Hey, folks! We hope you celebrated our 77th Independence Day well. And in light of that, in today’s Finshots, we thought we’d bring back some memories from the time of independence and talk about 3 businesses that forged ahead after the partition.
But before we begin, if you're someone who loves to keep tabs on what's happening in the world of business and finance, then hit subscribe if you haven't already. If you’re already a subscriber or you’re reading this on the app, you can just go ahead and read the story.
Let’s dive in for some unusual stories about some very usual brands.
Dunking a humble biscuit in a morning cup of chai may be part of the daily routine for most of us. But that wasn’t the case in pre-independent India. The market was dominated by British biscuit brands such as United Biscuits, Huntly & Palmers, and Britannia (a subsidiary of a British company).
But a man called Narottam Mohanlal Chauhan wanted to change that. He wanted a Swadeshi biscuit.
Along with his brothers, he’d already set up a confectionary brand in 1929 in a small town called Parla in Mumbai (then Bombay). And they made orange candies and toffees. So they knew something about running a food business.
And when a biscuit factory was put up for sale in 1938, the brothers decided to snap it up. But since they didn’t have biscuit-making experience, Narottam travelled to England to learn the ropes and returned not just with the art, but even the machinery needed to make biscuits.
Their first wheat biscuit emerged the same year — Parle Gluco! Yup, the same biscuit that would go on to become the iconic Parle G.
But as luck would have it, World War II broke out shortly after. Everything was being rationed. Even the wheat needed for the biscuits. Parle got a limited amount and was told to make the biscuits only for the army. And they had to resort to using barley to produce biscuits for the Indian public. It tasted horrible. And that’s not our words but what one of the Chauhan descendants said in an interview. They even had to use newspaper as packaging material back then.
If we put the sequence of events together, it seems like it was only after the war ended that Parle could even give Indians a taste of the wheat-based glucose biscuits (even though their website makes no mention of this).
But wait…even that didn’t last long. Because then came the partition and India lost large swathes of its crucial wheat territories of West Punjab (now in Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). We were left with just about 60% of our wheat supplies.
So Parle had to hit pause on its Gluco biscuit production. They put out ads asking people to buy their barley biscuits instead. Just until everything settled down.
The rest of course is history. The iconic yellow packaging with the girl emerged in the 1960s to differentiate itself from competition. And today, Parle sells 1.2 million tonnes of biscuits every year. This Swadeshi biscuit has become the world’s biggest biscuit brand.
Fun fact: If Parle-G packets produced in a year are placed around the Earth’s circumference, they would circle the Earth 192 times.
The year was 1906 when a young Hakim Hafiz Abdul Majeed had set up shop in Delhi. He was a practitioner of an Islamic form of medicine known as Unani and he wanted to sell products to cure people’s ailments.
But he soon noticed something around him. Delhi’s summers were scorching. People suffered from heatstrokes. So he put his head down and got to work to create something that would fix this problem. Something that would help cool the body down. He mixed herbs like coriander, chicory, stone flower, mint and khas (a fragrant grass), then added rose petals, some colouring and of course sugar too — the end result was a herbal drink that had a reddish tinge to it.
People loved it. Demand soared through the roof and the bottles quickly flew from the shelves.
This folks, was the beginning of Rooh Afza.
And this craze continued in a similar vein for many, many years during the British rule and the business soon passed on to his sons But when the partition rolled around, a choice had to be made — should they remain in India or move base to Pakistan?
Well, here’s what happened.
Hakim Majeed’s younger son Hakim Mohammed Said moved to Pakistan and set up the Hamdard Laboratories in Karachi. His elder son Hakim Abdul Majeed stayed back in India and continued the business under Hamdard Laboratories India.
Basically, Rooh Afza chose to stay undivided.
And even after Bangladesh achieved independence from Pakistan, the family set up a new entity in the east. And that’s the story of how Rooh Afza came to conquer India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today.
In fact, today Rooh Afza accounts for over 50% of Hamdard India’s sales. And such is the demand for it that in May 2019, when Rooh Afza was in short supply, its Pakistani arm offered to supply the beverage via the Wagah border.
Quite a unique tryst with the history of India’s partition, no?
Ghee, which is made from cow’s milk, can be over 4 times expensive than edible oil. And this has been the norm since time immemorial, even in pre-independent India. Ghee was reserved only for delicacies and special occasions.
So a Dutch company called Dada decided to cash in on the opportunity. It figured out it could make something that looked and felt quite similar using vegetable oil. It was a cheap alternative to the real thing. And they called it vanaspati ghee and imported it for sale in the country.
Now Lever Brothers (which eventually came to be called Unilever) saw a big market here as well. In Europe, they’d just diversified from personal care products to food products, and they probably felt that they could set up a manufacturing facility in India. They called this unit Hindustan Vanaspati Manufacturing Company and began operations. They bought the rights to manufacture it on Indian soil.
Oh, and the name became Dalda too.
You see, the Dutch company wanted it to carry its legacy. And naturally, the Lever brothers wanted to stamp their new authority here. So they simply inserted the ‘L’ (for Lever) into the mix and Dada became Dalda. And the low-cost alternative soon became a raging success.
So, what happened during the partition?
Well, initially, there were issues of course. Dalda’s distribution took a hit as its wholesalers were caught in violent skirmishes. But as Prakash Tandon, the man who handled Dalda sales during the partition (and went on to become Hindustan Lever’s first Indian Chairman) wrote in his memoir, he made a promise to everyone that he would do all he could to help — keep jobs ready and help exchange their business, homes, and Dalda trucks and carts if they were moving across the border.
And over the next few years, the business slowly grew. By 1956, Unilever merged with its subsidiaries. It became Hindustan Unilever and even launched an IPO. Yup, Indians could now actually own a piece of the company that made the legendary Dalda or vanaspati ghee products.
But wait…this wasn’t strictly an Indian invention, no? And the global behemoth Unilever’s might was behind it. So in the 1950s, Unilever set up shop in Pakistan too. It figured out that the palates were similar, so why not continue selling Dalda there?
And at the end of the day, that’s how the iconic yellow tin with its green palm tree continued its success story on either side of the border.
But over time, people realised that vanaspati ghee might actually not be that healthy. They shifted to refined vegetable oils. And maybe it was the declining sales and market share, but, by 2003 Hindustan Unilever decided to wash its hands off the business — in India, it sold Dalda to Bunge, an American food brand. And in 2004, it sold the Pakistan business to the Westbury Group which renamed the company to Dalda Food Products. Heck, this year, the Pakistani counterpart had even planned the country’s biggest-ever IPO by a consumer staples company!
So yeah, that’s how Dalda still continues its legacy today — as Dalda but under different owners.
These are quite some stories, eh?