Indonesian, 28, turns $700 into a multimillion-dollar fishing company

When she was young, Utari Octavianty often felt like the underdog because of where she came from.

Her hometown is Kampung Bahru, a remote fishing village in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, where many have no access to education.

There was even a famous saying: “If you come from a fishing village, you can’t win.”

That’s why Octavianty considered herself “happy” when her parents sent her to a high school in the city. But she soon learned that there was a “gap” between her and her classmates.

“I was bullied because I’m from a coastal town… I wasn’t the same as people who already had a good education and had no economic problems,” she told CNBC Make It.

The experience lit a fire in her and led to a personal mission: to ensure that one day her village will be known not for its poverty, but for its potential.

“I didn’t know how I was going to achieve that at the time, I just wrote this in my diary.”

Today, these are not just words on a page, but a reality.

We’ve helped fishermen get their incomes more than two to three times what they were before they joined Aruna.

Utari Octavianty

Co-founder, Aruna

Now, at the age of 28, Octavianty is the co-founder of Aruna. It is an Indonesian fisheries e-commerce start-up that works as an end-to-end supply chain aggregator, providing fishermen with access to a global network.

To date, it has raised $65 million in Series A funding, which Aruna says is the largest Series A funding for Indonesian start-ups.

humble beginning

Her entrepreneurial journey began in 2015, with a seafood craving that Octavianty had when she was a senior technology student in the city of Bandung.

“It wasn’t easy to find good seafood. My family serves seafood at home every day, but suddenly it was so hard to find. I thought to myself, how great would it be if we could buy seafood directly from the fishermen [in coastal villages]†

She shared her idea with her classmates, Farid Naufal Aslam and Indraka Fadhlillah. Together they created a website aimed at meeting consumer demand for seafood and connecting them with fishermen.

The then 21-year-olds decided to enter a contest called “Hackathon Merdeka” to get capital.

To their surprise, they won.

Utari Octavianty with her co-founders Farid Naufal Aslam (right) and Indraka Fadhllillah.

Utari Octavianty


But the bigger surprise was the great interest Aruna attracted after the website was launched.

“We’ve had 1000 tons of seafood demand from customers… from restaurants and importers outside Indonesia who need a continuous supply of seafood.”

The trio quickly got to work, using the two MacBook computers they won in the hackathon to continue building the website and launch freelance jobs in website design.

Their first significant pool of capital came from another competition, from which they won a cash prize of approximately $700.

There are many investors in Indonesia, but it is not easy to find the investor who understands our business.

Utari Octavianty

Co-founder, Aruna

Although it was a “very small” amount, Octavianty and her co-founders used it to conduct a pilot program in the seaport city of Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. They stayed with a fishing community for a month.

At the end of their stay, they made their first transaction with a local restaurant in Bandung. That’s when they realized their idea wasn’t something that only worked on paper.

“We can really make this happen,” Octavianty said.

Finding the right investors

Over the years, Aruna expanded to more fishing villages in Indonesia. As the demand for their seafood grew, so did the business. But one challenge Octavianty faced was finding the right investors.

“There are many investors in Indonesia, but it is not easy to find the investor who understands our business,” she said.

“Some investors will be interested because they see the potential of this company at scale. But we were selective… we wanted investors who wanted to invest, not because of the potential of the company, but also because of the impact.”

To date, fishing start-up Aruna exported 44 million kilograms of seafood to seven countries last year, most of them to the US and China.

Aruna

The fishing platform exported 44 million pounds of seafood to seven countries last year, most of it to the United States and China, Octavianty said.

But she said her greatest achievement is giving fishermen direct access to the market and in turn giving them fair and better wages.

“We’ve helped fishermen make their income more than two to three times what they were before they joined Aruna,” she added.

It’s also about inspiring the industry. We see so many fishing companies in Indonesia that don’t care about sustainability.

Utari Octavianty

Co-founder, Aruna

Although Aruna was strict in selecting its investors, it was this approach that made the company more attractive, Octavianty said.

“We are open to the investors about the challenges we face, but in return we also expect them to help us with connections or troubleshooting, for example.”

A sustainable future

In January, Aruna announced a $30 million Series A follow-up financing led by Vertex Ventures, Southeast Asia and India. With new financing in hand, Octavianty wants to expand to even more fishing villages in Indonesia and invest in sustainable fishing practices.

To date, more than 26,000 fishermen in 150 fishing communities in Indonesia use Aruna.

To date, Aruna has more than 26,000 fishermen in its network. It has also created more than 5,000 rural jobs and employed 1,000 seashore women in seafood processing.

Utari Octavianty

“Now that we’ve opened up the market and we have more fishermen on board, we have to be very, very careful with fish stocks because… Indonesia is already overfished,” said Octavianty, who is also Aruna’s Chief Sustainability Officer.

That’s why Aruna requires all their fishermen to focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of catches, and refrain from fishing in marine protected areas.

Aruna also advises fishermen not to use fishing gear, such as trawls and bombs, which damage the natural habitat of the seabed.

“It’s also about inspiring the industry. We see so many fishing companies in Indonesia, who don’t care about sustainability,” Octavianty added.

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Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Kampung Bahru is in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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