Captain Fresh & The Rise of the Indian Seafood Industry
A B2B platform for fresh fish and seafood in India
Fishing is a primordial trade, cemented deep into our origins as hunters and gatherers. Fishermen go out to sea and catch whatever fish they can to be brought back to eat or sell. There is no predictability to the catch – just whatever can be achieved through a combination of skill and luck. Because of this, in many countries, trying to turn this essential trade into a well-run, efficient business has been a challenge. There are few better examples of this than in India.
The mainland of India’s coastline spans 7,000 kilometers, with fish catches to match its scale. However, the seafood market is still very traditional, with over 95% of the business flowing through small, family-run markets across the country. On top of this, India is unique as more than 95% of fish purchased is fresh. Compare this with the United States, where 80% of fish is purchased frozen. With fish only being fresh for a few hours, it is a huge challenge to get everyone the fish they want without it spoiling. The traditional approach to meeting that challenge has led to extremely complex supply chains across the country. Unfortunately, the system has major issues that result in 40 kilograms out of every 100 kilograms of fish caught in India going to waste.
Captain Fresh is the fruition of years of planning by Utham Gowda to completely change the paradigm of how fish makes it to market. The company delivers a fast harvest-to-retail service supply chain platform for not only all of India but increasingly for the world.
Utham Gowda comes from a humble background - far from the ocean and with no connection to fishing. He grew up in Mysuru before leaving for the National Institute of Technology Karnataka Surathkal, a top 10 college in India. After gaining an engineering degree and working in the industry for a few years, Utham decided management, not engineering, was the role for him and got his MBA. This led him first into business consulting, and then investment banking.
In his first years post-MBA, Utham saw the effect that good business and financial strategies can have. More than that, this time also enabled him to build his own analytical model for understanding the potential for disruption and innovation across the many markets he covered, and kindled in him a desire to have a real impact with his actions. Both these came together when his own rankings of the sectors showed that seafood was at the top of the list across a range of metrics.
Utham’s belief in the potential of the seafood sector was such that he told his bosses he was willing to put his salary on the line if his proposed push into seafood didn’t work out. With their buy-in, Utham traveled the country, meeting with stakeholders across the seafood market. What he found was many family-run seafood businesses making 5-10% profit per year, but he also found huge potential. “When you look at countries endowed with similar resources, there are a number of seafood companies making $5-15 billion, but in India, the largest is bringing in $150 million. There is no reason why we can’t change that.”
“When you look at countries endowed with similar resources, there are a number of seafood companies making $5-15 billion, but in India, the largest is bringing in $150 million. There is no reason why we can’t change that.”
Utham spent the next two years crafting deals for his seafood clients, but his path to starting Captain Fresh had one more step before he was ready – he needed to get an inside view of the industry. Utham quit investment banking to work for one of the family run seafood companies. The move allowed him to see firsthand the workings of the Indian seafood industry. What he saw confirmed that the supply chain was too complex to scale effectively. This close-up view also enabled him to identify the issues facing key parts of that chain – from how the fish were caught, through production and distribution to how fish were sold to consumers. Most importantly though, his time at the company confirmed to Utham that the industry really had the potential he had felt from the start. In 2019, Utham ventured out on his own and founded Captain Fresh to bring the Indian seafood industry into the high-tech world.
SIMPLIFYING THE PUZZLE
Once founded, Utham had a two-fold challenge: where to start and how to drive fundamental change in the supply chain. Captain Fresh attacked the first by dramatically simplifying its focus – selling initially to just two large customers in one city, delivering just a single, high-volume, low-cost fish, the carp. This approach allowed the company to focus on how best to streamline its operations without added complexity, and without exposing it to unnecessary financial risk. It also allowed Captain Fresh to build a model that it could use to quickly scale the business – first adding customers in that city – up to 300 in 90 days, then taking the model to other cities.
Remaking the supply chain wasn’t as simple as just buying and refurbishing a few warehouses. The company also had to develop ways to solve the issues inherent in all parts of the supply chain – including those beyond its immediate control. To achieve this, Captain Fresh has created different technology platforms for each stakeholder group. A great example is Fishgram, a super app Captain Fresh developed to help fishermen. Part LinkedIn, part Google Maps, part fishing guru, Fishgram enables fishermen to network with each other for better communication on the water. It also includes a fishing map that guides fishermen with insights and predictions on what fish are where in the ocean based on earth observation, satellite, wind direction, and ocean depth data. For other stakeholders, Captain Fresh has developed a factory aggregation platform, a distributor platform, and a retail operation platform to predict demand and stock accordingly.
By taking this radically different approach - asset-light, leveraging existing infrastructure, and reorganizing every part of the supply chain - Captain Fresh was able to remove the six to twelve layers of middlemen that traditionally sat between sea and consumer in India. In its place, vendors could work directly with one company that would ensure they get the fish they need. Within 18 months, Captain Fresh became the largest distributor of seafood in India.
RIDING THE WAVE
With all these systems in place to maximize the efforts of each stakeholder in the supply chain, Captain Fresh has seen great success. Already, the company moves 150 million dollars worth of seafood per year, but that feels like just the start. While India is currently 100% of its revenues, Utham believes that number could soon be as low as 20%. Captain Fresh has recently expanded into Dubai, and has its sights set on Europe and the US, backed by research that shows there are similar seafood supply chain issues across Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the United States.
Captain Fresh has a solution it feels can disrupt the market worldwide. As Utham remarks, “In the seafood market, there is a gap that is very similar to what Uber identified in the taxi industry. Taxis are a very local industry, but the solution that Uber brings is global and relevant anywhere. Captain Fresh is developing a model that will be relevant in all these countries.”
“In the seafood market, there is a gap that is very similar to what Uber identified in the taxi industry. Taxis are a very local industry, but the solution that Uber brings is global and is relevant anywhere. Captain Fresh is developing a model that will be relevant in all these countries.”
These are big ambitions, but they are built on a foundation of years of meticulous planning. They also fit perfectly with Gowda's approach to life and business. “If you think big and are courageous, there are a lot of people who will love to support you and see you succeed, and maybe then you make the world a better, more connected place, too."
For more, visit Captain Fresh: https://www.captainfresh.in/