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Coastal fishermen in India largely use marine navigation systems from the US company Garmin or Japanese company Furuno, if they can afford it. Most go for the basic versions of these products, costing 30,000-50,000, because the advanced versions at 2 lakh and over are beyond their means.

What they miss out on in the basic systems is the cloud-based data play, especially big data analytics to optimize routes and productivity, because real-time data is only stored on the device.

This puts them at a huge disadvantage to larger, well-equipped Chinese trawlers in the international waters of the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.

Kanyakumari startup Odaku has come up with an affordable workaround to this problem. It has a SaaS (software-as-a-service) product that can provide the navigation as well as analytics with cloud support. This can be installed on any compatible tablet or smartphone, leaving the choice of gadget to the fisherman according to what suits his budget. The startup is also trying to tailor the product to local needs.

“Indian fishermen use traditional knowledge for fishing on our coastline. We are baking that into our product," says Xavier Lawrance, founder of Odaku, who worked as an app developer in the US and Singapore before becoming an entrepreneur in his home state of Tamil Nadu.

Digital assistant

For example, experienced fishermen know where they can get a good catch. They also know rock formations underwater that could snag their nets. Such details would normally be noted in a logbook, but once digitized on the cloud and collated with data from other fishermen, the fisherman’s visualization can be more powerful.

Odaku’s product is being used on 1,700 mainly medium-sized mechanized fishing boats, each employing 30-50 people. So, it has a large potential impact on the fishing community as a whole, and not just the boat owners.

The app has several other features, like weather alerts. But what sets it apart, according to Lawrance, is the way it communicates with its users.

“There are several NGOs coming into this space and the government also pushes a lot of solutions, but most of them are designed for normal users," he says.

“When a person goes out to sea, he uses a sea language. That’s where there is a gap between the fishing community and the tech people who are building solutions for them. Since I come from their domain, I understand what they need and how to communicate data to them," he adds.

Lawrance’s family has been in fishing traditionally, and he still goes out to fish in the ocean.

Odaku illustrates the kind of tech innovations that can make an impact on fishing. Most startups have focused on inland fish farms, especially shrimp, which has a lucrative export market. Farmed fishing is more predictable and easier to control for tech intervention, but marine fishing has the potential to make a big impact, considering the sheer number of people involved in it.

Apart from help with fishing itself, opportunities abound all along the supply chain, from grading and quality checks to more reliable cold chain systems and market linkages to disrupt traditional distribution. An emerging area is traceability, which becomes far more doable with digitization and data. This gives visibility on what’s in the chain.

“A B2B supply company can then use the data not only to ensure fulfilment based on orders but also to do it in minimal time without degradation of quality," says Krishnan Neelakantan, managing partner at Ankur Capital, which recently invested in a startup that’s building a platform that will enable traceability as well.

This gets more complex for marine fishing than for inland fisheries or agriculture because of the diversity of species, their seasonality and the form factor—that is, the dimensions which may not be as standard as for farmed fish.

“So, the first proposition of data analytics is to help match fragmented end-demand with a heterogeneous and unorganized supply chain in an optimal manner," says Neelakantan.

Vital ingredient

Innovations to transform the supply chain are vital to change consumer behaviour into acceptance of tech platforms, which will in turn create demand and drive the adoption of tech by fishermen. Customers can then be assured of the same consistency that you get with farmed fish.

Right now, diehard consumers prefer to go to the market and pick their own fish, mainly because they are unsure of what they will get with an online order.

Covid-19 has put a crimp in that inefficient system, but tech platforms have to evolve to provide more value at both ends of the chain—the fishermen and consumers. This applies even more to India, where people prefer fresh fish, than in many countries in the West where frozen seafood has become a part of everyday life.

Malavika Velayanikal is a Consulting Editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu

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