Fish.me, founded in 2015, allows fishermen to sell their catches online
How one Bahraini start-up is working on behalf of local fishermen
Mohammed Toraif recollects the time he visited his uncle’s home in Sanabis on the outskirts of the Bahraini capital Manama.
“It would always smell of fish and I would say, 'This is a bad smell,'" says Mr Toraif, 35, founder of the online marketplace for fish, named simply Fish.me.
His uncle, who comes from a long line of pearl divers in Bahrain - a traditionally sea-faring society - was also record-holder for catching the country’s biggest hamour - a type of reef cod - in the 1990s.
“He would say, 'This is my income. Period,'” says Mr Toraif.
Today, Mr Toraif has picked up the mantle of his fishing family, albeit in a different way.
He is the founder and developer of an app that enables Bahraini fishermen to click a picture of their catch as soon as they reach the shores and upload it online to a community of nearly 5,000 users.
The process effectively cuts out middlemen, who would traditionally procure the catch and take it to the wholesale marketplace, where it gets sold to the highest bidder.
“They usually take 10 per cent of the total cost, so that’s how it’s done. Our [Fish.me] margin is per kilo, it’s very minimal, the equivalent of 100 [Bahraini fils] or 2 [UAE] dirhams,” says Mr Toraif.
He stresses the service is not designed simply to purge middlemen from the value chain - his app itself acts “as the middleman with added values”.
Fish.me, currently servicing only in the Bahraini market allows users to order their fish, starting at a 1 kilo. The start-up also also cleans, fillets and even cooks the fish in the traditional Bahraini way for a small service charge, that could be anything from 300 to 700 fils.
In Dubai as one 36 shortlisted start-ups vying for a place in Expo 2020, of which four are from the GCC and two from Bahrain, Mr Toraif says his vision for his company extends beyond Bahrain’s small coastline.
Fish.me, which is currently in the middle of fundraising, has eyes on penetrating Kuwait - another fish-loving market - as well as Dubai and Saudi Arabia, particularly its eastern province, which shares a similar sea heritage to Bahrain.
“We received $100,000 from [US] 500 Startups and [Saudi Arabia’s] Fawaz Al Gosaibi Holding.
“We didn't close the round yet as [our target is] is $250,000, so we’re still funding. We want to finish the seed round and then we want to focus on expansion. Later on we can start Series A,” says Mr Toraif.
For his home market in Bahrain, where currently eight fishermen are enrolled in the app, he plans to bring the approximately 500 others into the fold, using his 67-year old father as a guinea pig to help make the product more user-friendly.
“One good thing is, I can test on my dad, the app. If he can use it, anyone can,” Mr Toraif laughs.
“We made it very simple, even if you’re uneducated, you cannot read, you will be able to use it. We launched the app in Arabic first and then English,” he says.
Unlike his uncle Abdullah, whose photo still hangs in the Bahrain National Museum for the prized catch, or his father who still goes to the sea, Mr Toraif, gave up the family profession to become an employee in the Central Bank of Bahrain. However, the call of the sea remained strong.
When the downturn hit Bahrain’s economy following the unrest in 2011, he was already toying with the idea of starting his own business.
In 2015, while still an employee at the bank, he co-founded Fish.me with a friend, also from a fishing family, to help his father and other fishermen have better access to the market and also receive payments without delays.
Benchmarking his app against Airbnb and Uber, enterprises he admits pander to completely different audiences, but which do have similar models, Mr Toraif plans to add around 20,000 users in Bahrain alone this year.
A feat he says won’t be too difficult given the country’s love for seafood.
Safi or rabbitfish, is Bahrain’s top-selling fish, followed by hamour and sheri. While hamour is probably the most well-known fish in the Arabian Gulf, which Mr Toraif and his family blame on the rise of luxury resorts and different tastes, he notes that demand for safi in Bahrain has not wavered, with the fish still being ordered for cooking into machboos - a variety of spiced rice served traditionally with meat.
However, Mr Toraif’s vision for the app does not stop at just vending fish virtually. He remains concerned about depleting stocks in Bahrain, thanks to an expansive land reclamation programme since the 1990s, which has dramatically changed the island's shoreline.
Another big concern for fish stocks in the waters offshore Bahrain, which means "two seas" in Arabic, is the reluctance of some fishermen to observe seasonal bans on fishing, which are designed to help renew their inventories.
“Last year [we didn’t have] jumbo prawns,” says Mr Toraif.
“[The government] revoked licences from some fishermen and made them pay fines, a huge amount like 2000 dinars, plus they take your stock, but people here still try and resist and we want to make people aware of this,” he notes.
Fish.me is currently looking to engage with regional governments and the UN to create proper inventories on fish stocks in the Gulf in order to help develop a regional resource base on marine life to help conserve it.
Hasan Haider, a Bahrain-based partner with 500 Startups, says the environment for new businesses is improving and that in turn benefits governments.
“Now that governments are paying attention to start-ups, a lot of them are actually advising governments on what regulations should be on areas like ride hailing [through] Careem. So yes, start-ups are having more of a say and bit more of an impact,” he adds.
Mr Toraif agrees and says Fish.me will boost the local and wider region's fishing sector and could be implemented in any fishing industry. "We’re trying to help all the fishermen in this region," he says. "Their life is almost the same all over the world, if we succeed here, we can replicate it anywhere."