At 8 a.m. one morning in May, Sebastián Gil received a call from a fisherman in Bahía Solano — a small town on Colombia’s Pacific coast about 200 kilometers from Gil’s home in Medellín — wanting to sell his snapper catch. Twenty-four and a half hour flight later, 50 kilograms of fish were ready to be shipped for delivery after being packed in refrigerators overnight at the apartment Gil shares with his wife Alejandra Henao.
Gil and Henao both grew up in Bahía Solano and Gil has been fishing as a hobby since childhood. He used to go out at night with his uncle and cousins, bringing fish that his mother stewed in one with plantains tapao Pot (covered with a lid). Gil’s father studied fishing at the Bahia Solano branch of the Technical University of Chocó.
When Gil was furloughed from his aviation job and Henao was fired from the Mac Center, where she worked before the pandemic, the two decided to use their connections back home to start their own business. They knew fishermen, they had access to transportation to Medellín through Gil’s old job, and they had technical skills in the family. Gil’s father advised them on how to store the fish and prepare it for shipment; His mother and aunt processed raw tuna into smoked chorizos, burgers and “meatballs”. Her company Encanto Pacífico now brings four weekly deliveries totaling around 200 kilograms of fish – mostly fresh tuna – from the coast to Medellín and markets it directly to consumers and companies via WhatsApp and Instagram.
In the last two years WhatsApp has become one of the most popular e-commerce tools in Colombia. 74% of Colombia’s nearly 40 million users have made a purchase through the messaging service since the pandemic began, according to a panel discussion with Paloma Szerman, WhatsApp’s public policy manager for Latin America, at an event organized by Colombia’s Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications last year became. In addition to Instagram, the platform is used to market products and direct sales.
According to Carlos Betancur Gálvez, a digital marketing teacher at the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Medellín, the main reason for the platform’s mass adoption as a sales tool is its low barriers to entry. Many entrepreneurs in Colombia don’t have the skills or financial resources to set up digital marketplaces, so they rely on what they already use. “People can use what they already know the quickest – social media and WhatsApp,” said Betancur Gálvez Rest of the world.
That familiarity, along with the ability to speak directly to the seller through the messaging platform, also creates trust between the consumer and the company, Betancur Gálvez said. Trust in online transactions is particularly important in Colombia, where some e-commerce sites like Mercado Libre and OLX have been linked to fraud. A common scam involves customers paying for items by check, usually on a Friday so a seller can ship before the weekend, only to be notified by the bank the following Monday that the check was rejected due to insufficient funds.
A survey conducted by BTODigital, the digital marketing agency operated by Betancur Gálvez, revealed that 80% of their customers’ customers prefer to pay cash on delivery rather than at the point of purchase. “People are afraid there’s a thief on the other side who’s going to rob them,” he said.
According to Betancur Gálvez, it can cost upwards of $1,000 to create a dedicated online selling platform — nearly four times the monthly minimum wage in Colombia — putting it out of reach for most small business owners. There are some initiatives in the country to help businesses get online, but they have had limited success. Encanto Pacífico entered a Medellín Chamber of Commerce competition last year and won a marketplace domain for the company. However, Henao couldn’t figure out how to use it, and when it came time to renew the site’s registration, she let it lapse.
“That usually happens,” says Angy Zambrano, who teaches digital marketing at Envigado’s EIA University. Programs aimed at digitizing small businesses often lack an educational component and a follow-up process to ensure participants can make the most of the rewards, she said.
But Encanto Pacífico thrives on Instagram and WhatsApp, which Henao and Gil use to promote their latest catch and post recipe ideas. They can sell cheaper than the supermarkets: a kilogram of fresh Encanto Pacífico tuna is currently around $8, while at an upscale supermarket a 400-gram pack of tuna is around $9. The business is growing so fast now that Gil and Henao don’t have space for fridges and freezers in their apartment anymore, so they want to open a brick and mortar store.
Through the platforms, they’ve found valuable regular customers, including Néstor Jerez, a chef and director of Gastronomía y Territorio, a project that teaches low-income communities how to cook.
Gil and Henao also source lobster, clams and whitefish from mostly female small-scale fishermen in the nearby Afro-Colombian community of Pizarro, Bajo Baudó. Jerez wants to know where his fish comes from and that he supports the local economy. “Colombia is a somewhat complicated country because of its conflicts and its whole history,” Jerez said. “I think it’s important that we start connecting with people because that’s going to bring something [them] a human face and lets us see what we have here.” As a regular customer, he often gets a little extra with his order.