Straight to content

Aqua-Spark CEO: Institutional capital key to growing aquaculture

Published: 22 March 2024

Lissy Smit, CEO of sustainable aquaculture investment fund Aqua-Spark talks to Impact Investor about fundraising, the sector’s first unicorn and why it is launching a new Africa fund.

One of Chicoa’s tilapia farms in Mozambique. Chicoa was one of the first investments made by Aqua-Spark | Photo by Aqua-Spark

Aqua-Spark factbox

  • Mission: move aquaculture industry towards healthy, sustainable, affordable production with comparable financial returns
  • Long-term holding strategy, open-ended fund
  • Over 350 investors from more than 33 countries
  • 28 portfolio companies, aiming for up to 60 by 2030
  • Investments in SMEs in alternatives, production, feed ingredients, disease battling, aqua tech and waste valorisation
  • Value creation through dividends and IPOs
  • Returns have ranged between 12% and 27% since the fund’s launch, depending on investor entry

Despite “multidimensional threats” facing the worlds’ oceans, SDG 14 – life below water – continues to receive the least funding of any of the SDGs, UN secretary-general António Guterres told delegates, at the 2022 UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon.

Lissy Smit, Aqua-Spark

It is a problem that Lissy Smit, CEO of Aqua-Spark, the sustainable aquaculture investment fund, is very familiar with. After 18 months at the helm, Smit believes that getting capital flow to the industry is a substantial challenge. “Not just to our fund directly, but into the industry as a whole long-term. It’s an industry that’s going to need going to need a lot of capital going forward.”

Smit joined Aqua-Spark after more than two decades working for Dutch cooperative lender Rabobank, where she rose to head of credit approvals. She became familiar with the aquaculture sector and was impressed with the opportunities it had to offer while she was at the bank. “If done sustainably, it can really lead to producing a healthy protein,” she points out.

Aqua-Spark is building an ecosystem of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across the value chain, and Smith says she found the way they were approaching aquaculture to be really interesting.

A meeting with Aqua-Spark’s founders, Mike Velings and Amy Novogratz, sealed the deal. Smit was taken by “their story and their passion for the industry, plus the real impact you can make with private capital in situations where you are changing the food chain. This is much harder from a larger institutional perspective.”

Market landscape

For the aquaculture sector to grow and develop, there are still plenty of challenges ahead, she believes. “It’s very fragmented. There’s a lot of issues around it. So for larger institutional investors, a lot of education still needs to happen, and also on the consumer side, issues around transparency, traceability. The great thing is there’s so many solutions. But it’s not at the same scale yet compared to agricultural production,” she says.

At the time of Smit’s hiring, Aqua-Spark said it aimed to grow its assets tenfold, from around €300m in 2021, to between €3bn and €5bn by 2030. Given the tough fundraising climate, especially in venture capital, does Smit think that is still an achievable goal?

“We’re currently at nearly €500m assets under management,” says Smit. The fundraising environment has been “quite slow, especially in 2023″, she adds.

“So the target and the aim is still there. Whether it’s going to be 2030, I can’t promise. But we do believe that in order to have the impact, and we’re changing a system and going for scaling and growth, we do need to grow to substance. That’s the important ambition behind it.”

That’s why “getting institutional capital in is going to be really key”, she says.

Smit highlights the challenge of attracting institutional investors to the aquaculture industry, citing the need for “a lot of education or pitching” and de-risking strategies.

First aquaculture unicorn

Last year, the aquaculture sector reached an important milestone when Indonesian startup eFishery, which was one of Aqua-Spark’s first investments when it started in 2013, was valued at over $1bn. At the end of last year, another portfolio company, Dutch insect breeder Protix, landed a strategic partnership with US meat packer Tyson Foods, one of the world’s biggest food companies. 

The success of eFishery and Protix means a much wider range of investors interested in aquaculture, according to Smit.

“Once you get a Tyson Foods on board, or you have your unicorn, then that wakes up a lot of people,” says Smit. “Plus we are a fund. So that does allow people to do larger tickets into smaller companies through a fund structure.”

Africa fund

In December, Aqua-Spark secured backing form the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), through its state-owned investment and development bank, KfW, as anchor investor for its new Africa fund. BMZ committed €15m, with an additional €1m for technical assistance. 

“One of the first investments that Aqua-Spark did was at Chicoa Fish Farm, which is a vertically integrated African tilapia farm, so it’s always been close to our hearts,” says Smit. “We believe there is a huge opportunity on the continent, in terms of population growth as well as the fact that 40% of seafood consumed in Africa is imported, which we believe is unnecessary.”

The new fund, which will make up to four investments a year and is aimed at catalysing sustainable aquaculture in Africa, is expected to launch in the first half of this year, Smit says.

“One of the reasons why we’re doing this as a separate fund is that it is a different investment proposition,” says Smit. Apart from KfW, there is  interest in investing in African aquaculture from various NGOs, as well as from existing investors in Aqua-Spark’s Global Fund, according to Smit.


Although progress on the UN’s SDG for the ocean has been slow – with just under $10bn invested while some $175bn is needed to achieve it by 2030 according to the World Economic Forum- Smit is optimistic about attracting capital to the sustainable ocean economy.

“I’m really convinced that once people see the opportunities in aquaculture and the solutions that are there, with the increased attention from the climate side, that a lot of new investors will come into the sector that might have been hesitant before,” she says.

“So as it becomes more mainstream, as people know more about it, and also know how these challenges can be addressed, I’m actually quite positive. Especially around the oceans. We’re not an ocean fund, but aquaculture, if done sustainably, does provide a solution for some of the issues around ocean health today.”

Share on social media

Latest articles