Dawn is still many hours away when Jobin Ouseph leaves, at 3 am from his home at Valiyathura, a picturesque coastal village in Thiruvananthapuram district, for the hustle and bustle of the fish auctioneering market at Vizhinjam. There, country boats have landed with the early morning catch. After frenetic bidding, he takes home seer (neymeen) and sailfish (thala). By 7.30 am, the tech-savvy entrepreneur updates his customers about the day’s catch on Pachameen, a WhatsApp group with 250 customers. By 10.30 am, he and his cousin are ready to deliver the fish, cleaned and cut.
It has been hardly two months since Jobin, son of a fisherman, started Pachameen. The 23-year-old is among several others from the coastal areas in the district who started home delivery of fish when the markets were closed during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.
Testing the waters
An essential staple for many residents in Kerala’s capital city, fish was hard to come by in the initial days of the lockdown. But soon social media was flooded with vendors, who needed just a Facebook page and a WhatsApp number to start home delivery of fresh fish. “It has been my dream to start my own business venture. Having worked with a food delivery service for a year, I knew how to go about it. The lockdown was an opportunity to test the waters and it clicked,” says Jobin, a student of MBA.
Siblings Mohammed Rafi and Mohammed Althaf from Vizhinjam too decided to swim with the tide during the lockdown. “With nothing much to do during that period, we decided to sell fish online. Initially, our customers were friends and relatives. But when we realised the business potential of what we had begun, we started posting details on a Facebook page. Although we are only a few weeks old in the business and haven’t finalised even a name for it, we have got enough customers to keep it afloat. There has been a surge in the demand for fresh fish after stale fish was confiscated in large quantities. And we cashed in on that opportunity,” adds Althaf.
In the case of Manoj Henal Silva, founder of Fish Story, it was the disparity in prices that “forced” him to start the venture. “My family has been in the fisheries sector for several decades and we have been supplying fish to governmentas well as private enterprises, who also do home delivery. We decided to enter the fray when we realised that, suddenly, there were so many players in the field and they were charging according to their whims and fancies,” says Manoj.
Besides Vizhinjam, the vendors concentrate on landing centres at Poonthura, Valiyathura and Perumathura. It’s not an easy job though. “Since we don’t know when the boats will bring in the fish, we’ve arranged for people at different landing centres to inform us when the catch arrives. It could be around midnight or in the wee hours of the morning,” says Vivek Vijayan, who runs Innathe Pacha Meen with his brother,Vishakh Vijayan.
He adds that Innathe Pacha Meen has tripled its customer base after the lockdown. “We had four WhatsApp groups before the lockdown. Now we have 12. I started this on a trial basis with my brother a year ago when we were on a break from our jobs in the UAE. Since our father is a fish auctioneer, we had a smooth run and we decided to stay back. The lockdown has pushed sales beyond our expectations,” says 24-year-old Vivek.
It’s friends and family who pitch in to collect, clean pack and deliver the fish. Cleaning charge is usually ₹20 and the delivery charges come in the rage of ₹20 to 40, depending on the distance to be covered. Some of them supply the fish in neat plastic containers that have to be cleaned and returned.
Meanwhile there are people like Appu R Nair who launched home delivery service of fish to tap into the huge demand for fresh seafood. “We have been planning to roll out a service for sometime now. With people forced to stay indoors during the lockdown, it was not difficult for us to make inroads into the business,” says Appu, director of Fish Tales based in Vizhinjam.
Regarding the challenges, Vivek points to the unpredictability of the catch. Jobin adds, “There have been days when I didn’t bid for any fish because of exorbitant rates. With so many vendors coming in, there is competition at the landing centres. It is better to start on a small scale,” Jobin says.
Moreover, their rates are often compared with those of fish in the market. “Most of these markets sell stock that comes from Tamil Nadu whereas we supply fresh catch of the day,” Vivek points out. Also, there have been instances when traditional fish-sellers have raised objections against online vendors. “These sellers, comprising mainly women, compete among themselves and and naturally they get upset when we end up winning a bid,” Jobin says.
Some of the newly minted entrepreneurs have plans to expand their network by covering more places in the district. “We are getting enquiries from Attingal and suburbs in the district. So we are working on the logistics,” Vivek adds.
Now that they have proved that they are no fish out of water when it comes to innovative business practices, all eyes are on them to find out how they develop their enterprises.