to specialty market needs.
This is an oversimplification of the two main camps. It is important to make this decision before deciding on investments up or downstream in the value chain. Such as hatchery operations, breeding, processing, and value-adding.
On the other side, what advantages does aquaculture have in relation to other industries?
Aquaculture has the advantage of producing food. Whether it’s a commodity or higher-end specialty products, to which consumers have a natural bond. It is easier to connect with end-users of the product on an emotional level compared to many other industries.
Your move from South Africa to Europe must have been a new game point in your professional career. Which were the main differences and similarities between these two parts of the world?
Whilst there are many similarities, such as strict environmental legislation, lengthy permit application processes, and skills shortages, there are also remarkable differences. In (South) Africa, labor is relatively cheap. Besides, technology is often imported and therefore expensive.
So, it’s often cheaper to find manual solutions where automation would be used in Europe. Both have their pros and cons, but it does require a shift in thinking. As South Africa is far away from export markets in Europe, North America, and Asia, marketing and sales logistics are often simpler in Europe.
There is a lot of talent in South Africa to develop. In Europe, finding suitable sites for marine land-based farming is hard, as are development costs. In South Africa, building costs are lower due to the lower labor cost component.
Matorka’s land-based aquaculture system makes a consistent and trusted source of quality fish. Can you explain what this innovative system consists of?
Matorka owns the land that it has developed on, which includes space to expand significantly. There is a hatchery an hour’s drive east of Reykjavik. It has excellent quality water where fertilized eggs are hatched and fingerlings grow to 10g-15g.
These fish then move to a quarantine site outside Grindavik, close to Reykjavik. Here, they raise to around 75g, get vaccinated, and transferred to the adjacent grow-out systems to remain until harvest. The company is in the process of moving to a larger processing facility in the town of Grindavik. This will ensure that it can not only process increased volumes but also undertake value-added secondary processing.
The grow-out system makes use of partial recirculation by cascading water by way of gravity, through a row of four grow-out tanks per system. Including de-gassing and filtration at each step, but this does not make use of biological filtration. It ensures efficiency in the use of energy by pumping water only once from boreholes and avoids the higher risk and operating costs of biological filtration. This system makes scaling production cheaper and faster than full-RAS systems.
What makes special Grindavik in Iceland when it comes to farm fish?
In general, Iceland is an ideal place to attract a lot of attention from investors and operators of land-based farming. There is enough (coastal) land, sustainable and affordable energy, a highly trained workforce, seafood industry know-how, and suppliers. Also, proximity to both North American and European markets.
The “product of Iceland” seafood brand ranks as one of the most desirable due to the pristine natural environment and water. This is clear looking at the recent stream of investments being announced for projects in Iceland.
Grindavik specifically has a geothermal power plant on our doorstep supplying sustainable electricity, ample supply of quality water, and large seafood processing facilities. It is also very close to Reykjavik, and very convenient for seaports and airport exports.
What are Matorka’s future projects/challenges as a company that prioritizes sustainability?
Matorka has already secured its expansion potential to 10,000 tonnes of annual production in terms of available land and regulatory approval.
Our challenge as a management team is to consistently produce fish to our set standard, build the brand of our arctic char and increase the value we realize for our product by focussing on its specialty seafood nature along with the unique benefits of being produced in Iceland.
The team has secured the ASC accreditation and we will look to add other relevant accreditations in line with the requirements of key customers and markets.
In which measure is it important for the future of aquaculture to invest more in human potential?
I will again limit my reply to land-based aquaculture, which is the industry I am familiar with. We need to attract people to the industry by showcasing its potential as a career, rather than a job. With the use of technology- and information-based farming on the rise, younger talent can be assured of working in a leading-edge technology industry solving one of humanity’s challenges and not merely “working on a farm”.
To do this, we need to engage with secondary and tertiary education institutions as well as invest in training and mentoring within our organizations. It is also of vital importance that management lives the values they so easily claim in investor- and marketing material: caring for the environment, its employees, and community, and above all, care and respect for the fish in their care.