Kumbatia Seafood pioneering sustainable business model for fisheries on Africa's Swahili coast

"[We're] on a mission to offer world-class product that is the catalyst to enabling green conservation in the region."
Polly Legendre with Buena Vista seafood and Kumbatia Seafood CEO Will Gertler at Seafood Expo North America
Polly Legendre with Buena Vista seafood and Kumbatia Seafood CEO Will Gertler at Seafood Expo North America | Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource
6 Min

The coast of Kenya is home to thousands of artisanal fishers and an array of seafood species that fetch high prices in international markets. But for many in the region, capitalizing on those resources is a big challenge.

Input costs for Kenyan fishermen are high and seafood buying prices are low, resulting in fishermen resorting to unsustainable or destructive fishing practices to make a living. The poverty rate in coastal Kenya is above 60 percent, and even if artisanal harvesters want to engage in more sustainable fishing practices, it is too expensive and the return on the investment is too low, according to Kumbatia Seafood CEO Will Gertler.

Kumbatia Seafood, a seafood wholesaler and exporter based in Mombasa, Kenya, hopes to be a disruptor in the sector by giving artisanal fishers access to the resources they need to fish more sustainably and then buying their fish at fair prices.

[We're] on a mission to offer world-class product that is the catalyst to enabling green conservation in the region and alleviating poverty for coastal fishing communities,” Gertler told SeafoodSource during Seafood Expo North America “We finance our fishers – so their inputs like fuel gear and bait. We finance their assets, so if someone switches from unsustainable illegal gear to legal gear, they’ll come into our network and we’ll finance that transition and gear exchange. Then, we’ll offer them a market so that they continue to use legal gear." 

Kumbatia has also stepped into managing cold-chain logistics for remote Kenyan fishing communities.

“We provide ice, coolers, and rapid transport to a processing facility for remote communities that are historically off-grid,” Gertler said.

Fishers that come into Kumbatia’s network get access to training, which teaches them industry best practices for fishing and for handling their catch.

“Killing, gutting, bleeding, spiking in a certain way, immediate post-harvest handling right into an ice slurry. Then they get it back to the landing site, it goes into flake ice, and gets to our processing facility really quickly,” Gertler said.

Kumbatia Seafood works off a privatized fisheries management model hand-in-hand with NGOs including the Worldwide Fund for Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and local organizations that serve as liaisons between the company and fishermen to resolve any disputes arise. Gertler said the management model is more strict than the current government mandates. 

The collective result of all the work is that Kumbatia Seafood has “really high-quality fish that’s traceable and sustainable,” he said. 

The other end of Gertler's mission with Kumbatia is to obtain higher prices for its fish by exporting it to higher-end markets like the U.S. 

“The price of fish [in the U.S.] is a hell of a lot more than the price of fish in Kenya, and that allows us to pay a price premium per kilogram to set price floors that we’ll never go below, even if the market is flooded domestically,” Gertler said. “It also allows us to offtake more. There’s a lot more demand for red snapper [in the U.S.] than if you were to just keep it in Kenya.”

The combined effect is a decrease in the cost fishermen face to operate sustainably, Gertler said.

“The whole mission is to create this market-based conservation initiative, where for the first time switching to sustainability actually rewards you financially,” Gertler said.

Gertler said the problem with many conservation efforts is that they don’t take into account the human costs of compliance. Kumbatia’s objective is to take a pragmatic approach to conservation by giving clear incentives for fishers, which also help Kumbatia access high-quality seafood. 

“The competitive advantage of artisanal fishers to me is the fact that they can have really high-quality fish if they’re given the proper inputs,” Gertler said. “It’s value over volume, quality over quantity.”

Gertler said that Kumbatia Seafood’s success has it looking for new fisheries to work with in Africa that can benefit from its business model. 

“We can do a lot in Kenya. But we’re, in the next six months, planning to expand into [Lake Victoria] to do it with Nile perch,” he said. “Then, our next location would be Bosaso in Somalia to do it with spiny lobster tails. Then Tanzania and Mozambique are the dream down the line.”  

Polly Legendre, the business and operations manager of San Francisco, California, U.S.A.-based Buena Vista Seafood on business development, said her company works with Kumbatia because of the high quality and sustainability bona fides of its fish.

“The quality component, knowing that there’s going to be consistency and that we can count on it,” Legendre told SeafoodSource. “It’s great for us to know that we can depend on this type of a resource because of the systems that have been put in place."

SeafoodSource Premium

Become a Premium member to unlock the rest of this article.

Continue reading ›

Already a member? Log in ›


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500
Primary Featured Article