In an exclusive interview with WeAreAquaculture, the tilapia champion and aquaculture veteran Francisco Murillo talks about his career and experiences, his work as CEO of Tropo Farms in Ghana, and why for him, “it’s all about the people”.
“If somebody would have asked me two years ago, ‘Where do you see yourself two years into the future?’ Ghana, Africa wouldn’t have been part of that conversation,” Francisco Murillo says with a smile.
The intrepid CEO’s career has been characterised by meetings and opportunities that have taken him on a fascinating journey from Costa Rica to Ghana via Florida, USA, where he has his family home. It’s also seen him evolve his career from engineering to finance and, for the last twenty-five years, aquaculture.
How did he get started in the aquaculture industry? “Well, by accident, I guess,” Murillo says, smiling. “It’s probably the same with many other people, right?”
After studying civil engineering in Costa Rica, he worked on structural design for hydroelectric projects. Following this, a scholarship took him to the U.S. to study for an MBA. On his return, he worked in finance for the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC, now British International Investment).
“I was looking for investment opportunities, for companies and projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. It just so happened that CDC was a shareholder on a tilapia company in Costa Rica called Rainforest. That was my first exposure to the aquaculture industry.”
Murillo began working for Rainforest Tilapia in 1998, spending ten years with the company, during which time he became CEO as well as a Rainforest shareholder. After the business was sold to Aquachile in 2008, he moved to Florida-based tilapia producer Regal Springs. He later worked for Marine Harvest (now Mowi), following which he became COO at OpenBlue and later VP for business development at Innovasea.
A new challenge, and new opportunities: moving to Tropo Farms in 2021
“When you spend enough time in the industry you get to know people, even when there is not a lot of overlap between what you’re doing and what they’re doing,” he says.
A chance encounter at the Brussels seafood show introduced Murillo to Tropo Farms. He recalls attending the trade event in 2011, and being introduced to Tropo Farms owner, Marc Amechi, who was encountering difficulties in sourcing feed for his project in Ghana. Murillo helped him contact a suitable feed supplier, and thought no more about it.
But several years after that meeting, Amechi reached out.
“He called me and said, Francisco, I’m looking for a CEO for my company. I’m thinking about bringing in investors and I need a more professional team there. I’m looking for somebody to lead this company going forward. Are you interested?”
Murillo says the opportunity was too good to pass up.
“I thought it was a good opportunity from many different perspectives. The tilapia industry in sub-Saharan Africa today reminds me of what the tilapia industry was when I started in that industry in Latin America 20 or 25 years ago, which is to say with a lot of room for growth. It has a lot of potential to grow production and develop markets.”
“I’m at a stage of my life where my kids are all grown up and out of the house, and my wife and I have the flexibility to move around. So, I said, yeah, why not?”
Challenges and opportunities for growth in Ghana
Tropo Farms was already a well-established business when Murillo joined as CEO in October 2021. The company was founded in 1997, farming tilapia at its aquaculture facilities on Lake Volta, the largest artificial reservoir in the world.
Before Francisco Murillo joined Tropo Farms, the company had faced a challenging couple of years fraught with biological problems and fish mortalities, in common with all other tilapia producers in Ghana.
“If you’re in aquaculture, you have challenges. There is no such a thing as an aquaculture project without challenges!” says Murillo. “The question is not if we are going to have a problem, but what is the problem we’re going to have, and how do we solve it?”
“We have been able to stabilise and grow our production. We produced 12,000 metric tonnes last year, which is a 60% increase over the year before. That was achieved in very challenging circumstances,” Murillo says, explaining that the exchange rate for Ghana’s currency, the cedi, in 2022 went from around 6 cedis per dollar to more than 14 cedis per dollar by the end of the year.
“For a company that buys feed that is indexed to the dollar and sells in the local market only in local currency, that’s extremely challenging.”
“We did very well, all things considered. We could have done a lot better if we had more stability in the macroeconomic situation in the country. That was the biggest challenge we’ve had in the year and a half that I’ve been with the company.
