Ugandan Asians: The birth of tilda rice

Tuesday September 25 2012

Ugandan Asians series: The birth of tilda rice

Mr Narshidas and Mrs Hiraben Popat at a hand over of Kibimba Primary School. Courtesy Photo. 

After completing my education at Vadvala, I was sent to a boarding at Porbander. My mother had sold off all her jewellery to make ends meet. My parents supported me through the four years at the boarding. When I had one year left to my matric exams, Ba asked me to write to her brother Meghi in Uganda to send her some money, as she had no more jewellery left to sell or pawn. Meghimama sent 100 rupees. When Meghimama came to India, Ba asked him to sponsor me to come to Uganda but he died in his village.

After four years of boarding, as luck would have it, I failed the university entrance exam in 1936 by just two marks. I could have had my papers rechecked for a fee of five rupees, but we didn’t have that kind of money and in any case I couldn’t possibly have gone to college as I was needed on the farm.

In 1937 I signed a three-year contract with Nanji Kalidas Mehta and Co in Uganda. They assigned me on a three-month apprentice in their textile mill in Porbander. I gave Ba 10 rupees from my first pay and left for Uganda. I arrived at Jinja in August in full rainy season. Luckily, instead of being assigned a field job, which I dreaded because of the terrible diseases, I was posted in the accounts department at Jinja. I went to see Javadjikaka at Kakira on my first Sunday from work. Kaka gave me 100 rupees to send to Ba and Bhai. Bhai’s eldest sister Kamarma had been ill when I left for Uganda. The very first letter, I received from home contained the news of her passing away. I cried. Bhai didn’t have any money to perform the mourning rites and the prescribed caste dinner. I was sharing a room with Odavji Chottai and Narshibhai Gondhia in Jinja. Seeing my plight, they each gave me Shs50 to send to Bhai.

Even before my three-year contract was over I was made the manager of the Mehta ginnery at Hoima to stand in for the manager during his home leave to India. I was just 21-years-old.

I got married to Hira on January 22, 1945. She was born in Rajkot but brought up in Mombasa. Four months after the marriage, I took over the running of the business of M/s Y Karimjee & Co in partnership with Ranchodbhai Popat. The date was 17/5/1945, the day Germany lost the war. The business was successful from the start. Rashmi was born in 1946. Hira was 18-years-old. Work started at 7.30am until the evening, but it didn’t end there as notes had to be made out for whatever grocery was sold. We had Narottam Morjaria to help with this. He lived in the other room at the back of the shop. Note-taking would continue till midnight. Sunday afternoon was our only free time. We would take Rashmi for a stroll in the town centre. We would do some window-shopping and after going to the movies, we’d walk back to our home in Old Kampala, past the dreadful swamps in the Namirembe valley.

My brother Tribhovan and Shanta came to Uganda in 1947. Tribhovan was commissioned to practise at High Court at Kampala, but found it difficult to manage as an independent lawyer. He didn’t want to work with me in the grocery. He found a job in the firm of Damodar Jinabhai & Co, who were partners with the Mehta group. I was very pleased that now we had an extra earning member to support the family back home, as well as to look after our own growing families. Tribhovan wasn’t too happy working at Damodar Jinabhai & Co. After 18 months there I suggested to him to come to Kampala. He rented an office on William Street and started as a manufacturer’s representative. Kololo was opening up for residential buildings. We managed to acquire a plot at Kisementi where a shopping centre was proposed. We decided to build a large shop there, with accommodation on the first floor. Ba and Bhai came to lay the foundation stone. It was our first immovable property and we were very pleased that the foundation had been laid by our parents. They stayed with us for nine months, travelling all over Uganda. Bhai’s affection for Hira increased and the illness of both Ba and Bhai practically disappeared.

My business was expanding and in June 1949 we formed the company of Popat Brothers Ltd. We closed down our manufacturing-agency line and Tribhovan joined Popat Brothers. We prospered. We bought up Hiralal Bhavan’s shop opposite our shop on Allidina Visram Street, at goodwill of Shs45,000, which was quite a large sum for then. We rented more go-downs and placed more orders for salt, rice and roofing sheets. We met the expenses for the wedding of two sisters and two brothers, as well as did trips to India.

We received a letter at the end of 1958 that Bhai’s blood pressure had shot up and his legs were swollen. I asked Hira to fly to India to tend to him. By the time Hira arrived at home, it was well past midnight. I received a letter from Hira that his swelling had disappeared and the blood pressure was normal. The doctor had even allowed him to eat a little salt and daal. On February 9, 1959 Bhai passed away while chatting with the family after dinner.

