Alfred Kalontas, the founder of ALFA Fishing in Vanuatu, bootstrapped his business from nothing to become the preferred seafood supplier to over 70 percent of the hotels and restaurants in the island nation’s capital, Port Vila. He is now starting to export his high-quality, sustainably caught products to New Zealand and is seeing demand from Australia and beyond.
For most of us, bootstrapping brings up images of garages, ramen and sleeping on sofas. It’s what many entrepreneurs do to get through the first stages of growing a business, when they need to reinvest all the money they make into their company. They take only a subsistence salary—or no salary at all.
Entrepreneurs in Vanuatu and other Pacific islands face the same growth challenge. But for people already living at a subsistence level, bootstrapping requires an advanced degree of creativity—and has higher stakes because success in this context means not just business growth, but also improved living standards for the entire community.
On a recent visit to Vanuatu, I took a close look at the operations of ALFA Fishing, one of the 2015 Fish 2.0 prize winners. I learned what bootstrapping means in this environment—and how important it is to developing sustainable communities and fisheries.
Alfred’s story: bootstrapping sparks a microenterprise innovation
Alfred’s vision is to use sustainable seafood markets to build new livelihoods, reduce poverty and improve nutrition in Vanuatu. He started with ALFA Fishing’s core business, providing high-quality sustainable seafood to restaurants and hotels.
ALFA Fishing is essentially creating a new economy on Vanuatu’s small outer islands. Their economic base was wiped out 1987 when Hurricane Uma swept away the coconut plantations. There are plenty of fish in island waters, but the villagers didn’t have boats or gear, and couldn’t afford to buy equipment. ALFA Fishing came in to teach unemployed young people how to make their own canoes and reels, and how to fish sustainably and maintain quality. The company provides ice and bait and buys 100 percent of the catch at above-market prices. That means there is no bycatch and apprentice fishers are able to quickly build their business.
Alfred’s need to bootstrap this business led to his next big innovation. There were always fish Alfred couldn’t sell, so he took them home to his wife, who created prepared dishes to sell at local markets. That generated enough cash to feed the family while he grew ALFA Fishing. Alfred quickly saw that with his increasing seafood supply, he could use the same strategy to help other families create their own microenterprises—an important opportunity in a place like Vanuatu, where many families live on incomes below the poverty line.
ALFA Fishing’s FAMUL Program provides small packages of mixed seafood at nominal prices to women from very low-income families. Participants must use about half the portions they receive to feed their family, and then can sell the rest either directly or in the form of soups, curries and other products. The women are able to easily cover the costs of the FAMUL packets and to earn a small profit each week. This income brings them respect in the household, their children get more nutritious food, and they slowly work their way out of poverty, gaining business skills and confidence as they do so.
A model social enterprise
ALFA Fishing is a good example of the type of enterprise that benefits from the Fish 2.0 competition, which will launch its next round in January 2017. As ALFA Fishing grows, everyone who participates benefits—the women in the FAMUL program, young people in the remote islands, their families, ALFA and its investors, and our oceans.
The 29 fishers who have completed ALFA’s program earn above-average incomes and have been able to pay public school fees for
their children, install small solar panels to provide light at night, and reinforce their homes to withstand hurricanes. The most entrepreneurial participant in the FAMUL program has used it as a springboard to opening her own small shop and catering business.
The key to extending these results will be attracting the investment ALFA Fishing needs to expand its operations to meet demand for its seafood and microenterprise programs. When that happens, ALFA will be a model for change worldwide, offering a way to sustainably use ocean resources to preserve local cultures, eradicate poverty, create livelihoods and improve nutrition—a way that was created by a local for the locals.