“Now we have very stable fish survivals. We have very good control and very good predictability about what we can produce, and what we can commit to. From that perspective we are in a much better position than some years ago.”
Living and working in Africa
Murillo says that prior to working with Tropo Farms, he had travelled to Zimbabwe during his years at Rainforest to visit sister company Lake Harvest, as part of knowledge transfer programs between the two companies.
However, it was not until joining Tropo Farms that he was able to live and work in Africa.
“I pretty much knew what I was getting into,” Murillo says, with characteristic good humour.
“It’s a developing country, like the country I come from, and like all the countries I have worked on. People have some misconceptions about Africa. Sometimes it’s funny – they always assume it must be a difficult change.”
“Of course, you have to get used to the food, you have to get used to the weather. You have to get used to the cultural differences. But there haven’t been any real surprises from what I was expecting when I made the decision to go there. It’s been a very good experience overall.”
“Ghana loves tilapia”: an unfulfilled demand
It helps that Ghana is a big country, with an equally big appetite for tilapia, Francisco Murillo says.
“Ghana is different than many other countries. Ghana loves tilapia. This is not to say that other countries don’t eat tilapia or don’t like tilapia, but Ghana is special in the sense that they really, really like tilapia. And they really love it fresh.”
“Just to give you an idea, when I was working with Latin American producers importing into the US, the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas were pretty bad for us. Everybody was into turkey or pork. But in Ghana? Everybody wants tilapia for the festivities. That was a big surprise for me – and a very happy one too.”
“From my perspective there is a lot of unfulfilled demand. Ghana still imports a lot of frozen fish because there is not enough production in the country.”
Murillo says Tropo Farms is the largest aquaculture operation and the largest tilapia producer in Ghana, but he sees plenty of room for expansion.
“We produced 12,000 metric tonnes last year. That’s big for sub-Saharan African standards, but I believe there is a bigger opportunity to develop the tilapia market. Our strategy is to grow by about 3000 metric tonnes per year going forward. We’re in the process of looking for investors because we need some additional capital to be able to put the assets in place to grow according to plan.”
Room for growth and improvement in Africa’s tilapia industry
Looking ahead, Murillo says that he sees significant potential for tilapia aquaculture to expand in Africa.
“Tilapia is originally from Africa, so it’s a well-known fish in the continent,” Murillo says. He points out that while Egypt produces the most tilapia, sub-Saharan Africa also has some relatively large producers: Lake Harvest in Zimbabwe, Victory Farms in Kenya, Yalelo in Zambia and Uganda, and Tropo Farms in Ghana.
“But that’s pretty much it. There are also several smaller producers all around the continent, but you cannot supply the markets with small producers. You need large, efficient operations to be able to supply the larger markets.”
“There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of using technology to improve efficiencies, so that’s what we’re focusing on. And I think that’s what other companies in sub-Saharan Africa are also focusing on.”
“The production in some of these countries is still very manual, so we are investing in technology to start automating some of the most important areas in our processes. I see a lot of opportunity there.”
“I think that it might make sense in the future to consolidate some of these smaller companies into larger organisations that might benefit from experience and larger critical mass,” he adds.
The potential for growth, Murillo says, is mostly for local markets. “Some companies in sub-Saharan Africa have focused on production of frozen fillets for the European market. That hasn’t really worked out very well because there are many different competing species, like Nile perch from Lake Victoria. But I think tilapia companies can be very profitable selling into local markets in Africa.”
A people-centred philosophy
But what’s the secret to success in tilapia aquaculture, and the aquaculture industry more generally?
Francisco Murillo says he has one core philosophy: “it’s all about the people”.
“My approach to management in general, and managing a tilapia aquaculture operation in particular, is it’s all about the people. If you don’t have the right people in place in those critical positions, it’s going to be very tough on you, and things are going not to work out.”
