DIPPING OUR ROOTS IN THE AZERBAIJAN CULTURE
15th Annual Caspian Agro-Expo Recap
Symbiotic Aquaponic recently had the unique opportunity to be a participant at the 15th Annual Caspian Agro-Expo, Baku, Azerbaijan. Josh Dusci (myself) was the lucky and only team member from Symbiotic to attend the event. Before sharing my experience at this event I wanted to first give my thanks to the individuals who made this possible in the first place, as this opportunity wouldn’t have been available if it wasn’t for the persistent support of Elshan Baloghlanov and his WCC International team (Will Hamilton and Ekaterina Elson) as well as the Support from the Symbiotic Team.
Left to Right: Tərlan Həmidov (USAID), Bryan Belice (ZipGrow), Elshan Baloghlanov (WCC International), Jean Teeter (Dragon Line), Dylan Mehri (University of D.C.), me, and Will Hamilton (WCC).
The event was held in the capital city of Baku, Azerbaijan at the Baku Expo Center. Day 1 kicked off with a cultural Gaitagi dance to initiate the start of the Agro-Expo. Several different foreign countries were in attendance, which included USA, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, any others. Each country showcased their diverse offerings of agricultural technologies, services, and knowledge. Symbiotic was the lone Aquaponics company there, which was a great honor as well as a challenge as the knowledge gap was significant. Seeing the number of cultures at one conference working within the agriculture industry was eye opening and quite the experience both professionally and personally. Ultimately this led to many new connections and the development of fresh ideas. I had the pleasure to meet a variety of individuals of different cultures, authority, and influence. This included:
US Ambassador of Azerbaijan, Lee Litzenberger
USAID companies, team members, and supporting contract members
Trade and Logistical companies from Azerbaijan, Europe, and Turkey
Agricultural Construction Companies (Az Grow Group, East-West Company)
Professors and Staff members of Azerbaijan State Agricultural University
Individuals interested in Commercial Aquaponic Farm’s
The first day was eventful and filled with great opportunities for Symbiotic to initiate and arrange business internationally. The day was also spent experiencing the unique Azerbaijani culture, which included consuming delicious food, hearing the language, and admiring their industrial architect. I also quickly learned that driving in Azerbaijan is much different compared to the states. It is honestly kind of the opposite, the more that you follow the rules (staying in your lane, following speed limits, ect) the more likely you are to have an accident. It was pretty eye opening but luckily locals chauffeured us throughout the trip, making traveling around Baku much less stressful.
The second day of the event was more productive than the first, as there were many more participates to initiate conversations with. This led to initial discussions with Az Grow Group, a greenhouse company located in Azerbaijan, who plans on assisting Symbiotic with constructing greenhouses for a business collaboration with Azerbaijan Fish Farm (AFF). AFF is comprised of four large-scale aquaculture farms that produce important finfish species, including sturgeon, trout, and Caspian salmon. These aquaculture farms serve a variety of purposes that include:
Sustainability efforts for enhancing breeding and stocking Beluga Sturgeon and Caspian Salmon, both of which are critically endangered.
Production efforts for raising two fish species for food production (fish fillets and caviar). These include two trout species (Rainbow and Golden Trout) and two other sturgeon species (Russian and Sevruga Sturgeon).
Enhancing marketing and collaboration through raising fish for live fish sales to other farms/stocking programs within the country
Another interesting commercial opportunity came from discussion with AzProduct LLC, another company involved in aquaculture production within Azerbaijan. They have an internal goal of increasing the capacity of local food production through the assimilation of a range of premium food products. Constructing a commercial aquaponic system to offset their aquaculture waste while also diversifying their product offerings was something AzProduct has been extremely interested in doing and an opportunity that Symbiotic was excited to potentially be apart of.
The day ended in similar fashion to the first day with learning and understanding the Azerbaijani culture while immersing ourselves in their incredible food, language, dance, and history. Fun fact, Azerbaijan was the site of the first ever-industrially drilled oil well that was drilled in 1846 (seen below on left). Another fun fact, this was my first time ever trying sturgeon and I was thoroughly impressed as well as shocked that it is not offered more in the US. The flavor was unique but the texture reminded me of a salmon fillet.
