By David Sly
Existing outside the oyster industry has enabled Adelaide-based plastics fabrication company SEAPA to forge radical ideas that have revolutionised oyster farming systems and built a globally influential business.
The popularity of its innovative oyster harvesting baskets has seen SEAPA take out the Agribusiness Award and Australian Exporter of the Year Award at the 2018 Australian Export Awards in Canberra.
This underlines the company’s spiralling success, building on its 2018 Business SA Export Agribusiness Award for outstanding international success in the field of agricultural products.
“Our background is in plastics injection moulding – not oyster farming – so our strength has been forming close partnerships with primary producers and coming up with innovative solutions to their problems,” says Andy Will, SEAPA group general manager.
“The ability to adapt rather than impose our products on customers has made them more beneficial to specific needs.”
Oyster farmers around the world have embraced SEAPA’s long, plastic mesh baskets that are laid horizontally in the water from adjustable long lines, which enables shifting ocean tides to rumble the oysters inside the baskets.
This marks a significant departure from the older fixed rack and rail system, involving growing oysters on fixed trays along submerged wooden rails.
SEAPA’s horizontal basket system provides the flexibility for farmers to adjust the height of baskets to accommodate tidal movements, encouraging more rapid growth and development of well-cupped oysters with a clean hard shell and high meat content.
“All of our customers want the same outcomes – higher quality oysters, produced with greater efficiency,” says Andy.
“They want a farming system flexible enough to react to different seasons and environmental conditions, so that’s what we have worked closely with them to design and manufacture.”
For this system and these radical ideas to enjoy success beyond South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, where they have been trialed and successfully implemented, it has been necessary for SEAPA to be patient and strategic.
Many countries that have employed the same oyster harvesting systems for centuries are wary of implementing change; France is very dogmatic about continuing traditional methods, Japan even more so.
“None of this happens overnight,” says Andy. “We have been in the US since the early 2000s, and more than a decade in France.”
“We have to make sure that the initial systems that we introduce into these countries are operating with optimal success in their farms, and we want their neighbours to notice that our systems involve a lot less labour and more impressive yields, because we know they need to see something in action before they believe it works.”
Since 2001, SEAPA has been exporting its range of products manufactured in Adelaide, with 75% of SEAPA’s revenue in the previous financial year coming from international markets.
Asia has emerged as a key buyer of SEAPA products, with significant sales progress in China, Japan and Korea stemming from the recent removal of prohibitive tariffs.
Continued growth in these markets represents a significant prize; while 13,000 tonnes of oysters are produced annually in Australia, 2.2 million tonnes are produced in China each year, and SEAPA’s footprint there is currently small but with the potential for rapid growth.
Technical innovation has been a pillar of SEAPA’s success, with its large range of 60 products allowing its oyster harvesting system to be used in almost any farming environment.
SEAPA’s technological innovation is led by the design and manufacturing teams at its parent company, Adelaide plastic injection moulder Garon Plastics, which uses advanced design tools and 3D printing to rapidly develop and deploy new ideas for testing and refinement, giving farmers the tools they need, when they need them.
Being based in Adelaide has several advantages for SEAPA, from its established and progressive manufacturing plant, to performing extensive research and development through working closely with SA’s league of oyster farmers.
“We see the farmers that use our products as our partners in the design of the system. We wouldn’t be able to develop the products without their input,” Andy says.
However, having its head office and manufacturing plant located a long way from international markets means that SEAPA has needed to be nimble and strategic in forging its global sales network across 20 countries, benefitting from establishing local offices in its target markets across North Asia, Europe, and North America.
While SEAPA has already enjoyed a strong performance in the current financial year, Andy can see that global oyster eating trends are changing, with a rise in premium oyster bars in the US and Asia meaning that demand for excellent oysters in shell will increase, and therefore provide increased opportunities for the introduction of more of SEAPA’s innovative oyster basket systems.
“There is great success that we have enjoyed through the first 20 years of this company, but greater opportunities now lay ahead,” says Andy, “and we have to remain innovative and agile to make sure we can reap the benefits.”
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