Firm helping Maldives’ fisheries sector grow

A Dunedin architecture firm’s involvement with a fisheries project in the Maldives, worth about $US40 million ($NZ61 million), is continuing a decades-long association with the island nation.

Oakley Gray Architects director Norman Oakley quips he has learned more about the mechanics of freezing and canning tuna than he ever thought he would — a topic certainly not taught at architecture school.

Mr Oakley believed that once the project was completed, it could be the single biggest industrial project undertaken in the Maldives, a nation of 1192 islands in the Indian Ocean that spans the equator.

The long-established firm’s involvement with the nation originally came out of a New Zealand aid project involving Mr Oakley’s late father Bob, in Sumatra in the 1970s.

He put together a small team, which included fisheries businessman and former Dunedin mayor Sir Cliff Skeggs, and they completed a small fish cold-storage project.

It led to other opportunities, including the beginning of the long relationship with the Maldives.

The first project was at Felivaru, the island where the current Oakley Gray project is. The island is dedicated solely to fisheries.

While tourism was the nation’s biggest export earner, Mr Oakley said fisheries there were a little like pastoral farming in New Zealand — "ingrained culturally".

A crew would go fishing in the morning armed with a long stick — "just like a kid" — attached to a piece of string and a barbless hook. They would find a school of tuna and hook them into the boat, flicking the fish over their heads.

An experienced crew could catch 3tonnes or more a day. But being on the equator, there was a need to cool the fish down, and until there were facilities for that the fish was either consumed locally or dried for export.

So a cannery was built, and there was a World Bank-funded project to build cold storage and an ice plant. That was the genesis for further development — tuna canning began and ice plants were built around the nation.

Norman Oakley joined the business in 1986 and was involved in a project at Kooddoo in the 1990s where a harbour and fish freezing plant were built.

Prior to that, it was an uninhabited island and, when Mr Oakley turned up to do the initial survey work, it took three days by boat to get there. For the young architect, it was a great experience, he recalled.

After that, there were another couple of projects but the last serious work the firm did there was in 2005. Busy back in Otago and Southland, it had not been chasing anything over there, he said.

That was until the firm was approached by the state-owned fisheries company Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO) in 2020 to see if it would be interested in another project.

The firm was now involved with two projects on Felivaru: building 4000tonnes of cold storage and a new cannery to process 100tonnes a day, which was double the factory’s current capacity. To do that, more space was needed so there was a reclamation project to deepen the harbour and provide a building platform.

MIFCO had received development funding from the Export Import Bank of India; one of the provisos of the funding was that Indian building contractors had to be used and they had been "a bit problematic" to find.

The project coincided with Covid-19 and while the team would normally have "got on a plane" and headed to the Maldives, Mr Oakley said the work had all been done remotely so far. He would travel there at some stage.

There was potential for further work as further funding had been secured from the Saudi Arabian Government for more refrigeration projects and the firm had been asked if it would be interested.

Typically, Oakley Gray did publicly funded work, a lot of which was in the education space, including schools and the university, and for the Southern District Health Board and aged-care facilities.

Mr Oakley, who had previously done some work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s New Zealand Aid programme in Kiribati, Samoa and the Cook Islands, said the Maldives was a fascinating place and the people were great.

"This is building something which is what we like to do and it’s scale and it’s a place I’ve had a connection with for 30-plus years. I just want to get it built."

"It’s been fascinating for me over the years. It makes a change from classrooms," he said.