Poppadums from Chennai to the UK

Written by Sushila Ravindranath | Sushila Ravindranath | Updated: Jan 20 2014, 09:10am hrs
We know them as

appalams in the South and papads in the North. They are poppadums in the UK and are served in every single Indian restaurant in the country. You buy them readymade in supermarkets. Poppadums are available everywhere in the UK and are as familiar as fish-and-chips to the natives. Almost all the poppadums sold in the UK are sent from Tamil Nadu. The man behind the poppadums success story in the West is M Lankalingam, chairman and innovation head of the Chennai-based Lanson group. The Lanson group of companies is a $100 million conglomerate with key interests in food manufacturing and exports, automobile dealership and biotechnology. Lanson Ventures is the division which exports papads.

Lankalingams father, S Murugesu, decided to put up factories to roll out appalams to help rural women almost 40 years ago. He was inspired by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhis 20-point programme that put a lot of emphasis on empowering women and rural development. Lanson Ventures now supports several villages in and around Tuticorin, the familys home town. About 4,000 women get direct and indirect employment. We found that on Saturdays, when we paid salaries, the husbands just came and grabbed the money. We opened bank accounts for the women and paid them directly. We find that the women spend money more sensibly. However, with increasing prosperity, they are putting their earnings in gold. They pledge it with moneylenders at times of need and pay 36% interest. We have to do something about this, says Lankalingam.

Originally, these papads were meant only for the domestic market and to help rural women. Murugesu was an exporter of handicrafts and wood products to the UK. During one of his trips abroad, he found the quality of papads served in a London pub left much to be desired. A number of these papads were sun-dried on the side of the road and one could spot bicycle tread marks on them. My father was totally committed to quality. He believed that if you had a quality product, the world will be at your doorstep.

Having decided to export, Murugesu decided to centralise the manufacture of papads. The women have to come to the factories. Everything is controlled from grinding the urad dal, mixing it with precise quantity of water, the flour and the spices for manufacture. Input specifications are very important for the buyers. Then the papads are cleaned, packed and fumigated.

The company follows the good manufacturing practices (GMP) code of England. The code even makes sure that fingernails are cleaned by fresh toothbrushes. The units are A+ certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which conducts unannounced audits. There are 11 factories in India that are BRC A+ certified. Three are Lansons. We cannot afford to take it easy in the factories. We give women flexible timing. In a week, of the 1,000 women we hire, only 600 will show up. If a woman is able to work six days continuously, we give her a bonus. Men are hired to do the pounding. Women are really good at the precision work.

Exports were originally meant for the expatriate Indian community. The papad became poppadum and caught on with the Brits as well with the growing popularity of Indian food. Even the Buckingham Palace serves poppadums for their curry evenings. Lanson Ventures realised that their biggest market was not really the Indian community in the UK, it was the British who wanted poppadums.

In the 1980s, we were exporting cook to eat products. By 1987, we realised ready to eat will do better since the average British housewife neither has the time nor the utensils to fry poppadums. The papads are all sent to a buyer who has a factory in Manchester. One million papads get fried every day for 24 hours, 365 days. Robots do everything. They then get branded and are sent to all super markets. As many as 90% of the brands sold in the UK are ours. We are literally the brand behind the brands, says Lankalingam. Today, 80% of his production goes to the UK and the rest to the US and Australia. They have just started exporting to Colombia.

The western markets are beginning to ban potato chips from the school lunch box. The FDI norms in the US are very strict about the sodium levels in food. It is easy for us to control the levels as our ingredients are inside the papad. In potato products, they are sprayed on the outside. We are trying to get into this market.

Exports have been growing steadily. The turnover from poppadums alone amounts to R75 crore. The year just gone by has been good for Lanson, which saw 100% growth because of a new client. There are plans to enter the Indian market with ready to eat papads, sometime in the near future.