From fisherman to importer

Momo Mbaye was never planning to import parrotfish, red mullet and grouper to Europe rather than catching them himself out on the open sea. But as it happened, life took the fisherman from the coastal town of Mbour in Senegal to Madrid and then onwards to Berlin. Momo Mbaye became a merchant and importer.

Fish on ice in METRO store
The Fishman in METRO store

What´s it all about?

Momo Mbaye: The Senegalese fisherman travelled from the coastal town of Mbour via Madrid to Berlin. Here he became a trader and importer. A portrait.
Momo's Black fish on ice

47-year old Momo and his compatriot Touba Peche have been organising ocean fishery and the import of exotic fish species from their homeland since March 2016. His company provides a livelihood and perspective not only for him in Germany, but also for two of his brothers and numerous inshore fishermen back in Senegal.

Momo Mbaye: the history of becoming a fisherman

The ocean has been Momo Mbaye’s backyard for as long as he can remember. Each summer school holidays, which last three months in Senegal, his father Mouhamadou, who is also a fisherman, took him along on his pirogue, the traditional timber boat used by Senegalese fishermen.

‘Once school was over, my Dad took a year to teach me all the ins and outs of being a fisherman.’ The knowledge passed down to Momo included the art of fishing with lines of up to two kilometres and knowledge of which species of fish could be found where and at what time of the day. ‘Long lines have many evenly spaced hooks with bait attached to them. They stay in the water for one to one and a half hours’, says Mbaye, explaining the traditional technique of resource-friendly fishing without trawl netting. ‘The quicker we get the lines back in, the better.’ The catch is lifted on board, immediately chilled on a bed of ice and rapidly moved into the refrigerated warehouse of Dakar Ice, which is the company Touba Peche prefers to work with. The fish will arrive in Germany after only 48 hours from being caught.

Founding of Touba Peche: a brave step for more opportunities

Fact is that industrial-style fishing with huge international trawlers along the coast of Senegal has devastating effects on the fish stocks and fishermen alike. Unemployment and poverty have become a huge problem. This is why many Senegalese, especially the younger ones, decide to seek their fortunes in foreign countries. In 2004, after 15 years as a fisherman, Momo Mbaye seized an opportunity and migrated to Spain.

He settled down in Madrid, where he climbed the ladder from kitchen hand to chef and was able to make a decent living. But the economic crisis destroyed his plans for the future. ‘Many restaurants had to close down. A friend of mine in Germany told me that there was work available in his country. I made my way to Berlin in February of 2012.’

Building on the experience he collected in Spain, Mbaye started to cook again, among other places in the kitchen of a preschool. Once life had settled down a bit, an idea his brother Pape came up with a long time ago popped back up in his mind. Why shouldn’t it be possible to import fish caught in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal to Germany, rather than Spain? ‘The idea didn’t sound too bad’, Mbaye remembers, ‘but setting up a real company was quite a challenge.’ Among the necessary preparations was a seminar for company founders, a training course for food safety and handling at the local chamber of trade and commerce. And, last but not least: paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. Permits, registrations, certificates.

Touba Peche, whose first name honours the holy Muslim city of Touba in Senegal and last name resembles the French word for “fish”, started in March 2016.

But setting up a real company in Germany was quite a challenge: paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. Permits, registrations, certificates.

Momo Mbaye

Touba Peche's Cooperation with METRO

It did not take him long to find his first customers. Right from the beginning, merchants and restaurateurs appreciated the quality of red seabream, black tiger prawns and coral trout. That is despite the fact that fishing in the wild cannot be planned in all minute detail and requires a certain degree of flexibility from the customer, Mbaye adds. One of his loyal customers is the “Mondo Pazzo” restaurant in Berlin, which orders octopus and prawns for their Italian cuisine.

But Mbaye knows that many merchants can only purchase small quantities that are frequently too small to be worth the effort. ‘Two kilos here, another two there, that’s simply not enough.’ Considering the cost of airfreight and logistics, you have to import at least 400 kilos a week for the numbers to stack up.

Customer satisfaction alone was not enough for Touba Peche, whose business was at the risk of failure because it was simply too small. But new perspectives opened up for Touba when he made contact with a department manager from METRO in Berlin. The cooperation started in May 2018 and provided the continuity Touba Peche needed for his business. METRO now orders between 300 to 400 kilos per week, which go on sale in 60 stores.

Momo Mbaye knows very well what that means: ‘Major customers are rather unusual for a small supplier like myself.’ But METRO is really committed to Touba Peche’s venture and pays ‘prices that are really fair’.

Exotic fish from Senegal: a product for connoisseurs

The fish sold by Touba Peche is not everyone’s cup of tea. ‘Those asking for the weekly special offer aren’t in the market for exotic fish from Senegal’, says Momo’s partner Ute Herbst. The two have been a couple since 2017 and Momo’s business has become her ‘second career’. She takes care of communications and quality assurance in Germany. One of her top priorities is to sharpen the customers’ awareness for better fish products and sustainable fishing methods.

Each fisherman has his “very own” fish species. He knows their movement patterns, where and when to find them, as well as the closed seasons.

Momo Mbaye

‘Each fisherman has his “very own” fish species. He knows their movement patterns, where and when to find them, as well as the closed seasons’, Mbaye says about the cooperative of fishermen that work for Touba Peche. His brother Adama is in Senegal and in charge of coordinating the boat trips. ‘The fishermen are quite content, including in terms of the money they bring home’, explains Momo Mbaye.

"I never tried to go fishing here in Germany."

Momo Mbaye

The Mbaye-Herbst family in Berlin has been enjoying lots of fresh fish ever since the business took off. ‘I am glad that I don’t have to cook anymore at home’, says Ute Herbst. ‘I particularly enjoy grouper, it’s a really delicious fish.’ Trained chef Momo Mbaye is now only cooking at home. He says: ‘Actually, I enjoy all kinds of fish.’

And how about the local fish species? Has Momo Mbaye already depleted the lakes in and around Berlin? ‘I never tried to go fishing here in Germany’, he says, moving his flat cap into place. ‘But I heard that you first have to pass an exam.’ While that may sound a bit discouraging, it probably is understandable in light of the bureaucracy he had to deal with over the last couple of years.

And maybe it is also because Senegal is simply a more beautiful place. Each year, Momo Mbaye makes at least three trips back home to personally inspect the quality and processes, and to pay a visit to his family. He then boards a pirogue and heads out into the ocean to get back in touch with his origins as a proud local fisherman.

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