Activity at the L-shaped fishing harbour at Nagapattinam, a coastal town in southern Tamil Nadu, peaks between 4 am and 8 am every day. That is when over 1,500 boats—mostly trawlers—belonging to fishermen from the 20 surrounding villages return with their catch. As many as 5,000 people, predominantly fish vendors, converge at the harbour to transact their business.December 26, 2004, had a routine start, too. Then, at 9.20 am, everything changed.
In 2010, a pilot project was launched on the CDMA platform with a hundred Tata Teleservices handsets. The information provided included sea conditions as well as details of potential fishing zones and news flashes of cyclone warning, benefit schemes for fishermen, and so on. “Earlier, we used to spend hours trying to identify the place where fish would be available. Sometimes, this took us days and we were forced to come back [to the shore] with only a moderate catch. Now, we have a better catch and spend a lot less on diesel,” says Kutti Andi from Nagore village.
“The specialty of the project was that it sought constant feedback,” points out Covell. This helped widen the offering. It was during a feedback session that a fisherman asked, “What is the use of coordinates for ideal fishing zones when not all of us can afford a standalone GPS instrument? We need the GPS function in the mobile.” That is when the need for adding GPS to the offering became apparent. “But this created a new challenge as we could not provide GPS using the CDMA platform. The decision was made to shift to an Android platform,” says Velvizhi.
Tata Consultancy Services came on board to design the app in 2013 and the first version was launched in October that year. It had GPS and International Maritime Boundary Line alert. Like before, a hundred mobile phones were used for the pilot study and they were distributed across 10 districts of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 1,500 fishermen piloted it in the first year. Based on their feedback, more features were added, including harbour navigation (route to closest harbour during emergency), danger zones marking (rocks, corals, etc), market information, compass and an SOS facility. “All these were added based on suggestions. MSSRF conducted over 8,000 interviews with fishermen before the app was [officially] launched,” says Qualcomm’s Covell.
There are very few apps like FFMA that give information of not only shipping routes but also address concerns that regional fishermen face on a single platform. The fishermen who Forbes India spoke to say this is the first time they’ve come across this kind of technology. Kutti Andi is today less worried about getting arrested by the Sri Lankan navy (he was arrested once and beaten up for straying into the island’s territorial waters). “My phone beeps if I am near the Sri Lankan waters. I promptly turn back,” he says. Sathish says he gets better price for his catch. “We realised how much middlemen were cheating us after we started getting market information on our mobile. It improved our bargaining position,” he adds. Sakthivel agrees: “Our catch has increased and the time we spend in the sea has reduced dramatically.”
Technology and the way it has transformed fishing is making it an attractive profession even among people with college and vocational degrees. It’s also drawing back locals who left their villages in search of a better life. Take the case of S Moorthy of Keechan Kuppam village in Nagapattinam. He studied computer science and spent 10 years abroad, including a few years at a US military camp in Kuwait. But understanding the advantages of FFMA during his visit to India made him stay back. “Earlier, fishing was very arbitrary. As a result, it was a loss-making profession. This technology has made fishing profitable,” says Moorthy, who now makes three deep sea tuna fishing trips a month, instead of two.
Despite the success, there are still some bugs that the app has to address. For one, fishermen complain that it can be downloaded only onto those mobiles that support Andriod version 4.0. Most of them use older models.
The ocean’s choppy waters make the phone wet and non-functional. Many fishermen have even lost their cellphones this way, and they want low-cost water-proof devices. “These issues have resulted in a lower off-take for the app,” says Velvizhi.
The bigger picture, however, is tinged with positivity, one that has inspired other states like Odisha, Goa and Karnataka to follow suit. From all accounts, this technology has transformed the way the fishermen in Tamil Nadu operate.
As N Arumugam of temple town Velankanni puts it, “I shudder to think about how we went into the sea earlier, just trusting our instincts. FFMA exposes how ad hoc and rudimentary our profession was. Thankfully, not anymore.”
(This story appears in the 26 June, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)