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Leadership Spotlight – Mr Haresh Aswani

think-01-11-Leadership Spotlight-Featured Image
Mr Haresh Aswani, Managing Director of the Tolaram Group’s Nigeria business, talks about the Group’s pioneering decision to enter Africa when few did and to create a lifestyle change in the continent.

“Entrepreneurs generally have odds stacked against them, but if you have the right set of people and the correct business fundamentals and a single-minded focus, you can be sure of success.”

Your journey of bringing Indomie to Nigeria and making it a staple food there is nothing short of extraordinary. As a business leader, how were you certain that this was an idea worth pursuing despite all the odds stacked against it?
It all boils down to trusting your gut. We came to Nigeria and realized that there was a gap in the market. As increase in urbanization in Nigeria was inevitable, time was going to be scarce for the consumers. And we figured there was no quick meal solution available at that time; this was a big gap. We looked back to our childhood and instant noodles came to our minds almost immediately. It was our favourite food item. Entrepreneurs generally have odds stacked against them, but if you have the right set of people and the correct business fundamentals and a single-minded focus, you can be sure of success. We invested in people, and worked on grooming them. All of that investment is now showing results.

 

The turning point for us was when we were able to take on Maggi noodles (Nestle product) in Nigeria and beat them to establish our brand. To top it, they even sold their machine to us and we used it in-house. That gave us the belief and determination that we could face any multinational and be the best if we believed in our people and products.

 

Part of your decision to bring instant noodles to Nigeria was also to provide for the bottom of the pyramid (BOP). Do you see many business leaders these days still using corporate approaches to ad- dressing such socio-economic problems? Yes, there are a lot of multi- nationals and local players who are trying to address socio-economic problems for the bottom of the pyramid. For any player to be able to succeed in this market, they have to invest heavily in research and development to innovate and to come up with solutions for problems in a cost effective manner. Nigeria has a huge percentage of population in the BOP, so if companies don’t invest in this they risk being irrelevant. We have invested a lot in innovating and figuring out solutions for the BOP. For example, Chinchin is a local snack which used to sell in open in the market. We now sell it under our Minimie brand in a hygienic pack and have retained the same taste. Power oil and Hypo bleach are sold in affordable single use sachets. Bleach consumption has grown more than tenfold in a span of five years due to this inno- vation. We are a major player in the FMCG space in West Africa due to this in-depth understanding of our consumers.

 

With global economic growth and poverty alleviation over the last few decades, do you believe that businesses are now more inclined towards focusing on the growing middle-income market at the expense of the bottom of the pyramid segment?
Well, not really. I believe multinationals in Nigeria are also focusing on the BOP segment, looking at the amount of activity in Nigeria. The multinational consumer companies have clear focus towards the BOP and have developed cost effective solutions for their problems. The sizing – pricing strategy has been targeted at the BOP segment. Some of them have launched new products in Africa from its learnings from other emerging markets like India and Brazil.

 

Africa is largely considered as the last economic frontier, yet your company and you have been there for decades. Why do you think it has taken so long for businesses and investors to look at Africa in a big way?
A lack of understanding of the market inhibits businesses to venture into the continent. Businesses assume Africa is a homogeneous market and all the consumers are alike. Companies cannot work with one Africa strategy. Every market has its own unique flavor and businesses need to adapt accordingly. Also political and economic instability and security concerns have kept businesses out. To take the Nigerian case in point, the Northern region is distinctly different from the South in the way the consumer behaves and companies have to adjust and respond to these differences through their product and strategies.

 

There are few companies from Southeast Asia, and even fewer from Singapore, that have ventured out to Africa. Why do you think this is the case and what advice do you have for them?
African countries hadn’t marketed themselves as green pastures. This was the reason for the lack of awareness of these markets in South- east Asia and Singapore. But now this is changing and you see more and more businesses considering Africa very seriously. My advice to them would be do your research before you enter the market. I would like to emphasise that one size doesn’t fit all: this means African problems can’t have Asian solutions; they need African solutions. We have the ground knowledge having been there for decades. We are happy to talk to people who are keen to navigate the terrain so that they can reap the benefits of our local knowledge and experience. They should consider partnering with someone with local experience to skip the long learning curve.

What the young people want

Launch of a new flavour of Indomie Instant Noodles in Nigeria, 2017 Photo: Source: Dufil Prima Foods Plc

What are your views on Africa’s growth prospects and what time horizons are we looking at before, in your opinion, much of the region’s potential is actualized?
We are nowhere near realizing the region’s potential. Africa’s growth prospects completely depend on its political and economic stability and infrastructure development. I have seen companies fold and leave because of these challenges. You see prosperity in the countries that are more stable. Once this happens, you will see much faster growth and many more businesses trying to be a part of this growth story.

 

The Tolaram Group believes in balancing its profit-making activities with also contributing back to society, through its Foundation. How important is it today, where there are so many NGOs and multilateral initiatives, for businesses to solve societal problems? In spite of the presence of NGOs and other initiatives, Africa’s economic discontent is self-perpetuating, resulting in various consequences such as low standard of living, low life expectancy, and low literacy rates, among others. I feel it is the duty of businesses to give back some portion of their profits through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. In our case, we are doing our bit too. In fact in 2016, as a Group, we decided to give a large share – 25 percent – of our profits to the Tolaram Foundation, which is an initiative to enhance the lives of people through education, information, inspiration and fulfilment. In Nigeria, at our Ishk Limb Centre, we provide fully functional custom-made artificial legs, polio calipers and cosmetic hands, free of cost for people who need them to help live their lives completely.

 

We are also running sanitation and health projects, where we provide better sanitary conditions in schools and communities by installing toilets and hand pumps for clean water for free. Another initiative is our ‘Teach-for-Change’ program, where the employees of Tolaram Group have volunteered to teach in schools for 10 weeks giving 1 hour classes per week to impart their experiences to kids in primary school to inspire them. This unique program allows us to give back in a humble and loving way. Our business also ensure that we provide goods with a focus on nutrition, health and hygiene at affordable prices.

 

What would be some of the priority problems that the Tolaram Foundation and you be interested in solving?
More than 40 percent of the Nigerian population comprises of children below the age of 14. If we set them on the right path then we can be sure that Nigeria’s future is in safe hands. Health and education for children is a priority for us.

 

What is next for the Tolaram Group? As a family-run business, how do you help establish continuity in exemplary business leadership in the organization?
Tolaram is a family-owned, professionally-run business. All the group companies are run by qualified and experienced professionals and we have joint ventures with global giants like Kellogg, Arla and Salim Group, among others. So it is not a family-run business anymore. We have professionalised our Board and our key business verticals are currently being headed by very senior and experienced professionals who have worked for more than 15 years in our Group. As a Group, our goal is to expand our existing portfolio of brands and products, form new partnerships in our chosen lines of business and enter new markets.

APRIL 2017 | ISSUE 1

(Re)thinking the Box

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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