When seafood aquaculture pioneer and founder of Kings Infra Venture, Shaji Baby John, decided to return to active business after spending one-and-a-half decades as an aquaculture and food infrastructure consultant, he decided to do something for the farming sector, which he realized lagged significantly behind other sectors, such as seafood processing, hatchery and feeds.
Kings Infra was a booming aquaculture seafood export firm under its erstwhile name Victory Aqua Farm in the mid-1990s when a Supreme Court ruling on Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) threw a spanner in the works. The verdict in 1997 required demolition of seafood and aquaculture structures within 500 metres of the coastline.
Frustrated by the decision as it hit his company’s activities, Shaji Baby John turned to seafood and food infrastructure consultation using his engineering background and changed the name of the company to Kings Infra Ventures Ltd, which is now a listed entity.
The main company continued its core seafood export business but it was soon overtaken by big firms from states like Andhra Pradesh, which had surplus land away from the shore for setting up aquaculture farms.
He had joined the seafood export business in Kerala started by his father Baby John, former Kerala minister and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) leader, after completing engineering. When he sensed a gradual depletion in sea catches, he moved into aquaculture by setting up a new company in the late 1980s in Tuticorin.
After Shaji Baby John’s return in 2017, Kings Infra Ventures hired a technical team to develop new techniques in aquaculture by combining methods and practices followed in other parts of the world and adapting them to Indian conditions. This was aimed at improving the lot of the aquaculture farmers, which in turn, would help boost seafood exports.
After nearly five years of research, the effort bore fruit in the form of two projects: System for integrated, sustainable and traceable aquaculture (Sista 360) and Eco Mari Culture (EMU), indoor multi-stage shrimp farming using solar energy that could revolutionize the aquaculture sector.
“Sista 360, adopted for open aquaculture farming, integrates Israeli technology of Biofloc that converts waste into edible protein content by infusing a carbon compound; Aquamimicry, that uses rice bran fermentation to create live feed; and integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) that depends on species such as tilapia, milk fish and seaweed to feed on the wastes of shrimps for aquaculture sustainability,” Shaji Baby John told Moneycontrol.
Using Sista 360, the company harvested 40-50 gms (20 to 25 counts per kg) L Vannamei shrimps, which now forms the bulk of exports in its pilot project on 100 acres in Tuticorin started early this year. Apart from this standard grade, it also raised some jumbo-sized 80 gms (12 counts) prawns in over four months. In natural habitats, it may take 12 to 14 months for prawns to grow to such a size.
“The jumbo-sized prawns produced under environment-friendly conditions with sustainability and traceability certifications can command premium price of $15 a kg compared to the regular $5 a kg in the world market. It is a rare delicacy and can be a niche market. We hope to standardise the size,” John said.
The entire process is environment-friendly as it uses antibiotic-free feed, probiotics and natural supplements. The company used natural jaggery as carbon for the Biofloc process, thanks to the surfeit of palms in the area. For providing minerals and calcium for the shell formation of shrimps it tied up with a few brands for safe-to-eat products. According to him, farmers can reduce the mortality of shrimps and increase the production by following these procedures.
The other novel initiative, EMU, takes aquaculture indoors under controlled conditions. The shrimp size is smaller (25-30 grams) under this technology and is meant for large exporters or clusters who export bulk quantities. The company has applied for international patent for this invention. “It is a plug and play indoor unit designed by our R&D team with closed loop shrimp farming module comprising farming tanks, treatment pumps, console room and roof top solar to create zero discharge and net zero energy system,” he said.
It can be set up on 1,000 sq m area with pre-fabricated water tanks that can be assembled easily and consists of four independent tanks for shrimp farming. The shrimp passes from one tank to another for different stages of growth. The empty tanks can be cleaned for the next level of production cycle. Thus, the number of production cycles can be increased to five a year compared to two in the open pond system. The entire process is powered using solar energy.
It can result in significant cost savings for the farmer. “More production cycles can bring more revenue, while solar energy protects the machinery from power fluctuations, thus ensuring more life for the system. An EMU can be set up at a cost of Rs 70-80 lakh. The project can breakeven in three years as it is capable of producing shrimps worth Rs 1.5 crore in a year,” he pointed out.
Kings Infra intends to promote Sista 360 and EMU simultaneously. It reckons Sista 360 will benefit 10,000 farmers in the next five years, who can even download the company app for operations. The company is also setting up a Sista 360 shrimp nursery and seed bank with 100 million seeds per year in Tuticorin close to the project site to ensure uninterrupted supply of juveniles.
Kings has formed a subsidiary company called Kings Maritech Ecopark for promoting EMU, which will provide the technology, training, and online support for the operation.
“Our first EMU will be ready in three months and the commercial launch will be done after that. We will start from Tamil Nadu. We have already completed one round of discussions with the Gujarat government. Karnataka and Kerala are also in the pipeline,” John said.
The idea is to raise the value of Indian seafood exports to Rs 100,000 crore ($13.82 billion) as envisaged under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY). Indian seafood export earnings in 2021-22 touched around Rs 58,500 crore ($7.8 billion).
To aid the 20-member strong technical team, the company tied up with NEC Japan to develop a proof of concept for indoor precision aquaculture, utilising AI and IoT in recirculatory aquaculture system (RAS). The company also has a collaborative project with J Jayalalitha Fisheries University for developing an open pond-based RAS system.
The company was exporting 5,000 tonnes during its peak years in the mid-1990s. Now, it has fallen to around 500 tonnes. “Though I am more focused on technology and consultation now, I think we can easily grow 40-50 percent annually through our new technology. We will be in a position to harvest three crops instead of two crops at present with Sista 360. The increase in the number of crops would see the topline double in the next 12 months, while the bottom line will move up by 200 percent.”
Despite logistics bottlenecks, container shortage, war in Ukraine and unrest in Sri Lanka’s Colombo port, the company was able to achieve 107 percent increase in net profit in 2021-22 at Rs 2.95 crore.The company is now focusing more on aquaculture infrastructure construction, consultation and training along with seafood export and trade covering the entire spectrum from broodstock management to marketing.