From bustling Omani fish markets to online auctions


Digital innovation is boosting the fisheries supply chain in Oman during COVID-19

It is a rare day that this modern Omani fish market is empty and quiet. Now, like many others, this market has implemented physical distancing to fight COVID-19. Omani fish markets are turning to digital solutions to keep selling their products. ©Khalid Albalushi/Central Wholesale Fish Market

08/06/2020

With 3 165 kilometres of coastline, it is hardly surprising that fish markets are an important, daily part of local life in Oman. The Sultanate of Oman is one of the largest fish producers in the Gulf region with a total capture production of 580 000 tonnes in 2019, and its domestic consumption is well over the worldwide average. Omanis are significant consumers of seafood products, and fisheries provide livelihoods for many in the country’s coastal communities.

On a normal day, one of the liveliest fish markets in the Sultanate is in its capital city of Muscat. The Mutrah Fish Market, nestled along the sea on Oman’s largest harbour, is teeming with life. Its days begin before dawn when the fishermen start arriving to offload their catch. The marketplace is a swirl of sights, smells, sounds and daily activity, with Omanis and international tourists weaving around the market stalls.

Fish vendors, mostly dressed in the traditional, white garment, a dishdasha, stand behind stalls stacked high with the daily catch: tuna, red mullet, kingfish, grouper and crabs. Their cries in Arabic and English advertise their wares.

But in the wake of COVID-19, new regulations have challenged the fisheries supply chains in the Sultanate. With the need to implement physical distancing and other regulations to face COVID-19, the vast spaces of the Mutrah Fish Market and other important fish markets throughout the country are mostly silent now. 

The question remained: Could fresh fish products still reach Omani consumers?

As it turns out, the answer was yes thanks to the government’s innovative approach of transforming the fish auction markets– the backbone of Oman’s fish supply chain –  from a physical marketplace to a digital platform. 

Behar – a digital auctioning platform

The result was Behar, an integrated online platform for fish auctioning. Launched by Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, in cooperation with the Oman Technology Fund, Behar is currently being piloted in the country’s second largest fish market, the Central Fish Market at Al Fulaaij. Before the lockdown, this wholesale market served as the cornerstone for retailers, both in Oman and abroad. Lively auctions took place here, providing the daily catch to restaurants, hotels, supermarket chains and countries throughout the region.

Left/Top: Fishermen sit with their catch, before COVID-19 struck. ©FAO/Rosetta Messori Right/Bottom: Freshly-caught tuna, a high value fish, at the Central Wholesale Fish Market. ©Khalid Albalushi/Central Wholesale Fish Market

The establishment of the Behar e-commerce tool allows for the smooth functioning of the Al Fulaij fish market, while simultaneously safeguarding the health and safety of fisherfolk, market workers, as well as customers. The market workers now upload photos and details of the catch to the Behar platform, where wholesalers, retailers and restaurants can view the daily offer and place their orders via online auction. Following the electronic bidding by the buyers and merchants, invoices are automatically issued to previously registered personal accounts, thereby completing the electronic payment process.

“The platform was launched to facilitate the wholesale auction of fresh seafood by seafood traders, retailers and companies operating in the fisheries industry from various governorates of the Sultanate of Oman,” explains Saud Alhabsi, Under Secretary of Oman’s Ministry of Agriculture for Fisheries.

“It is anticipated that this platform will have a positive impact in facilitating seafood trade in the country and boosting the economy. Above all, it is expected to provide a sustainable flow of trading during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“There is a plan for a second stage during the upcoming weeks and months to market and sell internationally,” Under Secretary Saud Alhabsi continues. “There’s also the idea to expand to other wholesale fish markets in fishing ports around the country…. Hopefully before the end of this summer, three more markets can join the platform.”

FAO and Oman have partnered to support small-scale fisheries and boost their sustainability, both nationally and regionally. ©FAO/Rosetta Messori

And what was the reaction to the new platform?

 The response was overwhelmingly positive. Only a week after Oman’s lockdown, the online auction platform was already up and running, a testament to the skills of the younger generation ready to apply creative approaches and digital innovation.

 

“The Omani youth were able to turn a crisis to opportunity and devise solutions in a short period of time. Our experience shows that when all the stakeholders and decision-makers come together to face a challenge, a solution can be found” says Redha Bait Faraj, the Director General of Fisheries Marketing and Investments of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth. 

FAO’s Representative in Oman, Nora Ourabah Haddad, praised the innovative response to COVID-19 and their efforts to support fisheries livelihoods throughout the country. “Technological and organisational innovations such as the Behar platform are a testimony to the great capacity of countries such as Oman to adapt rapidly and meet the needs of both food producers and consumers. FAO’s role in documenting these initiatives and supporting their scaling up to other contexts is of utmost importance.” 

Building on the Behar Platform, FAO is planning to further support Oman in the digitalization of its fisheries value chain and also develop a cooperation programme to support other countries from the region and beyond to benefit from Oman’s successful experience.

FAO partners with the Sultanate of Oman on many activities related to promoting sustainable fisheries and aquaculture management in the country and the region. One of these initiatives is the South-South collaboration exchanging knowledge on innovative agri-aquaculture practices in water scarce countries like Algeria, Egypt and Oman. FAO and Oman have also partnered on national projects to boost sustainability of fisheries management, aid small-scale fisheries, develop a regulatory framework for the fish meal and fish oil industry and implement an improved vessel monitoring system to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Fisheries hold an important role for the livelihoods of millions worldwide. During times of crises, it is important to look to digital innovation and creative solutions in all sectors to ensure that people can maintain their livelihoods and sustain themselves in times of emergencies and beyond.


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