One morning in May, Sebastián Gil got a call at 8 a.m. from a fisherman in Bahía Solano — a small town on Colombia’s Pacific coast, around 200 kilometers from Gil’s home in Medellín — looking to sell his catch of red snappers. Twenty-four hours and a half-hour plane ride later, 50 kilograms of fish was ready to be sent out for delivery, having been packed into fridges overnight in the apartment that Gil shares with his wife, Alejandra Henao.

Gil and Henao both grew up in Bahía Solano, and Gil has fished as a hobby since his childhood. He used to go with his uncle and cousins at night, bringing back fish that his mother would stew with plantains. Gil’s father studied fishing at the Technological University of Chocó’s Bahia Solano branch.

So when Gil was furloughed from his job in aviation, and Henao was laid off from the Mac Center, where she was working before the pandemic, the pair decided to use their connections back home to set up their own business. They knew fisherpeople, they had access to transport to Medellín through Gil’s old job, and they had technical skills in the family. Gil’s father advised them how to store and prepare the fish for transport; his mother and aunt processed raw tuna into smoked chorizos, burgers, and “meatballs.” Their company, Encanto Pacífico, now brings four deliveries of around 200 kilograms of fish in total — mostly fresh tuna — per week from the coast to Medellín, marketing it directly to consumers and businesses over WhatsApp and Instagram. 

Over the past two years, WhatsApp has become one of Colombia’s most popular e-commerce tools, with 74% of its almost 40 million Colombian users making a purchase over the messaging service since the start of the pandemic, according to a panel discussion with Paloma Szerman, WhatsApp’s public policy manager for Latin America, at an event organized by Colombia’s Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications last year. The platform, along with Instagram, is used to market products and arrange direct sales. 

The main reason for the platform’s mass adoption as a sales tool, according to Carlos Betancur Gálvez, a digital marketing teacher from Medellín’s Pontifical Bolivarian University, is its low barriers to entry. Many entrepreneurs in Colombia don’t have the skills or financial resources to set up digital marketplaces, so they rely on what they already use. “The quickest thing people can use is what they already know — social media and WhatsApp,” Betancur Gálvez told Rest of World.

This familiarity, as well as the ability to talk directly to the seller over the messaging platform, also builds trust between the consumer and the business, Betancur Gálvez said. Trust in online transactions is particularly important in Colombia, where some e-commerce sites, such as Mercado Libre and OLX, are associated with scams. A common swindle involves customers paying for items by check, typically on a Friday, so that a seller can dispatch before the weekend only to be notified by the bank the following Monday that the check had bounced due to insufficient funds.

A survey conducted by BTODigital, the digital marketing agency that Betancur Gálvez runs, found that 80% of his clients’ customers prefer to pay upon delivery as opposed to at the time of buying. “People are afraid that there’s a thief on the other side who’s going to rob them,” he said.

74% The percentage of Colombian WhatsApp users who have made a purchase using the platform during the pandemic.

Source: Meta

According to Betancur Gálvez, it can cost more than $1,000 to create a dedicated online sales platform — equivalent to almost four times the minimum monthly wage in Colombia — putting it out of the reach of most small entrepreneurs. There are some initiatives in the country to help businesses go online, but they have had limited success. Encanto Pacífico entered a competition run by Medellín’s Chamber of Commerce last year and won a marketplace domain for the company to use. However, Henao couldn’t work out how to use it, and when the time came to renew the site’s registration, she let it lapse.

“This usually happens,” said Angy Zambrano, who teaches digital marketing at Envigado’s EIA University. Programs aiming to digitize small businesses often lack an educational component and follow-up process to ensure that participants can make the most of the rewards, she said.

But Encanto Pacífico is thriving on Instagram and WhatsApp, which Henao and Gil use to advertise their latest catches and to post recipe ideas. They’re able to sell cheaper than the supermarkets: a kilogram of fresh tuna from Encanto Pacífico currently sells for around $8, whereas from a high-end supermarket, a 400 gram packet of tuna costs around $9. The business is now growing so fast that Gil and Henao have run out of fridge and freezer space in their apartment, so they’re looking to set up a brick-and-mortar shop. 

Through the platforms, they’ve found valuable repeat clients, including Néstor Jerez, a chef and the director of Gastronomía y Territorio, a project that teaches cooking to low-income communities. 

Gil and Henao also source lobsters, mussels, and white fish from predominantly women small-scale fishers in the nearby Afro-Colombian community of Pizarro, Bajo Baudó. Jerez likes to know where his fish come from and to know that he’s supporting local economies. “Colombia is a bit of a complicated country, due to its conflicts and all of its history,” Jerez said. “So I think it’s important we start connecting with people because this gives [them] a human face and makes us realize everything we have here.” He often receives a little extra with his order for being a regular.