Follow The Leader: Seafood Souq Co-Founder Fahim Al Qasimi Is Building "A UAE-Born Business That Will Change The World"
Here's how Seafood Souq is capitalizing on the growing trend of supply chain awareness in the global seafood industry.
This article is a part of the 2022 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East's annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.
When Fahim Al Qasimi was a boy of about 11 years of age, he was cast in his school's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's acclaimed musical, Cats.
At the time, he was studying at the Emirates International School in Dubai, and in a bid to adapt Cats better to the UAE, his music and drama teacher then, Jenny Wilson, decided to include locally relevant feline roles in her version of the show, and Al Qasimi was invited to come up with a character true to himself that could be a part of this performance.
That's how Al Qasimi ended up essaying the part of FisherCat, which he recalls as being a heroic Emirati moggy living by the harbors of Deira Creek that wanted to unite all of the region's fishermen with the aim "to get better fish." Now, Al Qasimi may have not known it then, but the mission he chose for his FisherCat persona was a harbinger of what he would get up to in his adult life- after all, getting better fish on all of our plates is a good enough summation of what his enterprise, Seafood Souq, has set out to accomplish with the digital ecosystem it has built for the global seafood industry. And given that the Dubai-headquartered startup's annual recurring revenue for this year is forecasted to be US$100 million, it's fair to say that Al Qasimi and his team are well on their way toward realizing that goal, and, in the process, make their impact felt on the international stage as well. "At Seafood Souq today, about 80-90% of our business is global," Al Qasimi reveals. "This is a UAE-born business that will change the world."
Seafood Souq came into being in the UAE in 2018 after co-founders Al Qasimi (who, by the way, is a member of the Sharjah royal family) and Sean Dennis (the company's CEO now) spotted the opportunity in creating a digital B2B marketplace that could connect fish buyers and sellers from all over the world. The appeal of this solution from Seafood Souq can be seen in the fact that just a few months after it was launched, the startup was able to ink a partnership with Emirates SkyCargo, the freight division of Emirates (aka the world's largest international airline) to transport seafood from countries like Norway, Cyprus, Chile, Scotland, and the USA to customers in the UAE and the wider Middle East.
But this was just the start for Seafood Souq- in building its e-commerce offering, Al Qasimi and Dennis also realized that they had an opportunity to trace the supply chains of all the products hosted on their platform. As it so happens, this relates to a major problem being faced by the global seafood industry- in 2021, The Guardian conducted an analysis of 44 studies of more than 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, fishmongers, and supermarkets in more than 30 nations around the world that found 36% of these products were mislabeled.
"Unfortunately, seafood supply chains are wrought with fraud," Al Qasimi adds. "People swap products in and out. They will sell you something, and give you something else." For instance, you could have been told the fish you've bought in a fine dining restaurant to be, say, responsibly farmed salmon, but there was no way for you to confirm if that actually was the case- at least not until Seafood Souq Trace (SFS Trace) came along.
Source: Seafood Souq Trace
SFS Trace is a digital tool that allows one to confirm the provenance of the fish they buy, and one of its first applications was in 2021 when Seafood Souq got to ink a partnership with Dubai-based Jumeirah Restaurants whereby the latter's customers at Rockfish, the Mediterranean F&B concept located at the Jumeriah Al Naseem hotel, could simply scan a QR code on their smartphones and learn about the journey -from sea to plate- of their chosen seafood. But while SFS Trace -which is now available in supermarkets in Europe as wellmay have been initially rolled out in this consumer-oriented manner, Al Qasimi points out that its ability to provide traceability found itself help solve other issues within the ecosystem as well. "Distributors told us that SFS Trace is great for supply chain visibility," he explains. "They can now, using SFS Trace, have access to all the details of their shipments, who the providers are, where it is in the supply chain, which flight it was on, which ship it was on, and so forth."
Distributors could thus make use of SFS Trace to prove to their buyers that whatever they are buying is exactly what they are getting- and this led to a new use case for the company's offering. Al Qasimi reveals that Seafood Souq has been approached by the Mandarin Oriental and Atlantis hotel groups to aid with their efforts at realizing their sustainability targets by ensuring the traceability of the seafood they serve. "We've thus created a dashboard that now lets leading hotels look at it and say, for instance, 'In this quarter, 60% of our fish is 100% traceable,'" Al Qasimi says. "They can say that this is the carbon cost of the fish that we've brought in, this is where it's come from, this is the amount that have got certification, and this is how much can be classified as sustainable. So, it's become like the lifting of a lid on this previously very opaque supply chain."
