Norway’s newest luxury export to Asia may be its strangest yet.
Norway’s newest luxury export to Asia may be its strangest yet.
Named after the lanky, tubular vegetable found in most regions around the world, sea cucumbers are peculiar-looking creatures that certainly won’t be winning any titles based on their looks anytime soon.
What these sea dwellers lack in looks, however, they more than make up in their chemical and biological composition. In traditional Chinese medicine alone, they are believed to have healing properties and are commonly used to treat a wide range of ailments, such as arthritis and even cancer.
Sea cucumbers also have a very healthy nutritional profile due to being high in protein and very low in fat. Eaten in China and other Southeast Asian countries as delicacies for centuries, they are appreciated for their soft texture, dietary and medicinal properties.
The current commercial exploitation of sea cucumbers, coupled with rising demand from Asia, however, leaves some industry experts worried, calling for more sustainable sourcing, in order to avoid extinction of certain species.
One of the companies heeding this call is EIR of Norway, a premium seafood and technology startup based in Stavanger. It was founded during Ocean Space, an accelerator focusing on the maritime industry, hosted by X2 Labs in October 2017. It is now in the process of setting up an end-to-end value chain from the Norwegian coastline to Asian high-end clientele. The initial product series in aimed to serve the global USD 2.5 billion market for sea cucumber, with strong growth expected to come from other premium seafood products and digital services.
“There were over 250 applicants that were vetted for the programme, with the aim of forming as diverse teams as possible. I personally didn’t go through the process as I had found out about it via Facebook. Equipped with nothing more than the time and date, I took my chances and showed up on the first day, asking whether there was any chance to take part in this great opportunity,“Ms Vicky Green Samuelsen, EIR of Norway’s CEO and founder reminisces.
The Brazilian/Texan CEO has extensive leadership experience in leading major capital projects in the oil & gas industry. The rest of the founding team consists of Torgeir Hausken, Monireh Ataei, Christianne Fenes, and Bjørn Bejar Fjærli, each of them adding vast international networks and experience from diverse backgrounds in law, oil & gas, geology and maritime.
“One of the things that X2 Labs really focused on was to seek unique market opportunities. At least on my team, nobody had joined the programme with this preconceived idea of a fantastic product, so we had to meet with a lot of different industries from offshore wind to fisheries and other maritime sectors,” Ms Green Samuelsen says.
Eventually, the team came across an article by Margareth Kjerstad, a senior bioeconomy and value chains researcher in Norway, who claimed to have been receiving daily calls from China, who were looking to buy Norwegian sea cucumbers. The team called her up and confirmed that this was indeed still an opportunity which no one thus far had tapped. Based on that phone call, the product-market fit had been made and EIR of Norway was conceptualised.
“From that point onwards, our main goal was to make sure we could lock down the entire value chain, from the fisherman all the way to the end customer. After a few iterations of this, the pieces started to fall into place, and at the end of the accelerator we were able to pitch our idea to a panel of investors, in order to raise the necessary capital to establish the company and take it to market.”
The Norwegian Seafood Council recently unveiled its ambitious plan to dramatically ramp up seafood exports to China, expecting the trade to be worth USD 1.45 billion by 2025.
“The plan is based on Chinese consumers’ preference for Norwegian seafood, coupled with projected growth in second- and third-tier cities in China,” said the Norwegian Seafood Council’s director for the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, Mr Sigmund Bjørgo, at a news conference in Beijing.
The council, which comes under the country’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, said it aims to increase the consumption of salmon, arctic cod and other common species, but also to establish a firm foothold in China for species including sea cucumber, blue mussels, mackerel and cold water shrimp – many of which are currently waiting for approval on the new species import list between China and Norway.
In the meantime, EIR of Norway
is setting its sights on domestic sales in Norway until the end of the year, allowing for more flexibility in locking down the final product and testing the market with Asian tourist.
In 2019, the goal is to enter Asia, with the point of entry being Malaysia.
“This is primarily because we already have a very strong network in place, with distribution partners that have worked with the Norwegian Seafood Council for over eight years. At the end of 2019, we expect to be ready to enter China. The latest addition to our team is Miranda Jia, the acting CMO. She is Chinese-Norwegian with more than 15 years of business development experience in helping international companies enter China. She is from Beijing and has a preexisting distribution network in place.”
According to Ms Green Samuelsen, the domestic appetite for farmed sea cucumber in China alone hovers around 200,000 tons per year. She says that it’s common practice to sell by origin rather than brand. The branding effort therefore will be EIR’s unique selling point, and they plan to ship all products with a digital guarantee of authenticity in the form of a QR code, which can be scanned by the end-consumer to reveal granular details, including what part of Norway it comes from, down to the fisherman who caught it.
With respect to digital traceability of the products, EIR of Norway is currently in the process of collaborating with IT partners, to explore different technologies such as blockchain and their viability in setting up this platform.
“Once finished, this standalone analytics platform will give us insights into what information our clients are interested in when they scan the products. The idea is to include other marine species Norway is currently developing commercially to gauge whether there is market interest in Asia. Leveraging predictive analytics, we hope to determine what our future product line up should look like.”
Norway's Minister of Fisheries, H.E. Mr Per Sandberg and Norway Connect's General Manager for Malaysia, Ms Joanne Oo with a product sample.