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Seafood just a click away

SHILPA NAIR ANAND
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ENTERPRISE Joona Xavier and Subin Antony have worked their way to set up cheenavala.com an online portal that sells seafood. SHILPA NAIR ANAND has more on this unique venture

Fresh catchJoona with Sibin (in T-shirt); K. P. Antony, second from left, and Jubin, third from leftPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat
Fresh catchJoona with Sibin (in T-shirt); K. P. Antony, second from left, and Jubin, third from leftPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat

Except for a flex board which announces ‘cheenavala.com’, the ‘premises’ of the e-commerce venture is vastly different from other similar businesses. It is located in the interiors of Nayarambalam, a place where the road narrows the further you go and then ceases to be.

A walk past a dry canal leads to the ‘operational headquarters’. “It is nothing much,” offers Joona Xavier as an apology. A persistent, curious hen inspects us before calmly walking into the house ahead of us. This house also happens to be her business partner and friend, Sibin Antony’s house.

One-stop shop

Cheenavala is the brainchild of Joona and Sibin. Joona’s younger brother, Jubin Xavier, is also involved in the business. The online website is a one stop e-store for those shopping for seafood. No extra delivery charges, “freshness guaranteed,” and on time delivery are what the website offers. The website is updated daily with the current prices and the fish available. The fish is cut and cleaned. “You just need to cook it,” Joona says.

Joona’s father had a flourishing seafood business, for 35 years, in Kanjirapally before he succumbed to cancer three years back. The suddenness of his death threw the family’s finances off gear. “We had to sell almost everything we had, to find our bearings,” she says as Jubin listens on. As he spends more time here, he quit full-time college and settled for a correspondence course. Joona is also a commerce graduate. The insecurity of being laid off in 2011 steeled her resolve to make a go at her dream of becoming a businesswoman.

Hard work

A shared desire to “start a business” saw Joona and Sibin pooling in their resources and setting up shop. Sibin quit his job with a telecom company in Bangalore to start the business. Joona, however, is holding on to her job with a telecom company. They are waiting for a loan to be sanctioned and “once that is through, I will quit.” She comes to Nayarambalam on weekends because she lives close to her workplace at Palarivattom.

They did some homework before plunging into the business. They did a trial run where they set up a stand selling fish at the Nayarambalam market. Two successful months of trial and they were raring to go with an initial investment of Rs. 1 lakh.

Work is, literally, hands-on for Joona, Sibin and his father, K. P. Antony. Antony has been a pillar, Joona says. They procure the fish, from vendors and directly, clean the fish and pack the fish for delivery.

Sibin and Joona have been able to rope other members of the community and their friends to help in their endeavour. Their business model has pragmatism written all over it. Rather than incur avoidable overhead costs they made use of the resources available. Not hiring another space is also part of cost cutting.

On an average they process 35-40 kg of fish, if the orders are huge (in excess of 40 kg), more than what they can handle, they ‘outsource’ work to “the chechis (women) in the neighbourhood. It is something that they do at home anyway. We reach them the fish and we collect the fish once they are done.” As an incentive they pay these chechis , on a monthly basis, Rs. 3,000.

Their friends help with the delivery, for which they have bought two motorbikes. “Our friends and my colleagues have been extremely helpful. Ashgar, a close friend, designed our website free of charge. The understanding is that once the business takes off we will pay him,” Joona says. Their only indulgence is by way of publicity - flyers or newspapers inserts and carry bags with all their details.

Many options

Besides individual customers, they count hotels and caterers among their clients. The last three months, since they started business, have been hectic. The rates are uniform, “at times we get only a lesser margin of profit, but that is alright. We don’t want to burden our customers. Our rates are lower than what is generally available.” Although they have an idea of what the demand might be there are days when there is surplus fish. “As a rule we do not keep fish which hasn’t been sold, we auction the surplus fish in the market.”

The seafood is procured locally and pond fish are procured from places such as Vayalar and Muvattupuzha. Joona clarifies that by seafood they mean almost everything, “crabs, mussel, squid…we provide everything…even small fish such as ayela (mackerel), mathi (sardines), kozhuva (anchovy).” She points to a mound of mussel shells under a coconut palm as proof. Not many fishmongers or fisher women clean the smaller fish because it is time consuming.

They are also involved in the wholesale business. Sibin has leased four-and-a-half acres for fish farming and this produce is sold in the wholesale market. Not the kind to shy away from hard work, Joona and K.P. Antony make fish pickle too. Pickles are, however, made on demand. “We get orders from non-resident Malayalis or when there is a function or celebration,” she says. Tuna, prawns and King fish are the popular pickles.

The trio, with Antony’s father, have big plans and bigger dreams. A bigger space for operations, make fertilizer out of fish waste, more products, more outlets…it is a long wish list but Joona and Sibin seem to be determined to make all these dreams come true.

For more information log on to www.cheenavala.com

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