Entrepreneurship is a risk taker’s cup of tea. The ebbs and tides in the entrepreneurial journey come without an expiry date. Those who are up for the ride without a fear are the ones to see through the storms and doldrums and set the clear blue water between success and failure. Founders of Aquamen Fisheries Pvt. Ltd. are an apt example of entrepreneurial resilience.
An incubatee at IIM Calcutta Innovation Park, the aquaculture start-up carved a niche in the country for pioneering soft shell crab farming, making it the first start-up to export soft shell crabs to the European market.
Founder Somadyuti Bose risked a career in advertising to build a soft-shell crab farm at the Sundarbans on a 17 Bigha plot of land in 2014. He leveraged his previous association with the tribal farmers on the delta to pull them into his ambitious and a rather capital-intensive project. Beginning with the traditional cultivation of brackish water fishes, he channelised the returns to develop a project pilot for soft shell crab farming.
Soft shell crab farming involves a cumbersome process. The shelled crabs are put into boxes. The moment the crab comes out of its old exoskeleton, it stays soft for a couple of hours before forming the new shell. It is during this phase, that the crabs are identified, handpicked and processed further.
Starting with a monthly production of 30 kg of soft-shell crabs in April 2019 for product placements to test the commercial viability, the start-up upped the production to 400 kg per month by the end of that year after receiving the first returns for the shipment in October. By March 2020, Somadyuti and his Co-Director, Prasenjit Dasgupta, were rowing comfortably, generating invoices worth Rs. 3.5 lakhs each in the first three months. At a point when they were gearing up to upscale, the founders could not have, perhaps, imagined the debacle that was waiting ahead.
The onset of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown had dried up revenue as shipments went into a stall. As if that wasn’t enough, the start-up faced a catastrophe when the super cyclone, Amphan, had hit the Sunderbans along with the rest of West Bengal in May last year. Around 4000 boxes of crabs out of 7000 were washed away while the office setup was left in ruins. Fishes and juvenile crabs worth Rs. 20 lakhs were lost. Adding to the woes, the revenue sourced from polyculture was also severely affected owing to the complete loss of aquatic life.“We were in complete ruins. 50% of the infrastructure was damaged. The boundary walls of the fishery were left with no traces of existence. We had to repay our creditors,” recalls Somadyuti.
Given the years of time, money, and effort put into the start-up, the founders were determined to pick up the remnant pieces of their business and build it once again. As Somadyuti says, “Everything had to be rebuilt from the scratch, for which we required financial assistance.”
Amidst this crisis and frequent calls, the Portfolio Managers and leadership at IIM Calcutta Innovation Park were taking updates and assessing the situation. After several rounds of talks within the team, the Governing Board and Investment Committee members it was decided to back the entrepreneurs in this their most trying time. It was decided to provide financial assistance in the form of a soft loan to help the entrepreneurs to rebuild and restore the fishery.
The funding from IIMCIP came just in time as the start-up founders engaged relentlessly in controlling the damage and rebuild what they had lost. A major portion of the fund was utilized to purchase around 10,000 crab boxes; besides, the fishery walls and office were reconstructed and the power source restored. And with double the number of boxes currently at disposal, the start-up was able to push the soft-shell crab production from 400 kg to 700 kg per month while the exports to the UK have resumed.
“The challenges have made us come out stronger. While we can have no control over natural disasters, we are definitely better equipped to avoid at least 30% of the damage resulting from such calamities. IIM Calcutta Innovation Park has played a huge role in our resurrection. The secret of success lies in meeting the right person at the right time. IIM Calcutta Innovation Park has been that right entity for us,” Somadyuti concludes.