More pictures of the incredible dishes offered in Azerbaijan (Sturgeon on the left)
The last day of the event consisted of a site visit to one of the sturgeon farms operated by Azerbaijan Fish Farm. This was an amazing opportunity to tour their facility and meet the aquaculture engineer/consultant, Zaur Salmanli, who designed the Sturgeon farm. Zaur was more than generous and introduced me to his father on the 2-hour trip south of Baku to the farm, which also included views of the Shirvan National Park. We enjoyed a traditional breakfast that consisted of eggs, bread and butter, as well as many cups of tea. Following breakfast as well as dodging various farm animals that freely roamed the Azerbaijan countryside, we arrived at the fish farm. The farm was a combination of indoor RAS units as well as ponds and outdoor grow-out RAS units. The indoor facility served the function of raising fingerling sturgeon (all three species previously mentioned) that would eventually be used for breeding purposes, grow-out, marketed as live fish, or released into the wild for conservation efforts. I thought it was extremely empowering that for every can of black caviar AFF sold, 10 beluga sturgeon fingerlings were released into the wild for restocking conservation purposes. This is incredible considering the Beluga sturgeon is a critically endangered species due to anthropogenic pressure.
The tour of the indoor facility was followed by a tour of the outdoor RAS units located right next to the Caspian Sea. To my surprise, a few of the outdoor tanks were harboring mature Beluga Sturgeon. I was able to witness multiple Belugas’ that were at a minimum 15ft in length. It was quite an experience to be in the presence of a critically endangered species as well as the largest species of the sturgeon family! They are practically sharks. After being treated to a lunch that consisted of bread, kabobs, and sturgeon fillets, Zaur, Surac (Zauls driver), and myself headed back to Baku. Upon my arrival back in Baku, I was called to a last-minute meeting with LU-MUN Holdings Company, who is the parent company of AFF. I was set to meet with Mammad Nazaraliyev and Rufat Tabasarandkiy who were the ones who would have the final say in if our aquaponic business opportunity with AFF would be given the go ahead or not. To my relief, the meeting was a success and talks have continued since my arrival back in the states. This is by far Symbiotic’s best opportunity to begin international business and showcase the benefits of aquaponics in Azerbaijan. We are anticipating a potential visit back to Baku at the beginning of 2023 to begin the building phase of this project.
Views from the LU-MUN Holdings Company Office (Caspian Sea on right)
The day ended with attending the closing ceremony and dinner reception held at the US ambassador’s private residence. After ambassador Litzenberger’s closing speech, California wine and delicious Azerbajaini food was being served which sparked conversations throughout the residence. While many of the faces in attendance were familiar there were still some that were unfamiliar. By the end of the dinner reception, I was no longer unfamiliar with those faces and had been introduced to The U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, Azerbaijan Food Safety Institute, Azerbaijan Ganja State Agrarian University, as well as other large agricultural industry stakeholders. It was a productive last day to say the least but unfortunately my time in Azerbaijan was nearing an end, as I was to fly out the next morning at 3am. However, this early departure time did not stop me from sharing a few drinks, laughs, and conversations with USAID folks before packing up and heading back to the US.
Overall I got the impression that although aquaponics has yet to find its place within the Azerbaijan agricultural market, there is much room to grow, as there is a substantial amount of interest in the alternative agriculture system. Both fresh fish and leafy greens have a substantial market within Baku and it’s a market that could greatly benefit from localized year-round food production. This is something aquaponic systems can easily provide, especially with the knowledge and experience that Symbiotic brings to the table. Logistics will be the biggest hurdle to overcome but through the various connections with trade and shipping companies made at the Expo as well as the support of USAID, this hurdle will undoubtedly be overcome. Looking forward to continuing exposing myself to the Azerbaijani culture as well as my next trip to Azerbaijan. I wanted to thank Elshan and his team again. Additionally, I would like to thank USAID for the cultural and financial support for this opportunity and the US Embassy for being generous hosts. This experience was a once in a lifetime and it was certainly something I benefitted from both professionally and personally. Symbiotic Aquaponic is forever grateful for the potential business expansion into the international market as a result of this experience. I also wanted to give a big thanks to my new friends and business partners from Azerbaijan that assisted me throughout this trip and greatly enhanced my experience there. So thank you Zaul Salmanli, Rufat Tabasarankiy, Mammad Nazaraliyev, Rufat Mammadov, Tərlan Həmidov, Tərlan Carulla-zadə, Khalid Bayramli, Fariq Kazimov, Farid Mammadov, and others!