May 30, 2024

The 59-year-old Wilfred Poggenpoel is a fisher from Lambert’s Bay, a picturesque town 170 miles north of Cape Town that’s popular with surfers and home to 17,000 breeding pairs of Cape gannets. Five years ago, he made the decision to join a virtual marketplace called Abalobi, which enables fishers such as him to sell their catch directly to restaurants, retailers and consumers using a custom-built app.

“I get a better price and I can sell more species now,” he says. “I’ve bought a 60-horsepower motor that I’d never have been able to afford before. I’ve bought a second boat.” He joined, he says, because he didn’t want to spend all day walking around town in the sun trying to sell fish. “My quality of life has improved. I’ve even been able to help some old people in the community.”

Abalobi (which means fisher in isiXhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa) is a tech nonprofit that works to help the small-scale fishers who make up the bulk of the South African fishing industry but are traditionally excluded from it financially.

Poggenpoel says using Abalobi has improved his quality of life. Photograph: Abalobi

There are three apps at the heart of the platform. The Fishers’ app, the one Poggenpoel uses, allows fishers to upload details of their daily catch to a database. The Marketplace app then shows restaurants, hotels and customers at home what is available, and allows them to buy fresh, fully traceable line-caught fish direct from the people who caught it. The Monitor app takes the data fed in by the fishers and allows scientists to better manage fisheries and fish populations.

“We buy around 100kg of fish every week via Abalobi,” says Kerry Kilpin, the executive chef of two restaurants at Steenberg wine farm in Cape Town. “It’s no more expensive than other suppliers and it’s much fresher.”

The fish, which is put on ice the moment it is caught, is taken from the boats to a central distribution centre where it is cleaned, packaged and delivered to customers within 24 hours. Purchases can be made in the app, and fishers receive payment within 48 hours.

Cape Town is surrounded by ocean, but Norwegian salmon and Mozambican prawns still feature on many restaurant menus. The app has enabled Kilpin to change what she offers to customers.

“We use Cape bream a lot,” she says. “It used to be something nobody wanted. A fisherman’s fish that was sold in bunches at very low prices. But it’s an amazing fish, very versatile, small, delicate and with a pleasing flavour.”

A typical small-scale fishing boat off the southern coast of South Africa. Photograph: Abalobi

Poggenpoel used to have to traipse around Lambert’s Bay flogging Cape bream at bargain prices. Now it’s his bread and butter. Abalobi’s focus on the species has also provided work for local women, who have been trained to prepare Cape bream (and other fish).

“I used to work on a potato farm, in the wind and the rain,” says Amelia Shoshola. “But this is much better. On a good day I can earn 300 rand (£13) for a few hours’ work.”

Because Cape bream can only be targeted by line-fishers, it remains plentiful.

Abalobi now works with more than 1,600 fishers in communities around the South African coastline, and its technology is used by partner organisations in 12 other countries, including Chile, Madagascar, Croatia and Ireland.

It was co-founded in 2015 by Serge Raemaekers, a fisheries researcher then based at the University of Cape Town. He worked in partnership with Abongile Ngqongwa, a fisheries manager, and Nico Waldeck, a fisher turned community activist from Lambert’s Bay.

“I’d always been involved in politics,” says Waldeck. “But when apartheid ended, I realised I didn’t care about politics, I cared about communities. And my community was a fishing community.”

The first iteration of Abalobi was all about data collection, with Waldeck persuading fishers that it was in their interests to record – on smartphones provided by the platform – every fish they caught. Fishers could use the data to apply for bank loans, he says, or renew fishing permits.

“Our starting point is not the chef or the plate,” says Raemaekers. “It is finding ways to build trust with these fishermen and women who have so much knowledge and information and data in their heads.”

The Weskusmandjie – a collective of women from the small fishing hamlet of Steenberg’s Cove near Lambert’s Bay – holding bokkoms (dried Southern mullet). Photograph: Abalobi

In 2018 he began to use that data to create the real-time marketplace.

Kilpin was the first chef to buy fish through Abalobi – 7kg of Cape bream caught in Lambert’s Bay. Within two years, Abalobi was selling to 350 restaurants in the Cape. The Covid pandemic halted that expansion, but it also meant that Abalobi opened up the marketplace to retailers and consumers.

“It’s not a case of buying sustainable seafood that has some sort of blue or green tick in a way that works in formalised fisheries like the EU,” says Raemaekers. “Transposing that idea to the global south has a whole lot of unintended consequences about social justice. What’s better is supporting a broken segment of our society like the South African fishing community.”

Tryn, one of two restaurants on Steenberg farm, serves up Cape bream. The restaurants source all their fish via Abalobi. Photograph: Claire Gunn/Steenberg Farm

Waldeck is now working on a system that will allow the community to benefit further by keeping some of the caught fish for itself.

“[With Abalobi] we get a better price for the fishers, which is great,” he says. “But that same fish is of important nutritional value to Lambert’s Bay.”

He has spent the past year piloting a food security project that sees the platform buy some of the fishers’ catch – and pay the women to clean and freeze it – before selling it back to the community at low prices. “At the moment we’re [partially] subsidising it. But once we’ve come up with a system that can break even, we’ll roll it out at other sites.”

Meanwhile, Poggenpoel has more immediate ambitions. “I want to find a skipper and a crew for my second boat and put it on the Abalobi system,” he says. “I want to grow. That’s my whole motivation.”

Raemaekers has similarly impressive plans. “This started out as a citizen science project,” he says. “But it has become so much more. It has the potential to redefine the way we all interact with the sea.”

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