“It’s all about the people. If you don’t have the right people in place in those critical positions, it’s going to be very tough on you, and things are not going to work out.”– Francisco Murillo
“That’s one of the things I did when I arrived at Tropo Farms a year and half ago – finding the right people. We had some good people in some critical places, but we also had some gaps. I brought in people from Zimbabwe, from Indonesia, from Mexico, from Costa Rica.”
“I wanted people with experience so they can hit the ground running, who can get into position, and know what needs to be done. That way, I don’t need to be on top of them to make sure that they are on the right path.”
The right people and the right information
Murillo explains that he likes to complement excellent personnel with excellent information systems.
“I’m a technology geek, I love computers and technology in general. We’ve been able to generate dashboards that summarise the operations of the company on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, that everyone has access to.”
“That way, all the members of the senior management team are looking at the same information. That’s great because then it’s not just me, but everybody is able to identify issues and say hey, I need help here. Then we talk about it, and we try to implement whatever is needed to get the situation corrected.”
“In this way, you can provide support to the person of that area very early on, before the situation gets bad.”
“And you don’t need to micromanage,” Murillo adds. “I hate micromanaging. I prefer to look at the big picture, so information systems allow me to see the big picture and I can zoom in and see more details if I need to.”
Creating positive impact for employees and customers
Reflecting on the successes of Tropo Farms, Murillo says that in addition to farming high quality fish and continuing to develop the company as Ghana’s premier tilapia producer, he takes pride in the wider benefits the company creates in the local community.
“We need to look at the positive impact that we generate, on the people in the company and around the company,” Murillo says.
Tropo Farms currently employs more than 800 people, of whom around half are women.
“That alone is a big impact,” says Murillo. “We operate in relatively remote areas where there are very few other job opportunities. If Tropo Farms wasn’t there, many local people would be working in subsistence agricultural activities just to be able to feed themselves.”
“We have a particularly important impact on those 800 workers and their families. But at the same time, we are also important for our customers,” Murillo points out.
“We need to look at the positive impact that we generate, on the people in the company and around the company.”– Francisco Murillo
“We have about 3,000 customers, and around 2,500 of these are small business owners, mainly women. They come to our distribution centres to buy product, and then sell on at the surrounding towns. Some of these women cook or smoke the tilapia to add value, and then they sell in those markets. That makes a significant impact on their lives.”
Spreading the benefits beyond the company to the community
“And of course, we have our suppliers or vendors. I don’t just mean big companies like the fish feed suppliers. I’m talking all the way to the people that set up businesses around our location because they want to sell food or offer services to our employees. You can see the economy grow around what we do.”
Employee satisfaction and retention is one area Francisco Murillo feels particularly proud of.
“We have a program where we provide our employees certain awards based on the length of time they’ve been with the company, whether it’s five, ten, fifteen or twenty years. We give sought-after items like cell phones or chest freezers. At the end of each year, we have a celebration to give out the awards. I was surprised about how many people receive ten- and fifteen-year awards. These are long-term employees that really value having a job and being able to work for the company for so long.”
Tropo Farms has recently been recognised for both its economic success and its corporate social responsibility activities, named Ghana’s “Aquaculture Farm of the Year” at the 2023 Aquaculture Ghana Exhibition.
The company has initiated programs to help local residents, such as sponsoring two female students from the local district per year to attend university, and constructing or upgrading clean freshwater wells for the local community. Tropo Farms has also been engaged in an extensive tree-planting program and has created two wild fish sanctuaries in the region.
“For me it’s very, very satisfying to see all that impact around what we do. Of course, that goes hand-in-hand with our responsibility to grow our fish. We feel very proud of that,” Murillo says.
“It’s how to spread the benefits of the operations of the company to everybody that comes in contact with us, from every single direction.”
About Tropo Farms
Tropo Farms Ltd. is one of the largest tilapia producers in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the largest within Ghana. It produces high quality affordable tilapia to feed its customers in Ghana. Founded in 1997, Tropo Farms is headquartered in Dzorwulu, Accra, Ghana, with its aquaculture operations based at Lake Volta, the world’s largest artificial lake. Francisco Murillo joined Tropo Farms as CEO in 2021.