CEO who grew up in poverty builds rare US$1.4b fish startup

EFishery, co-founded by a former resident of a poor Jakarta neighborhood, became a rare Indonesian unicorn after raising $200 million in fresh funding.

The agritech startup’s value hit $1.4 billion after a Series D round led by Abu Dhabi’s 42XFund, more than tripling its previous value of $410 million in 2022, according to Chief Executive Officer Gibran Huzaifah (picture). Malaysia’s state pension fund Kumpulan Wang Persaraan, ResponsAbility Investments AG and 500 Global also joined in the round, along with existing backers including Northstar Group, Temasek Holdings Pte and SoftBank Group Corp.

The company, which serves 70,000 fish and shrimp farmers in Indonesia, crossed the billion-dollar mark in a year when layoffs, CEO resignations and plummeting valuations in the tech sector have dominated headlines. Slowing economies, rising interest rates and higher levels of inflation have prompted venture investors globally to pull back.

It plans to use the funds to expand in Indonesia and India before pursuing an initial public offering in the US or Indonesia in two years, the CEO said in an interview. “We’d like to be a global leader over the next five years and do an IPO at some point,” he said. “The earliest would be in 2025.”

Huzaifah, 33, grew up near slums in eastern Jakarta, the son of a construction site foreman and a homemaker. His mother, who never finished high school, urged him to study. And he excelled academically, eventually enrolling in Bandung Institute of Technology, a local elite university known for producing engineers.

But as he entered the university, his family’s financial situation took a turn for worse after his father lost his job. Without money from home or acquaintances in a new city, he had to find a shelter to sleep every night. It was sometimes the campus, sometimes a mosque, he said. Once, he didn’t eat for three days.

Then by chance, Huzaifah, a biology major, attended a class on aquaculture. He became fascinated by the professor’s lectures on catfish breeding. Convinced that aquaculture was the future of food — and more importantly, his path to escape destitution — he immediately rented a pond to farm catfish. Three years later, in 2012, he was operating 76 ponds.

An eFishery feed dispenser at a fish farm in Subang Regency in West Java.

During that time, he experienced firsthand the industry’s challenges, such as minuscule profit margins caused by substantial feeding costs and low fish prices demanded by middlemen buying his catch. With help from a friend with a technology background, he built a prototype automatic feeder using Internet-of-Things technology to eliminate the problem of over- or under-feeding fish.

Then in 2013, he launched eFishery. His approach was two-pronged: do something you understand and don’t follow the crowd. 

The company’s business has since evolved to include a marketplace for fish and shrimp farmers and buyers. It also works with financial institutions to provide financing to farmers.

After the latest funding round, Huzaifah and his co-founder’s stake is worth more than $100 million each.

But Huzaifah said his life hasn’t changed much. Still, “it feels good because I don’t need to worry about the financial troubles I had growing up,” he said. –BLOOMBERG