And this is where the impact of what Seafood Souq is doing comes into play. "Seafood is a multi-billion-dollar industry," Al Qasimi states. "About 200 to 300 billion dollars of that is just the production of seafood, I'd say. About 50% of the seafood we eat today is thanks to aquaculture- but the other 50% is the only food source that we extract from the earth and not farm. So, it's more like mining- we go to the ocean each time with only the hope that there will be fish there to harvest again." Now, this is clearly a perilous approach to take, especially when you consider that approximately three billion people around the world rely on seafood as a primary source of protein, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The oceans are thus in danger of seeing their seafood stocks depleted, and this could have far-reaching consequences on humanity- and yet, solutions being proposed and developed for this problem have been few and far between.
Fahim Al Qasimi, co-founder, Seafood Souq
"One of our investors helped me realize this the other day- if you look at venture capital funds across the world, I think you can count them probably on two hands, maybe three hands, the number of them that are solely focused on the blue economy," Al Qasimi notes. "And we have, in the world today, put such a focus on carbon that anybody interested in safeguarding our environment is focused on energy, and specifically on carbon. Well, the ocean covers 70% of our globe- there's a disconnect between that and the number of people actually investing in solutions for the ocean." This would also explain why one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is centered on "conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas, and marine resources"- and it is one that Seafood Souq has taken to heart by building tech to solve problems inherent in the seafood industry.
An example of the kind of impact Seafood Souq can have on the world at large can be seen in a collaborative endeavor it has engineered with the International Pole And Line Foundation (IPNLF) and fishermen in Oman. "These Omani fishermen used to go out to sea and catch yellowfin tuna in nets," Al Qasimi explains. "Now, what happens when you catch fish in nets is that they get degraded, since they aren't treated properly. By the time they arrived on a boat, put on ice, and got to the factory, they were able to sell it only for about about 75 cents a kilo. That's tuna that's good enough for pet food, maybe fish food, maybe canning, but these Omani fishermen were not making any real money off the trade, and so, they were catching as many tuna as they could to try to make some money."
Enter the IPNLF, which argues that the only way to sustainably catch tuna is "one-by-one," a collective term that incorporates pole-and-line, handline, and troll line fishing methods, which are regarded as being both environmentally and socially responsible- Al Qasimi points out that once Omani fishermen started making use of this methodology, the quality of the tuna they caught rose so much that they were now able to sell it for up to $14 a kilo. These fishermen thus stood to gain more income by catching less fish and being more mindful about how they harvest the oceans; however, the challenge that remained was that once their tuna left Oman, it'd get lost in the opaque supply chain- but Seafood Souq's SFS Trace can allow for that to not happen.
The Seafood Souq team participating in an Adidas: Run For the Oceans event in Dubai.
"SFS Trace allows us to sell the product with full traceability of the supply chain, and the stamp to say that this is pole-and-line-caught tuna, that it is sustainable, and therefore is worth the money it is," Al Qasimi says. "The value transfer is higher to the fishermen (the people that need it the most), and the consumers also have full traceability on where the fish is coming from, and that it is what it says it is."
Seafood Souq's work with fishermen in Oman and other emerging markets like it have also allowed the startup -whose offerings are now used in 25 countries around the world- to explore a new avenue for business that is centered on filling the trade financing gap that currently exists in the seafood industry. "Buyers in more developed markets ask for payment terms, and they basically want to only pay when they see the product and so forthbut fishermen in emerging markets, they need cash today," Al Qasimi explains.
"Seafood Souq Pay (SFS Pay) is thus the next product that we're building, which will be a trade financing arm of the business that will fund or provide financing for only sustainable seafood sellers with full visibility in the supply chain." SFS Pay is therefore set to be the "blue financing" arm of the Seafood Souq enterprise, and Al Qasimi adds that much like all of the company's other undertakings, this too is aimed at balancing profit with impact in the seafood industry.
