TalentView: Willem van der Pijl

TalentView: Willem van der Pijl

A cultural anthropologist working with shrimp? When you look at Willem van der Pijl's studies and career path, that's the first thing you think of, and you try to guess what path has led him there. What you would never guess is that it has been exactly that, being a cultural anthropologist, that has made him the founder and chief analyst of Shrimp Insights, and, above all, what has led him to be the co-founder, board member, and managing director of the Global Shrimp Forum, his most recent and challenging project whose first edition will be held next September.

"This is all about humans", he sums it up. "Sustainability is about culture", he adds. And he insists, "I am a cultural anthropologist, I always define myself as a cultural anthropologist". But then, where are the shrimp? They are there, in the midst of all those people. Farmers, buyers, retailers, investors, scientists… everyone who somehow brings shrimp into our homes. And Willem van der Pijl is the "natural matchmaker" who brings them all together. He is convinced that, if done right and as sustainably as possible, "the farm shrimp industry has a very bright future ahead".

A surprising path to aquaculture

So, what brought a cultural anthropologist like him to an industry like this? Well, as most of the time it was a mixture of chance and curiosity because, although by the end of this story it will all make sense, even Willem himself acknowledges that he has "a very strange background".  At first, he studied tourism and consequently worked as a tour guide, but then he also studied cultural anthropology and did his master's degree in International Development Studies. And there he was, about to choose the topic for his dissertation and at the point of choosing to investigate why the IT companies do the outsourcing in India when an email changed it all. A professor at the University of Amsterdam was asking for a student who would be interested to look at the shrimp fishery and shrimp farming in India. "I really got immediately very interested and curious about this shrimp fishing and farming sector in India", Willem confesses. The country of destination did not change, but, seen from the perspective of time, it did change his life.

"I went to India, and I lived for a couple of months in Chennai where, every morning at 4:00 a.m., I went to the fishing ports to watch how the fishing boats were bringing in the shrimp. And I started to follow the shrimp from the port to the processing plants, and it was actually in that time that I really started to look into and build relationships already with all the exporters and processors". There, he made some contacts too, as the Secretary-General of the Export Association of India, for example, and got introduced to most of the major Indian exporters. And that is also how cultural anthropology entered the equation. "You have two companies that are apparently the same. How can you explain that one company is going to the left and the other one is going to the right? Why are they confronted with the same question or the same challenge? And that's of course really an anthropological question, like how can you try to understand people's behavior in certain environments or in certain conditions. And that's actually what also fascinated me about the shrimp industry"

Willem, as a student, at the fishing port in Chennai, India, where it all began.

Because, as Willem van der Pijl reminds us, the shrimp industry is dominated by family-owned companies, small-scale farmers, "people that's often have invested everything they have into the industry". People whose commitment triggered his passion and for whom, for the past ten years, he has been traveling the world "to see shrimp production, to meet farmers, importers, exporters, feed companies and to try to really understand what drives the people in the industry".

One forum to bring them all

Willem knows there are challenges in aquaculture in general, and in the shrimp industry in particular, that cannot be solved by one stakeholder alone. As said, he defines himself as a "natural matchmaker". He likes to listen to people, to understand what drives them, so that way, he can bring together the right people at the right time. "You ensure that an Indian farmer speaks the same language as a European or an American retail buyer. If you can assure that the farmer understands the same language as a technology company, if you can bring together all these bright minds, all these people that have their ambition to change the way they do business for the better, and if you can make sure that these people can actually understand each other, I think that's really the gateway to transforming the shrimp industry into a resilient industry for the long-term future".

As he sees it, collaboration is needed. "I think that bringing together the whole value chain, bringing together retailers, importers, and distributors; processors and exporters;  farmers; feed companies; genetics companies; feed ingredient companies; the financial institutions that are investing in all these companies;  and the civil society that's around the industry, I believe that finding the right partnerships for collaboration to address these collective issues of the industry is indeed the only way forward, and I hope that the forum, the Global Shrimp Forum, can be the platform where these collaborations are shaped and fostered".

This is his latest and most ambitious project. Board member and managing director of the Global Shrimp Forum, Willem van der Pijl is also co-founder together with Jørgen Lund, who was also the founder and managing director for 15 years of North Atlantic Seafood Forum. Both realized that it made no sense that the second most traded seafood commodity in the world didn't have its own meeting place.  "It was kind of a no-brainer, we immediately knew like 'yes, you are right, it is time to bring this leadership of the industry together and to try to embark on a journey to codesign that resilient future of the industry together'", he explains. And they did.

