Sleepless in Sumbawa: Learning the client’s business on an eye-opening journey.
The headrest on my seat had been broken and the replacement only stayed in backwards, so instead of a padded cushion, it was a video monitor that tilted the wrong way. It was 2:30am and we had just begun a 3-hour trip from the little city of Bima, in the Sumbawa region of Indonesia, along narrow, dark, winding roads to the remote village of Sangar.
We had to be there to shoot pictures as the local fishermen were coming in with their catch around 7am. I was exhausted, having taken 3 flights totaling 24-plus hours in the air across 12 time zones over a 36-hour period to get from Portland to Bali, then another domestic flight and a harrowing 2-hour car ride to Bima the very next day. In the car, I quickly realized I had to surrender and simply trust the local driver as he followed mopeds and motorcycles within inches of their rear wheels at high speeds, then honked as he constantly pulled out to overtake them, putting side view mirrors at serious risk while we passed once again within inches of oncoming vehicles. Hours later we woke in the middle of the night for this silent leg of the journey down the chain of islands that make up Indonesia. I can’t say I found a way to get comfortable, but it didn’t matter. I at least caught some sleep on the drive.
Daylight brings a glimpse of life in The Third World.
We arrived in Sangar and as the sun rose and the village came to life, I experienced one of the most eye-opening days of my life. Fishing is essentially the only livelihood there, if you can call it that.
The run-down shacks people live in there all sit about 75 feet from the water’s edge. Waterfront living is nice, I suppose, but they have virtually nothing except their clothes and homes. Dogs, chickens, goats and cows roam freely, which make the beach — virtually everyone’s front yard in Sangar — a bit messy, to put it euphemistically. And that day, at least, most everyone just sat around talking and watching curiously in the sizzling hot sun of the equator as two white people with cameras roamed among them. I was shooting video and Doris Mueggler, a Swiss expat who lives in Bali, was shooting her incredible still images of life in the village.
It was truly Third World poverty. Which is exactly what Jerry Knecht, the visionary founder of North Atlantic Seafood and its subsidiary, Bali Seafoods International, wanted me to see and document. He moved to Indonesia knowing nobody, not having a place to live and not knowing the language. Six years later, the move has paid off as his business is thriving with an emphasis on innovation and sustainability. And a major part of his vision for the future is to have a positive social impact in villages like Sangar by leveraging his 30 years in the fish business.
Sustainability as a function of self-interest.
Jerry is first and foremost a business guy, but he has also long advocated for stewardship of the oceans and fisheries on which the world depends. Yet he’s wary of the status quo when it comes to such efforts. Non-governmental organizations have been trying for a long time to work with fishermen around the world to better manage the resource. But the results have been disappointing at best.
That’s why Jerry and his NAI team are pioneering a market-driven approach to sustainable fishery management. The premise? Rather than making fishermen do things that add time and cost to their work, give them technology that can make tracking their catches — a key to monitoring fish stocks — a passive, hands-off task. Provide resources like ice and quality gear to them at an affordable cost. Make market access more easily available to them. And perhaps most important, incentivize them for doing things the right way.
His vision is to build plants in this remote region to process and freeze fish locally. In and of itself, that will reduce what is currently an unnecessary and inordinate amount of spoilage in the quest to get the fish up the chain of islands to the exporting markets of Bali and Jakarta. Take that savings, add the ice and gear and NAI will be able to pay a premium for landed fish that is better cared-for — on the spot. Currently, these small boat fishermen wait days or even weeks to get paid, if their fish actually make it successfully to market, which it all too often doesn’t. In that case, well, they’re just out of luck and get no compensation for the spoiled fish. The good news is that to Jerry, it’s a solvable problem.
Doing well by doing good.
Jerry’s idea is a big one for sure. But it’s easy to see how it can improve the income and livelihoods of the artisanal fishermen of places like Sangar. And the bet is that this market-driven approach will provide NAI with a sustainable supply of quality fish for years to come. In short, the end game for NAI is to do well by doing good.
It all makes NAI an easy client to root for — and makes a few sleep-deprived days of travel a small price to pay for the privilege and fun of plying our trade for a company with such great energy and aspirations. I can’t wait to return and document the positive changes.