The managing director for Arab India Spices on how his company reacted to the pandemic.
On January 29, 2020, the United Arab Emirates became the first nation in the Middle East to report a case of COVID-19. From there, despite precautions, the spread of the disease began to gradually accelerate. By March, the government was closing down schools and shopping malls, imposing curfews and lockdowns, and suspending flights and religious services.
These measures succeeded in flattening the curve, but at significant economic cost, especially for the country’s large population of foreign workers, most of them of Asian and African origin. Reporting on their plight, The Telegraph pointed to the highly visible homelessness in Dubai and cited an evaluation by Oxford Economics that estimated the pandemic had put 900,000 jobs at risk, an astounding figure for a country with a population of less than 10 million.
As this humanitarian crisis unfolded, private sector actors stepped in. One of first to react was Arab India Spices, a GPC President’s Club Platinum Partner. In August, Gulf News reported the company had provided 150 free airline tickets to Indian nationals who either lost their jobs or had their salaries slashed. It also distributed 10,000 free food packages to UAE residents in need and sold its food products at a 50% discount at select outlets.
“This is continuous. I’m not going to stop this,” Arab India Spices managing director Harish Tahiliani told the Gulf News at the time. “I have spent more than half of my life in this country, and I’ve grown here. It’s my duty to return to my countrymen regardless of caste and community. I feel we all are humans first and I should contribute the maximum possible, whatever is in my capacity.”
In this interview, Harish speaks with the GPC about Arab India Spices long history in the UAE and how his company navigated the challenges posed by the global pandemic.
GPC: Tell us a bit about your personal story. Where are you from originally, what is your professional background, what made you decide to relocate to the UAE, and how did you become involved in the pulses business?
Harish: I hail from a business family from the state of Gujarat in India. We have been in the trade, processing and marketing of spices and agricultural products since 1947, the year India became an independent country. In 1947, our family established a small grinding mill in our locality. As demand grew over the coming years, my father and his brothers expanded the business into the UAE. My father started visiting the UAE at the beginning of the 1980s and found a gap in the spice and food grain trade. A large chunk of food grains were being imported into the UAE from South Asia, especially India, for consumption within the UAE. However, there wasn’t any grinding mill or processing plant in the UAE. So, he saw this as an opportunity and decided to invest in the UAE in order to fill this gap.
In 1984, my father left the family business to start his own and when he saw the existing gap and the high demand for Indian spices and pulses in the UAE, he decided to relocate the business here. Initially, we started the company at a 400 square-foot facility in Dubai with four people and began importing products from India under the Arab & India Spices. In 1990, we shifted our base to Ajman, where we purchased a piece of industrial land in our name so that we could save on rent. My father made substantial investment during the time of Kuwait’s war with Iraq. It was an uncertain time and many people left the country in fear. But we stayed on and decided that the risk we were taking would be worth it. And today, I can proudly say that it was.
I used to travel between India and the UAE – but wasn’t involved in the business initially. However, in 1994, as the business was growing exponentially and my father needed more helping hands, I had to give up my studies and formally joined the business. So, my career started in the family business and I have grown with it, since the year 1994.
GPC: Arab India Spices works with a number of pulse products. What can you tell us about the pulse-side of the business?
Harish: As I mentioned earlier, it was my father, who expanded the family business into Dubai. I had joined the business before completion of my higher studies – due to a need – to support my father, who found it difficult to shuttle between India and the UAE. Pulses is the second most valuable food in our menu – across South Asia. Besides, pulses have been one of the most important foods that we produce, procure, crush, process and package. The demand for pulses will continue as long as people live. Hence, pulses were a safe commodity for us to trade in.
GPC: Forbes named you one of 2021’s top Indian busines leaders in the Middle East and credits you with growing the company from a small trading operation to a major multinational company. How did you grow the company into one of the biggest pulse processors in the world?
Harish: Having been a young inexperienced boy when I joined the company, I faced a lot of challenges. Although it was a running business, when I took over, I found that my father’s business partner had made a couple of poor business decisions before he left the company, and these were very difficult to overturn.
The damage was so substantial that the banks had refused to give us bank loans – that made our business very tough to operate and grow. After several months of paperwork and running in and out of government offices, I finally took complete control over the business. At this point, the company had garnered a poor reputation and I had to work endless hours to rectify that.
GPC: This year, COVID-19 brought on new challenges for the global pulse industry. At Arab India Spices, how did you manage during the pandemic?
Harish: It was actually the most challenging time we faced in our lifetimes. At the same time, though, it also taught us many new lessons. The COVID-19 crisis made us more careful and taught us the importance of making the business sustainable. It also led us to discover new ways of conducting business and performing our duties while social distancing. In this respect, we learned that a good many things could be done online. Buying, selling, marketing, food processing – all of this can be done online.
But it was very hard. The business was impacted badly, especially at the start of the lockdown period. However, we are in the business of processing basic food grains, so as long as people live, they will continue to eat and drink. That that makes us crisis-proof to an extent. The demand will always be there. We just need to ensure consumers have access to our products, whether it be on a store shelf or via an ecommerce platform.
GPC: Last time we spoke at the GPC Rio Conference, you mentioned the company imports 200,000 MT of pulses per year, mainly from Canada and Australia. Did the pandemic affect this at all?
Harish: Yes, of course. But the effect was temporary. Our business is a long-term operation and is part of a vision to offer cost-effective and quality foodstuff to consumers. Crises such as COVID-19 are short-term challenges that we need to handle with caution.
GPC: Back then, you also mentioned that about 60% of that volume remained in Dubai and 40% was exported to destinations in Africa, Europe and North America. How did COVID-19 affect the export side of the business?
Harish: Again, it was a short-term impact. Like most businesses, the two-month lockdown affected our operations. Africa is a growing market and the volume will continue to grow there. The consumption in the UAE is stable and will grow once the pandemic subsides.
The worst, I think, is over. We can now get back to growing our business. Luckily, what we do in the food processing industry is essential for life, so the demand will always be there.
GPC: During the pandemic, Arab Indian Spices provided help to people in need, including repatriation tickets for Indian nationals working in Dubai and also food parcels for residents. How did the idea to take those actions come about and how many people benefitted?
Harish: I believe that business is not about money but about helping people. Our biggest stakeholders are our customers – the consumers. We are here because of them. So, it is important to stand with them when they are under stress and to extend a helping hand to those who need our support.
As for how many people benefitted, that is immaterial. We did not undertake these actions for publicity. I am a humble person and would like to remain that way. The most important thing is that we were able to extend our hand to the people who needed our help.
GPC: This January, Arab India Spices launched two retail brands in the UAE -- RK Pulses & Spices and Soorya. What can you tell us about this decision and how did the launch go?
Harish: We felt it was the right thing to do. We believe, after having expanded our business so successfully, that we need to have our own brand to carry our signature quality at an affordable price. We are happy to offer consumers another alternative when they shop.
GPC: What is next for Arab India Spices?
Harish: We want to continue to grow and support consumers. We want to add greater value for our customers, including the wholesalers, retailers and members of the trading community we work with, and of course consumers, who deserve the best.