Around 1960 Jadavjibhai advised us to diversify our business in India, in view of the disturbed situation in Uganda with the coming of independence. It was decided that Tribhovan would run the business in Uganda. It was agreed with Jadavjibhai that over and above our salaries we would be entitled to receive four per cent of the profit, an arrangement that was honoured till 1972. We packed our bags and landed at Bombay by steamer. Hira was with me, plus Daksha, Tila, Vipul, and Shilen. After a three-month search for a suitable business, it was decided to take over the running business of Jagdish Industries Ltd in Porbander. They were educated people, manufacturers of vegetable ghee under the Arun trademark. I managed the business for just 12 days when I had to return it to the owners as the lease could not be extended.

In 1962, Jadavjibhai passed away in Kampala following a gall-bladder operation. He had encouraged the partnership of Popat and Thakrar. With his demise the idea of an enterprise in India too came to an end. In the meantime, we noticed nothing dire had happened to Uganda after independence! We returned to Uganda.

In 1966, Hira went to London with Vipul and Shilen.

The business flourished
We built go-downs beside the railway siding. We bought more go-downs on 7th Street. We were the largest (75 per cent) importers of rice, salt and corrugated iron sheets in Uganda. Well, in 1967 the government took over the food businesses, passing a law that henceforth only the National Trading Co could import rice and salt. The business of importing roofing sheets died off when Chandaria built his factory. Premchand Raichand & Co established a second factory for roofing sheets. The local manufacturers received the benefit of import duties on their finished products and duty-free importation of their raw materials. Our imported goods could not compete.

In 1969, Tribhovan decided to withdraw all his savings from the business. Our practice was that all dividends and interest would accumulate in the company. I was in London when Tribhovan made this unilateral move. I pleaded with him to retract but he wouldn’t agree. Within the next month he left Uganda with all his belongings on a steamer for Bombay. I was devastated.

Ba passed away in London at the end of 1974. In 1981 we settled in Samana at our factory. Radhafai came to live with us and we shaved the stairs to four inches so she could climb them. She passed away in 1992. All the children visit us with their families. Twice a year we have a communal dinner for our staff of 800 people. Hira looks after the cooking. We have never had a strike in our factory. I have decided to retire at Vadvala. The last time I was there I had found it a little difficult to mix with the people, but Hira coped very well. After all, she had borne the burden of looking after the family in London in 1966. Hira has always given unconditionally to her husband, her children and family.
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From Popat Bros to Tilda
At the expulsion, my father toyed with the idea of going to settle in India... His partner in Popat Brothers, his brother Tribhovan, had set up there after the partnership broke up but had not succeeded, either. So my father knew the difficulties of doing business in India; importing rice and salt from India was one thing, manufacturing something else. It was said among Indian businessmen in Uganda that you were a real business person if you could hack it in India. The competition was cut-throat and the playing field far from level and full of potholes. My mother had lived in England since the late 1960s looking after us as we went through school. So my father gravitated towards England. Lots of our people had drifted in from Tanzania and Kenya when their businesses were nationalized. Ugandans came in big numbers with the expulsion. Many Kenya Asians had set up in business – mostly ma&pa corner grocery stores. My father had run such a business in Uganda when he first started out, graduating to importing rice and salt. My father saw his opportunity in rice. At that time the rice available in UK was of very poor quality as the British had yet to catch on to the rice culture. Our people missed their basmati and pissori. Story is told that at one time relatives arriving in England brought a great proportion of their personal luggage in the form of the white grain! It was almost natural that my father would resume his rice trade with his established suppliers. There was only one snag: The rice he had been importing into Uganda often had brokens mixed in. More than that stonelets (kankri) were not uncommon to find - and bite on, to the damage of one’s dentistry. In East Africa the housewives would sit in their little courtyard picking the brokens and the stonelets while chatting to each other. That was precluded in England as women were the first to get on the labour market.

My father made sure the rice he sold was particles- and brokens-free. He employed local ladies to do the cleaning up. After that the rice was packed in neat bags and sold to corner grocery stores. We merited a premium over the local varieties. When the expulsion came our rice was the one served at the resettlement centres. English housewives in the know noticed the absolute loyalty that our people had for our rice and they started demanding that at corner stores. At that point my father realised the potential for rice in the bigger UK market. Consistent quality was essential – purity of the grains, packaging, logo. We hit upon the Tilda name from…with it lilting stoke over the T. He installed the first colour-sorting machine in the UK to ensure the 100 percent guarantee of our basmati rice. We discontinued importing rice in jute bags, resorting to paper sacks of 20 kg. We are now the largest sellers of basmati rice in UK and all of Europe.

As told by Narshidas Thakrar’s son Vipul

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