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The journey of a confectionery maker

Litia Mathewsell
Monday, April 13, 2015

ENTERPRISING, ambitious and travelling with little more than a sliver of hope for the future.

The stationery, monotone photographs that often depict immigrant pioneers in the early part of last century belie the creative, ingenuity of the wave of migrants arriving in Fiji during this period.

Despite the horrors that besieged Indian labourers under the Girmit system, scores of business aspirants from India took advantage of newly expanded sea routes between the sub-continent and the Pacific after the indentured labour system officially ceased in 1920.

Among the throng of hopeful traders in the mid-1920s was Parbhubhai Hira, an ambitious confectioner from the Indian state of Gujarat.

His family was one of the earliest to settle in Ba, which was yet to be formalised as a township but had already established itself as a booming trade centre at the time of his arrival.

Though, Hira's business and its trail of inheritors would burgeon, descendants of this pioneering family chose to remain in this notoriously humid town, from where they today continue to operate the renowned Bhikhabhai brand of sweets. The business has also gradually expanded to other parts of the country, as well as overseas.

Formative years in Fiji

Hira first landed on Fiji's shores in the late 1920s, according to his great-grand nephew Viraaj K Lad, who is CEO and executive director of Bhikabhai & Co. Ltd.

Originally from the Gujarat village of Kadod in Surat, Hira had mastered the art of making Indian sweets in Durban, South Africa, in the early 1920s. Similar to Fiji, British colonial rulers had recruited thousands of indentured labourers from India to work in a sugarcane industry established in Durban in the 1860s. And despite the growing opportunities in the coastal city, which also proved to be Africa's busiest port, Hira decided to invest what knowledge he had acquired in sweet-making in a new homeland well beyond the horizon.

"This is why our Indian sweets differ to that from India," Lad noted.

The early period of Hira's settlement in Fiji had the confectionery business initially set up in Nausori with a partner.

According to Lad, this venture was most probably based in the town area, though it didn't last long. Hira had a dispute with his business partner and this caused him to move to the Western Division.

"Hira then started a grocery shop near the Ba Mission Hospital and later opened a shop which sold Indian sweets and snacks, groceries and even expanded to a tailoring business in the township."

Hira's business acumen would propel his flair for making sweets into a leading supplier of confectionery in the local market. Today, Bhikhabhai is still a dominant player, the preferred Indian sweet of consumers, close to a hundred years after his arrival.

Bhikhabhai

As opposed to the stringently observed traditions of his time, Hira remained unmarried. Following his arrival in Ba from Nausori, and without a successor to his business, he adopted his 12-year-old nephew, Bhikhabhai Parbhu, in the early 1930s. Bhikhabhai, the son of his brother Lala Hira, and bestowed on him his name Parbhu.

Bhikhabhai Parbhu had two brothers, Ranchod Lala (Lad's grandfather) and Magan Lala would also eventually join Hira's business fold.

"Later his remaining nephews, namely Ranchhod Bhai Lala and Maganbhai, joined the business to take it to greater heights and made 'Bhikhabhai' and the 'BBC' brand, which is now a household name known for good quality Indian sweets both in Fiji and abroad," Lad explained.

Like the many success stories of the past, Hira's journey is a remarkable fete. Like many other pioneer families, he was indeed part of a generation of visionaries who sailed halfway around the world to carve out new lives.

In a 1978 study on Indian immigrant traders, author Kamal Kant Prasad talks about this bustling group of entrepreneurs that Hira was a apart of, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the World War II.

In a segment of the abstract for his thesis, titled The Gujaratis of Fiji, 1900-1945: A Study of Indian Immigrant Trader Community, Mr Prasad noted that the survival of the sugar industry and developing needs in the agricultural sugar belt of Fiji — where the majority of Indians were residing — opened new avenues for Gujaratis who had the aptitude to move with ease into entrepreneurial roles.

Hira was no exception to the observations noted in the study, which stated that Gujaratis mainly settled in urban areas because of their commercial orientation and the maximum potential for success garnered by their activities.

A family affair

"The women of the family were also heavily involved in the running of the business by producing the sweets," Lad said.

"There were kitchens set up to make the sweets, using Hira's recipes, and they often worked long hours. The sweets were manufactured in these kitchens and a factory was installed behind the shop at 45 Kings Rd."

Later, as the business branched out to a sister company, Swits N Snax, another factory for this was opened in Yalalevu, outside Ba town.

Among Hira's adopted son and two nephews, there were a total of 19 children — seven daughters and 12 sons, with the ladies of the house constituting an important role in the family's operations.

Lad relayed that the women of the household have been the backbone of their business and passed on recipes over several generations, which also led to the set up of sister company, Swits N Snax Fiji.

"In joining the family business as a career, three third generation family members joined the business and today the business is still owned and managed by third and fourth generation family members," Lad added.

The family settled at 45 Kings Rd on main street Ba Town, which remains their commercial headquarters. Early photographs of the business show neatly organised novelties in the store windows and the detail that went into their presentation, such as a sweet cart manned by Maganbhai, Hira's nephew.

"The passion in the Bhikhabhai family members extends to those who are residing overseas and they too are involved in the business and help drive the businesses to sustainable growth. And this is done more out of family business passion and succession planning other than financial reward."

Being a close-knit community, other notable families that they associated with included the Patel, Hansraj, Motibhai, Manubhai, Ratanji and Dayal clans, to name a few.

Great strides

As with many success stories, the family's ventures were also riddled with setbacks, particularly in an era such as Hira's, where natural disasters and the advent of modern technology, amnesties and regulations were yet to be enjoyed.

"Like many other start- up businesses in the early days, our grandfather told us of many hardship, including 18- hours per day of manual labour work, very limited business capital and natural disasters such as floods and cyclones," Lad added.

He noted that despite these challenges, his grandfather and brothers had a vision of ensuring that family solidarity was prioritised and that their children were well educated.

Lad adds that they also made a point of taking part in charitable and community projects.

"Our family-owned business has grown from strength to strength and in doing so, there were many hardship's. If we asked ourselves about the few things that kept the family passion alive in the business, it would come down to basic human values such as being humble, grateful, honest, being positive in the toughest of times, compassion, love and care."

Over the years, Hira's descendants have managed to juggle the intricacies of functioning as a family unit as well as a commercial entity, a fete backed by a mantra which insists that "food made with love means sharing and happiness."








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