For the past 20 years, Manjula Fernando has had access to what he believes are the best quality crabs in Sri Lanka, which come from Batticaloa, a town almost 300 kilometers from the capital, Colombo. His family business, Lanka Ice Group of Companies, supplies ice to fishermen all along the country’s coastline, and, once a month, one of the company’s managers has packed fish and crabs in Batticaloa into a van and sent it to the capital for Fernando’s family and friends.

In 2015, Fernando saw a business opportunity in using his company’s infrastructure to bring crabs from the coast to Colombo. “When I gave crabs to my friends, they loved it, so I decided to sell them on social media,” he said. He set up a Facebook page called Live Lagoon Crabs from Batticaloa Sri Lanka, but it wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic that he began actively promoting the business. He set up an Instagram profile, @live_lagoon_crabs_batticaloa, and began selling direct to consumers, as well as to restaurants in Colombo. 

Crabs have become surprisingly hard for Sri Lankan consumers to buy, owing to a lucrative export market that prices out local buyers. The country exported 1,818 metric tons of crabs in 2019, earning more than 5 billion rupees (nearly $14 million). The U.S. and Taiwan are the largest markets for sea crabs, while Singapore buys most of the lagoon crabs — nearly 170,000 kilograms in 2019, according to Sri Lanka Customs Trade statistics. But as the export market grew, it became difficult for locals to access quality crabs, Momina Saqib, country director at the Australian nonprofit Market Development Facility, told Rest of World. “So people catch cheaper juvenile crabs for local consumption.”

Crabs are usually sold via auction at wadi, or collection points — whoever pays the most gets the best crabs. Exporters regularly buy in bulk and pay more, making it hard to compete. That means that local consumers often don’t get the so-called “meaty” crabs — larger, higher quality creatures that still have both claws, worn-out teeth (which means they’ve eaten well), and firm flesh.

60% The number of Sri Lankan online businesses that don’t have their own websites.

Source: Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka

Fernando hopes his online business can fill this gap. Although he’s often not buying in bulk, he has a good relationship with the fishermen because he’s supplied ice to them for years. “So they bring me crabs, even if it’s a small order of 1 to 2 kilograms, and I will pay them the price exporters pay,” he said. His customers place their orders 24–48 hours in advance of delivery, by messaging him on Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp, and pay using online bank transfers.

Once the order is confirmed, a colleague visits one of the wadi in Batticaloa to buy the live lagoon crabs. Their claws are tightly tied with coir strings, and they are packed into cardboard boxes with holes punched into them so they can breathe. A company vehicle — sometimes an empty van on its way back from delivering ice — collects the crabs at around 2 a.m. and drives for up to five hours or more overnight to Colombo. The driver usually asks customers to share their live location on WhatsApp, so that his drivers can deliver directly to them. Fernando also encourages customers to share pictures of their crab dishes, which he reposts on social media. He also shares links to YouTube videos on how to clean and keep crabs fresh. 

Human resources manager Upekksha Fernando (no relation) is one of Manjula Fernando’s regular customers. “I was so happy to come across them on Instagram because it’s hard to find someone who delivers quality crabs consistently,” Upekksha said. “And they sell large crabs that are impossible to find elsewhere.”

Social media, Instagram in particular, has become a major part of Sri Lanka’s e-commerce ecosystem. When the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, an economic research organization, surveyed social media–based businesses, it found that more than 60% didn’t have their own website and around 90% used Instagram as their main digital shopfront. “Social media is easy to set up, has minimal costs, and offers a one-stop shop,” Harini Weerasekera, a Ph.D. student at Monash Business School in Australia and co-author of the paper, told Rest of World

Fernando sells a large live crab — more than 1 kilogram in weight — for around 10,000 rupees ($27.88). A cooked crab of the same size costs about $99 at Ministry of Crab, a high-end restaurant in Colombo. This price point is still out of reach to most consumers, and he earns only a small profit of 200–300 rupees (roughly 50–85 cents) per 1 kilogram. But, he said, the business is more of a “passion” project, with which he “wants to make a difference in the market.” 

Most locals  haven’t had the joy of getting their hands dirty with “meaty” crabs, he said, having just delivered 2 kilograms of crabs to a customer in Colombo, who ordered it for his father’s birthday. “I want to give locals the access to export-quality crabs, so they can prepare it the way they want: get messy with crabs, eat it with their hands, and enjoy the experience.”