A range of cell phone applications, known as mFisheries, improves market connections, supply chain efficiency and safety at sea for small-scale fishers in Trinidad and Tobago.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the small-scale fisheries industry is under threat as young people are drawn away from traditional livelihoods, fish stocks dwindle and large trawlers, many of which may be operating illegally, present debilitating competition. As a result, the country now imports more fish and fish products than it exports.
While many small-scale fishers in ACP countries share the same challenges, fishers in Trinidad and Tobago enjoy relatively good access to urban centres, electricity, radio, television, cell phone services and, in some cases, even wired internet. Most local fishers have achieved at least primary-level education, and almost all have cell phones.
In 2009, the government’s Distance Learning Secretariat (DLS) asked the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of the West Indies (UWI) to make use of the cell phone technology and develop an innovative means of delivering training content to small-scale fishers. With support from the International Development Research Centre, UWI carried out a survey among over 500 small-scale fishers, vendors and processors. More than 95% reported that they used cell phones for fisheries-related work.
The survey revealed a number of challenges facing the fishers that could not be solved by training alone, and where it was felt that cell phones could help. Chief among these were market and operational inefficiencies, safety at sea, financial capacity, concern for the environment and the lack of a voice in determining fishers’ regulations and working conditions.
From the earliest stages, the project team worked closely with organisations in the fishing sector and fifty fishers from five coastal areas. This collaboration led to the development and assessment of a suite of mobile applications, called mFisheries.
The two main market-related apps in the suite are Got Fish Need Fish (GFNF) and Prices, which together constitute a virtual marketplace. GFNF is an interactive application that links individuals who have fish for sale with those who want to purchase fish. The app displays matches of those selling and buying a particular type of fish and gives the contact details to facilitate the sale. The Prices app displays the most recent prices that different types of fish sold at in two local markets. These prices are gathered each day by the National Agricultural Marketing Development Corporation.
A number of other apps in the mFisheries suite address other key concerns, especially safety at sea. These include a compass, GPS tracking and an SOS alert. In an emergency, the SOS Alert sends pre-defined e-mails and text messages to a number of prescribed recipients and automatically initiates a call to the Trinidad and Tobago coastguard.
The GPS logging and retrieval app includes a position tracking system which periodically updates a web server with the fishing boat’s location coordinates , including the date and time of retrieval, in the event that a fisherman is thought to be lost at sea. This tracking is triggered when the cell phone is detected as having left the ‘geofence’, defined as the boundary of Trinidad.
The mFisheries suite also has a multimedia first aid training app, which reinforces key points from training modules delivered in more traditional training sessions by the Caribbean Fisheries Training and Development Institute. Audio instructions are combined with text and images to describe what to do in an emergency. The apps include multimedia controls for stopping, pausing and replaying the content.
The training tips app delivers audio podcasts on themes such as emergency boat maintenance, fishing methods, the handling of fish, preparations for going to sea, the rules of the road at sea and survival at sea. The camera tool helps in the reporting of incidents, such as nets being damaged by ploughing vessels. Other, third-party apps, such as TideApp and WeatherBug, are freely available and are bundled with the mFisheries suite.
During a field trial, the project offered 50 water-resistant and scratch-resistant Android smartphones to the fishing communities at a subsidised rate. Along with this, they received a complimentary mobile data service. After eight months, 86% of the participants were using mFisheries regularly.
Significantly, more than 80% of the trial sample indicated that the apps could save at least a quarter of the time it takes to conduct their work. Of this group, almost 60% felt that at least half of the time it takes to fish could be saved using these tools, making their operations more efficient
The apps have also provided better links to buyers, with 78% of users saying they rely more on market prices than they did before they used mFisheries, with almost all using the Prices app to get an idea of fish market pricing before buying or selling fish, and for setting their own wholesale and retail prices. Having been exposed to mFisheries, nine out of ten people from the trial group are now confident that smartphones, installed with the right mix of apps, can be used to improve their fisheries-related work.
Most fishers sell their catch to buyers who buy from them at the shore, travelling quickly to meet the boats in their vans. These mobile vendors resell to large regional markets, fixed-location vendors, wholesale purchasers and directly to consumers. The vendors’ market access relies heavily on existing relationships with particular buyers, such as supermarkets.
The fishers are generally removed from the final, consumer market. The vast majority do not own a fishing vessel, so they work for other boat owners. Their day’s pay depends on the size of the catch and the price fetched. As the fishers typically do not have on-shore cold storage or on-land transport, they must get the catch off the boat as soon as they dock. They are, therefore, largely dependent on the mobile vendors. The mFisheries’ apps provide the fishers with market information that allows them to negotiate better prices.
Through working closely with the fishing communities and other partners, the UWI project has provided important insights into the interdependence of the fishers and the vendors. Despite the bitter complaints from the fishers about their local vendors, they have generally not dared to offend them by seeking new buyers because they are afraid that they will be denied the vendors’ access to ice, and an immediate market for their fish on landing.
The fishers have, therefore, shown a great deal of interest in the Got Fish Need Fish app because it makes a potential new network of clients available to them. Also, by engaging all parties along the value chain, it should be possible to reduce the reliance on selling to first vendor, who will also benefit from the ability to interact with a richer and more varied market.
To make mFisheries available to everyone in the small-scale fisheries value chain, the project has adapted the suite of apps for Android and other smartphones, and for the web. The system is based on open source tools to make it easier to replicate. The project will also explore schemes for using further market and marine data that the fishers can use, and will examine ways of allowing them to get more information and learn more about their business.
One of the primary aims of mFisheries is to improve the efficiency of the market to make participation easier for fishers at the supply end of the value chain. The apps have facilitated the use of fish prices in daily trade negotiations, and, due to the readily available weather and tide data, changed the way fishers plan and execute their trips to sea.
The system also helps to reduce inefficiency in other areas indirectly related to the value chain by providing navigational, safety and fishing advice. These improvements at the supply end will result in more stable wholesale and retail pricing further along the value chain.
Kim Mallalieu (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior lecturer at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at the University of the West Indies (UWI) ( www.eng.uwi.tt/depts/elec), and Mark Lessey (Mark.Lessey@sta.uwi.edu) is a tutor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at UWI.