HT Salutes: From slim pickings to plum sales, how a fisherman used tech to beat...

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Five days into the lockdown, fisherman Ganesh Nakhawa, 32, was sitting down to a lunch of fish curry and rice, and sent a picture to a friend in Mumbai. ‘You should sell these in the city. We have no fish here,’ the friend texted back.

Luckily, that fisherman in Karanja, Raigad, had a degree in business studies from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; and his friend, Myron Mendes, was communications manager at an NGO where he helps run campaigns for a living.

Mendes got permission from his housing society to coordinate orders and connected with other housing societies to offer that cherished thing in Mumbai — and rare treat in the lockdown — fresh fish straight from the fisherman.

Two days later, Nakhawa, armed with an e-pass (fish was an essential service in the food category) loaded 25kg of the day’s catch into the boot of his car and drove 90 minutes to Mumbai. Two hours on, as Nakhawa puts it, his car was empty and his pockets full.

Back home, he spread the word and 15 other families joined in. He drove back later that week with 100kg of fish, then 150 (he had to take out the back seat to make room).

At a time when fisherfolk all along the coast were being forced to stay home or dump the bulk of their catch because supply chains had shut and — more crucially — the ice factories had closed, he had found a way for his community to thrive.

There were so many orders that Nakhawa got to indulge his love for Excel spreadsheets—orders placed, orders filled, orders pending, orders for next week. Customers began calling from so far away, they had to turn some down.

By the second week, Nakhawa realised this could be scaled up further. As director of the Karanja Fishing Co-operative Society, he took his model to the people. Earnings had fallen by now, by about 25%, and most fisherfolk were taking their boats out only every two or three days. Given the already-slim margins of their business, many were becoming desperate.

Nakhawa suggested they throw their lot in with him, leverage technology to balance supply, demand and pricing, and create an entire supply chain on their own.

The co-operative society partnered with Numer8, a data analytics firm. All orders were funnelled through a single WhatsApp number. They called themselves BluCatch — a name that Nakhawa had trademarked in 2017, when he first tried to use a similar online model, but saw it fail due mainly to lack of scale.

This time, using their own vans and cars (and later a few rented tempos) and tying up with online delivery platforms, they rushed their fish to homes across the city. By the third week of April, BluCatch had around 600 fisherfolk across Raigad and Mumbai selling over 3,000 kg of fish a day.

Eliminating the middleman has meant they can keep more of their margins, and earnings have risen by as much as 35% over pre-lockdown levels. Earnings from each carload are transferred back to each fisher family on the same day.

“I don’t have to worry. And I don’t have to wait for weeks for my money to come in. They are working more to be ready for a post-pandemic world and I am going to be with them,” says Karanja fisherman Vinayak Patil, 41.

If there’s one downside, it’s that managing the whole supply chain is exhausting. “Most of us haven’t slept in two months,” Nakhawa says. “I’ve slept in my car, at the harbour, at friends’ homes.”

But for Nakhawa, it is a dream coming true. He quit a job in investment banking in the UK in 2011, to return to his Koli community and become a seventh-generation fisherman. “What the lockdown has done is show us that it is sustainable,” he says. “Right now, only about 5% of Koli men with another career choice opt to go into fishing. The number is higher among women, but still no more than 30%. I want more youth coming in. And now I hope they will.”

(Hindustan Times and Facebook have partnered to bring you the next 15 stories of HT Salutes. HT is solely responsible for the editorial content of this series)

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