Utari Octavianty is no stranger to imposter syndrome.
The 28-year-old is the co-founder of Aruna, an Indonesian farm-to-table e-commerce start-up that gives fishermen direct access to global consumers, fetching fair prices for their catch.
“When we talked to other [start-up] founders, they came from Harvard, Stanford, and suddenly there’s us — from a local university in Indonesia,” she told CNBC Make It.
“But somehow that became the motivation, it’s not the education that matters. It’s how we create impact,” she said.
Indeed, the impact that she and her co-founders, Farid Naufal Aslam and Indraka Fadhlillah, have created is far-reaching — over 26,000 fishermen across 150 fishing communities in Indonesia now use Aruna.
They were even praised by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo during the 2019 ASEAN Summit for their innovation and role in increasing the income of fishermen.
How is this multimillion-dollar fishery start-up begin? CNBC Make It finds out.
Disapproval from parents
When Octavianty decided to start a business related to fisheries, her mother was so angry she didn’t call for a month, she recalled.
“My parents didn’t allow me to join the fishery business because the economic value … is not good,” she said.
“That’s why my parents told me to study in technology [in university], they had expectations for me to find a good job in the tech industry.”
Her mother’s concerns weren’t unfounded, however. Octavianty grew up in a fishing village and her mum sold fishing tools for a living. Money was always tight, she said.
“In university, I realized that other kids [who were not poor] could talk about dreams. But for me and my friends, we just talked about how to survive, how to have more money, how to pay the electricity for our homes.”
Indonesia is one of the world’s largest seafood producers. In 2019, the fishery sector in Indonesia contributed $27 billion to the national gross domestic product.
Yet, the World Bank reported elevated levels of poverty in the small-scale fishery sector — the 2018 poverty rate in coastal villages was 1.3 times higher than in non-coastal villages.
So when Octavianty found a way to marry technology and her personal experiences, she knew she couldn’t easily give it up despite her parents’ resistance.
“[My co-founders and I] created a timeline together. We said, let’s commit for at least one and a half years. If this fails, then let’s find a job,” she said.
“At that time, we thought, if it’s not us, maybe someone else will do it in a different way … so let’s just start.”
Removing the middlemen
Aruna was founded in 2015, when the three co-founders were in their final year of university. They had a simple aim: providing consumers with a steady supply of seafood.
But after spending time with fishermen, they realized that there were more problems they could help to solve.
For example, a long supply chain was a major factor that prevented fishermen from selling their catch at a fair price.
“Fishermen need to sell to the local middlemen and the local middlemen will sell to the city middleman, the city middleman will sell to the province middleman and so on.”
“What happens mostly is that the fishermen don’t get paid … the middlemen will say that they will pay you tomorrow, but he would not. That’s why fishermen get poorer and poorer. It has happened to my family before too,” said Octavianty, whose uncle is also a fisherman.
Besides shortening the supply chain, the digital fish auction company also uses data mapping to ensure fair trade.
“We have real-time data about the seasonality of seafood all over Indonesia … [for example], when it’s the season for the lobster, crabs and fish,” Octavianty said.
“Most of the seafood retail industry needs steady seafood supplies … so if something is not in season on one island, we can supply from another island where it is.”
Today, Aruna is “one of the largest integrated fisheries commerce in Indonesia,” said Octavianty. According to her, the fishery platform exported 44 million kilograms of seafood into seven countries last year, most of them to the United States and China.
Giving fishermen direct access to the market has also paid off.
“We helped fishermen to increase their income more than two to three times higher compared to before they joined Aruna,” Octavianty said.
“I am more afraid. I have so many questions for myself. Am I capable of doing this? If this business grows bigger and bigger, is my experience enough to handle all of this?”
What keeps her going is her personal mission she wrote in her diary 16 years ago — to lift families from fishing villages out of poverty.
“[But now] it’s no longer to prove [myself] to my friends. It’s more like, how we can keep [the business] sustainable, while improving the lives of people.”
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