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Numer8 was initially working on a product for natural disaster risk modelling before shifting focus to the marine fishing community. (Photo: iStock)
Numer8 was initially working on a product for natural disaster risk modelling before shifting focus to the marine fishing community. (Photo: iStock)

Numer8 builds a ‘Google map’ for fishing at sea

  • The startup uses satellite data to help fishermen make a beeline for the likeliest spots in the ocean to catch fish
  • Fishermen registered on the app can be tracked so that buyers can get transparency on when, where and who caught the fish

Like most other fishermen on the Sindhudurg coast, Akshay Haram used to head out to sea at dawn without an inkling of where he could find the day’s catch. He knew some likely fishing spots but the creatures are capricious. So, he would often spend hours searching for a school of bhangra (mackerel), gobra (grouper) or squid. But now, he has help from an app called OFish.

The app analyzes satellite image data to indicate concentrations of fish near the user’s port as well as ‘algal blooms’ that are dead zones fish avoid because of low oxygen levels. Both these features help fishermen save time as well as fuel expenses, and reduce chances of returning with a meagre haul. Haram has three fishing boats, one of which is mechanized, and he is quickly reaping the benefits of using the app.

“When I select my port on the app, it shows a line to a location I can target. Even if I lose network connectivity as I head out to sea, I already know the good spots of the day," says Haram. “So far, it hasn’t failed. I have at least got some catch whenever I have used the app to pick a location."

He manages to haul in one or two tonnes of fish on good days now, compared to less than half of that earlier. As Haram goes along, he may explore a range of other features of the app, including market linkages.

Satellite data

OFish is a product of Mumbai-based geospatial data analytics startup Numer8. At the outset in 2017, it was working on a product for natural disaster risk modelling for the property insurance market. Then in early 2018, it submitted a project proposal to the European Space Agency (ESA) on coastal flooding. The idea was mainly to get deeper access to ESA’s satellite data, because the Indian Space Research Organization hadn’t opened up much to private entities back then, which is something that recent government reforms aim to change.

It was while doing the ESA project that the Numer8 team started talking to fishermen who bore the brunt of coastal flooding. “We soon realized that considerable focus was going to agritech but there was nothing majorly done for the marine fishing community, although there was a large potential data play from a GIS (Geographic Information System) perspective and a market connection angle," says Devleena Bhattacharjee, chief executive and founder of Numer8. She had worked as a data scientist for several organizations in India, Europe and the US before becoming an entrepreneur, and saw the possible impact of shifting focus to this side project.

Bhattacharjee also realized this wasn’t only an India-specific problem to solve, but applied to fishermen in several other countries with long coastlines. So, she decided to make a pitch to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which has an innovation accelerator.

Numer8 rustled up a prototype of the OFish app around the start of 2019, working with local fishermen around Mumbai. The startup got selected for the WFP, a lifeline for the fledgling, bootstrapped startup. “The surprising bit was that we were the only ones talking about food from the sea," recalls Bhattacharjee. “We then bagged a WFP innovation pilot project in Sri Lanka and that’s where we actually started in late 2019."

About four months into the project, covid-19 arrived with all its restrictions. So, the project could not be completed for an impact assessment. However, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens.

On March 25, when the first lockdown came into effect, Mumbai’s Koli fishing community was one of the worst-hit. The previous evening, they had returned from sea with one of the season’s biggest hauls. Suddenly, markets were closed and there were no distributors or even ice to preserve the fish until alternative sales channels could be found. Thousands of tonnes of fish had to be dumped back into the sea.

A fallout of the disruption was that the fishing community needed to adapt to survive and became more open to try new things. A fishing cooperative society started sending a vehicle to Mumbai to sell fish directly to consumers who were also desperate for fresh fish. A WhatsApp group quickly became popular and buyers would flock as the vehicle made stops at various points in Mumbai.

Connecting people

Numer8 connected with the fishing cooperative. Being an app-based platform, it could facilitate sales channels with large B2B buyers, including modern retail, exporters and online portals like Licious and FreshToHome, which are becoming popular in urban areas.

In turn, it enhanced the value proposition and revenue stream of the startup. Now, it could make a play on the demand side apart from helping fishermen find good spots for fishing. This could give better returns to fishermen as well as fresher fish to buyers by cutting through multiple layers of distribution. Fishermen also get paid much quicker than in the traditional system, which is vital for them to go out to sea as they constantly struggle with cash flow and fall prey to moneylenders.

The end-to-end linkage creates other new possibilities. Fishermen registered on the app can be tracked so that buyers can get transparency on when, where and who caught the fish. All this information can be provided via QR codes on packages.

“We are also talking to large institutions to add a financial element to the app. The fishing community hasn’t been able to access formal finances, and the main reason is the problem of data validation," says Bhattacharjee. “Our next step is to validate fishermen to make them eligible for loans. Fishermen can enter details of the fish they sell and cash coming in, while the app also tracks the fishing routes they have taken."

The biggest challenge is connecting with the small fishermen who constitute the startup’s main focus. Numer8 has adopted a partnership model to get around this, working with cooperatives. This appears to be shaping up well in Maharashtra, but the pandemic has hampered outreach in other states. Numer8 hopes to spread out faster as the situation eases.

A positive outcome of the pandemic is that it brought the Numer8 team closer to the fishing community, giving insights into everything from fish quality and pricing to distribution. “I ended up being a regular at Sassoon Dock (Mumbai’s largest seafood market) and I actually sold fish myself in the streets of Dadar in the summer," says Bhattacharjee. “I wanted to experience that to understand the dynamics of the marketplace."

The startup hasn’t raised institutional funding so far. “I wanted to be sure that we have a business model sketched out. I didn’t want to pivot after taking funding. But now we know where we are going."

Funding will help the startup at this stage to scale up and expand, not only in India but globally. Just last month, Numer8 signed a go-to-market agreement with Swiss satellite analytics company SatSure to jointly provide location-based services to fishermen in the Southeast Asian region.

Sumit Chakraberty is a Consulting Editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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