"When we're building SFS Pay, we're not making any less of a return by funding what is sustainable- all we're doing is making sure that the value transfer within the system is fair," he says. "We are ensuring that people who are making use of sustainable practices in emerging markets of the world, who previously couldn't get access to financing, now get to sell their products on a global scale. For instance, a Bangladeshi prawn farmer that we work with never had the opportunity to have their product end up in a Carrefour supermarket in France- now, they do. And that's thanks to Seafood Souq- and that, for us, is what impact is."
Seafood Souq co-founder Fahim Al Qasimi
Impact often requires investment, and Al Qasimi says that he and his team at Seafood Souq have been lucky to rally partners and investors who share the same value systems as they do. While the startup's initial funding rounds were led by angel investors mostly based in the UAE, Seafood Souq has since received support from investment firms like VentureSouq and Global Ventures, and Al Qasimi reveals that it was recently able to secure Saudi Arabia's Future Investment Initiative Institute as a partner as well. He also adds that the groundwork is also being laid for a $30 million Series B funding round to be launched in the last quarter of this year, which is set to fuel Seafood Souq's further growth.
"We're setting up our European and Asian headquarters now, because the business is now large enough to warrant having that global presence," Al Qasimi says. "And that, for us, is a super exciting step, because a company called Seafood Souq, born out of the UAE, is now operating on a global scale. For me, as an Emirati founder, this is something I am super proud to showcase, not just for this country, but also for the Arab region, in that that you can come up with innovative ideas for the world from here, and not the other way around." But when I note that Seafood Souq has been relatively quiet about its funding rounds so far, Al Qasimi replies that that's the case simply because it's not something he and his team are excited by.
"When you find partners and investors that have the same value systems, that honestly do care on the impact that you're making, then you're not excited by how much money you raised," he says. "You're also not excited necessarily by how much money you've made, but you're really excited when you find out how much of an impact you've created for the world, whether that's jobs created for Omani fishermen, whether that's helping solve food security issues for the UAE, whether that's reducing the carbon cost of the seafood trade in the UAE, or whether that's ensuring the value transfer of people eating wonderful prawns in Europe is going effectively and efficiently to the Bangladeshi farmers that harvested them. That's impact."
Incidentally, this is the mindset that also governs Al Qasimi's dreams for Seafood Souq in the long term, which includes an initial public offering (IPO) for the startup in a couple of years' time. "I've always wanted to be a tech IPO in the region that 'keeps the dirham in the room,' as they say, bolsters our capital markets, and proves that we can have technology in the market cap of our local stock markets," Al Qasimi says.
"What that will take is continued commitment from our fantastic team and our great investors; above and beyond that, excitement and commitment from investors in the local capital market." As for Al Qasimi himself, he's clearly in it for the long haul, and he remains excited about the promise Seafood Souq holds. "You know, when you are passionate about something, when you really care about something, you're going to stick it out," he says. "And that is something I'm very excited about, in that Seafood Souq is going to be a story that will be with me for the rest of my life."
Source: Seafood Souq
Ongoing controversies in the seafood sector
Some of the seafood sector's issues were brought to the mainstream thanks to Ali Tabrizi's 2021 film, Seaspiracy, which had shed light on the global overfishing problem with some critics claiming it was one-sided. One of the solutions Tabrizi proposed at the end of that documentary was that we either need to reduce the amount of seafood we eat, or replace it with plant-based alternatives, but Seafood Souq's Fahim Al Qasimi is not too sure if this is a really sustainable resolution to the problem at hand.
"My personal viewpoint on this is that while some people like Ali have suggested eating less seafood and looking for a substitution to it, there is a carbon cost on that, which is why I challenge that hypothesis," he explains. "Another solution being proposed is lab-grown meats, which people like KBW Ventures' Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed have been extremely active in investing in, and I commend them for those efforts. But I believe that the problems that we have today in the seafood industry were created by business- and as such, they need to be solved by business as well."
According to Al Qasimi, the old ethos of 'you can't improve what you can't measure' is what one needs to keep in mind when talking about problems in the seafood industry, and that, in effect, explains how Seafood Souq's digitization of this ecosystem -which allows for everything to be traceable and transparent- allows for sustainable harvesting of the world's oceans. "If Seafood Souq -hypothetically- was adopted in every fishery and fish farm around the world, traded on our platform, or used SFS Trace, we could reach a point where we could aggregate enough data to really understand whether fish has been sustainably caught," Al Qasimi says. "We'd have data telling us whether the catches have been registered by the environmental agencies or the fishery management organizations of the countries where it happened."