The Global Shrimp Forum is going to be the first and biggest global high-level executive meeting place for the shrimp industry. From 6 to 8 September 2022, it will bring together in Utrecht, The Netherlands, 400 to 500 high executives from around the world and from across the value chain "to engage in a two-and-a-half-day dialogue around the most pressing issues, challenges that the industry is confronted with". An "immense challenge" that is keeping him "incredibly busy", but excited about how much can be achieved at this event that aspires to become a must-attend annual event for the shrimp industry.

Sustainability, the DNA of the industry

As Willem explains, as with the rest of aquaculture, shrimp is a huge industry with a huge potential to create jobs and be a sustainable source of healthy protein. However, the industry is not without risk. The use of fuel of diesel, the bottom trawling, "if you look particularly at shrimp fisheries, even if they are well managed, have substantial sustainability risks and challenges", he says. But these are not the only ones.

"People around the world are probably today still viewing shrimp as a luxury product, it's one of the more expensive proteins", he adds. "And I think both for the industry to be able to grow, but also for consumers to really understand and see the benefit of shrimp as a healthy source of protein, the prices will have to come down, and for prices to come down it means that we have to become more efficient in producing shrimp and for becoming more efficient, we need innovation and feed, genetics, farming. And, if we do it in the right way, if we make sure that innovation does not only contribute to higher efficiencies, but also to producing shrimp in the most sustainable way we can, I think the farm shrimp industry has a very bright future ahead of us".

He talks about sustainability, but, again, the cultural anthropologist is talking about people. "For me, this is all about humans", he claims. "You can speak about sustainability. You can speak about all these topics related to sustainability from a technical perspective, we can have the best technical solutions out there, but in the end, sustainability is about culture. And sustainability needs to become part of our DNA, of my DNA, of your DNA, of the DNA of that farmer in India, and that farmer in Ecuador, as well as at retail buyers here in Amsterdam, or in New York in the States". And concludes, "only if sustainability becomes culture, then I think sustainability will become long-term and can really become the DNA of the industry as a whole".

The entire future ahead

Future is a word that appears very often in Willem van der Pijl's speech. No wonder for someone who divides his working time between his own business as a shrimp industry analyst at 'Shrimp Insights', where moreover than doing consultancy he also writes his own industry blog; being an advisor to Aqua-Spark, an impact investment fund that has invested in a broad portfolio of innovative companies in the aquaculture industry; and, as said, being the managing director of the Global Shrimp Forum, which is just starting. All of his projects are long-term in nature.

So when you ask him about that, about the future of the industry, even when he confesses he has his own moral question – "Should we continue to eat animal proteins at all?" – and recognizes that it is "a very scary question to look at if you work in this industry", he also answers himself: "I do believe that if you look at a world scale, we need sustainable, healthy animal proteins to feed the world's growing population, and I do believe that farm shrimp can and should be part of that sustainable and healthy protein supply". Nevertheless, he also reminds us that, as an industry, we have "to keep up with changing consumer perception". The demand for sustainable food safety, but also for animal welfare, is everywhere. Not only in the US or Europe but also in China, Thailand, or Singapore, where the new generation of consumers is increasingly aware of them. "I think that the industry really needs to not only pick it up one level in terms of becoming more efficient but also take it up at least another level in order to become socially and sustainably responsible, in order to actually secure a spot in that future food supply for the going population".

That's his view of the industry, but if we talk about him, personally, he just started a new adventure with the Global Shrimp Forum and his ambition is to try to create and grow this leadership community in the shrimp industry, to achieve that it comes together every year and not just for a one-time event. "I hope that community embarks on a journey together to actually year by year codesign the way in which we move ahead in the industry and try to secure the future for all of us. I'm very happy to be part of it, and I'm very proud of what I have achieved so far. And I hope that I can do much more to help the industry from bottom to top and from Asia to South America to actually make some next steps in the right direction", he says.

Willem van der Pijl, the cultural anthropologist working with shrimp.

As we said at the beginning, by the end of this story everything would make sense. Willem van der Pijl is indeed that cultural anthropologist determined to prove that "this is all about humans" and "sustainability is about culture". "People like me are needed to make sure that all these people that have the same ambitions but sometimes speak different languages, come together and find a way to actually work together for the future of our industry". He is that "natural matchmaker" and we bet that, at the coming Global Shrimp Forum, he will get more matches than ever.

About Shrimp Insights

Willem van der Pijl is the founder and senior shrimp industry analyst of Shrimp Insights. Matchmaking, market research and market entry strategy, structural or ad-hoc data analysis, boardroom advisory services, public speaking, value-chain analysis, and project design. Whatever support is needed to improve performance in any activity of the shrimp industry, his company offers it. Besides, he is the writer of 'The Shrimp Blog' in which, approximately once a month, he writes about the sector. As told, Willem complements his own business activity with a position as a strategic advisor to the Aqua-Insights series for Aqua-Spark and is co-founder, board member, and managing director at the Global Shrimp Forum.

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