UNLEASH team has created higher incomes for Mexican fishermen and turned the invasive devil fish into an impactful and tasty venture

Author: Mike Mitchell, UNLEASH 2018 talent, UNLEASH+ talent, and founder of Acari

I started Acari as a fun side project while working with rural fishing communities in Tabasco, Mexico in 2015.  During my work, locals often mentioned that their primary problem was not access to capital, selling their catch or some other common issue but rather the “pez diablo” or devil fish.  Time and time again during my research, fishermen lamented about how this invasive fish had arrived 10-15 years earlier and had since decimated the fisheries they depended on.  So I asked around the local university and learned everything I could about the fish.  Armed with this knowledge, I started imparting workshops to help educate fishermen about the fish and create local demand.

Eventually, a group of fishermen approached me about working together to sell devil fish fillet to restaurants in the capital city, Villahermosa.  We started slinging a bit of fish but it still remained just a fun side gig until I visited Las Patronas, a female-managed NGO in rural Veracruz.  These women work 365 days a year to make food, package it and toss it to migrants riding freight trains northward.  After my time with them I was inspired to find a way to turn our fish into a ready-to-eat food for people on the go.  I experimented with different ideas like canning until my chef friend lent me a small household dehydrator to do a jerky test.  Our first batch far exceeded my expectations, and that’s when our El Diablito jerky was born.

Our aim was to work with local fishermen in Mexico to flip the script on the invasive devil fish and process it into fillet, in turn, providing a valuable new source of employment while restoring the natural ecosystem.  Because of the devil fish’s unique texture, El Diablito tastes and feels like red meat but comes with all the environmental and health benefits of eating fish.

In 2018, I was fortunate enough to participate in UNLEASH in Singapore and met so many awesome like-minded people. Over the next year, being part of the UNLEASH network opened me up to a bunch of different networks and opportunities.  When the call came out for UNLEASH+, I jumped at the opportunity to bring our fledgling startup to China and connect with advisors and other social entrepreneurs.

The three of us arrived in China for UNLEASH+ right as we were finishing R&D and gearing up for our Canadian launch.  Because we all work remotely, with a team in the Bay Area and another in Mexico, UNLEASH+ brought all us together for the first time in almost two years.  It was also one of our team members first time outside of Mexico!  The intense work sessions were not only productive in gaining feedback and insights from experts, but also served as a deep planning session for our future.

We returned home to focus on our Canadian launch and scale operations in Mexico.  We knocked down the trade barriers we faced previously and are currently building a larger processing facility in Mexico that complies with these new import regulations for the US market.

Today El Diablito is available online and in 12 retail locations across the country. We also expect to to launch El Diablito in the US later this summer.  We’ve already sold a couple thousand bags of jerky as we continue to scale sales and distribution.  We’ve removed over 60 tons of invasive devil fish from Mexican waters and employed 5 full-time fish processors.  Our employees earn on average 40% more than they did previously.  Additionally, we’re purchasing devil fish from 15 local fishermen, in many cases doubling or even tripling their daily incomes from selling other species like tilapia.

We continue to keep in touch with several advisors as well as new friends from our time in Shenzhen. This network has already helped us greatly in different aspects of the business including fundraising, financial planning and marketing.

Learn more at www.acarifish.com