Tappoo Kanji (1916–2010)
When Tappoo Kanji started handcrafting pieces of jewellery in Sigatoka in 1941, he had no idea that he was laying the foundations of a business that, within a generation, would be one of the largest in Fiji.
The Tappoo Group of Companies traces its origins back to a single store in 1941 when our founders Mr & Mrs Tappoo Kanji opened a 10 feet x 10 feet store in the small township of Sigatoka, Fiji. He personally handcrafted jewellery-artifacts at the back of the store working long hours at night, with help of his spouse. Even today, the company’s headquarters remains in Sigatoka where it all started almost eight decades ago. Then, he had no idea that he was laying the foundations of a business that, within a generation, would be one of the largest in Fiji.
By 1964, Tappoo had grown his business to an extent where he could venture boldly into Duty Free trading, a competitive segment which was becoming the hallmark of tourism in Fiji. In the same year, Tappoo’s eldest son, Kanti took over as Managing Director of the business.
The growing retail strength of the organisation paved the way for Tappoo to enter the domestic Wholesale distribution market. The perception of Tappoo as a retailer of only the finest, authentic products continues to pay dividends in establishing new products into the Fiji domestic market.
The Legacy of Tappoo Kanji
Imagine a situation when you are one year old, your mother has just died from the plague that is claiming thousands of lives in India and your father leaves you in the care of poor relatives and goes to a distant land in search for a better life for his family. It is as good as being orphaned.
That is the way the founder of the Tappoo Group, Tappoo Kanji (henceforth referred to as Tappoobhai) started life – in abject poverty, in dire need and without the succour of immediate family members. He grew up shuttling from one relative to another. Relatives themselves had children of their own and themselves were in abject poverty. An additional mouth to feed was obviously a burden for those taking care of Tappoobhai.
From such incongruous beginnings, the Tappoo name today is a household name in Fiji and is a business of respect among major multinationals in the world.
Growing up in Movan, off Khambhalia in the state of Saurashtra, Gujarat, India, Tappoobhai experienced the most abject poverty. The village itself was poor. The sole village school teacher ran away because the villagers could not pay him. This was the end of his first attempts to gain education.
“I started working when I was eight years old, harvesting wheat alongside adults in the fields”, Tappoobhai said.
He was paid four annas a day, a denomination of the Indian rupee that is so small that it has been discontinued.
One set of shirt and pants, to be washed in the river when dirty and worn again as soon as dry, enough to eat to fuel the body the situation was same for all those who lived in the poor village. Tappoobhai’s father and an elder brother, Meghji were already in Fiji, striving to make a better life than what was back home. He left his other children in the care of relatives in India as he struggled to establish himself and save up enough money to get Tappoobhai and his brother Nanji over to Fiji.
On December 2, 1916 the passport of Kanji Ramji (Founder’s father) was stamped in Bombay as “valid for the journey to Tuluar, British East Africa”. Sometime between 1916 and 1932, he would have travelled to Fiji and settled in the Sigatoka Valley.
Tappoobhai was at the mercy of circumstances. He had to put in a full day’s chores as well as work long hours in the wheat fields for a pittance. Tappoobhai remembers his daily excursion into the nearby forest to graze the cattle. “The forest was full of snakes and I used to be in deadly fear of them”, he recalls.
“A villager was bitten once and in those days the antidote was to pump in as much ghee (clarified butter) into the person to induce vomiting.
They forced about half a tin of ghee into him and he started vomiting dark green and lots of it and he survived. Not everybody survived”, he said.
The years passed with Tappoobhai working in the fields when work was available and surviving as best as circumstances allowed him to. Until the fateful day when tickets arrived for his brother and himself to journey to Fiji. He was 15 years old and only later he would find out that his father had sent money for the tickets much earlier but it had never reached its destination.
Two tickets and a hundred rupees, that was all the two teenagers Nanji and Tappoobhai had for making their way to Fiji.
The brothers travelled by track and rail for four days to reach Calcutta (Kolkata), only to find out that the ship Ganges was not to sail until six days later.
Fortunately, they could stay at the wayfarer’s house, the Satyanarayan Dharamshala (an orphanage) for free. There was little money as most of the hundred rupees had gone towards purchasing a set of pant suits for each brother as well as the tickets for rail travel and food.
When the Ganges set sail on April 11, 1932 for Suva, the brothers were on their last few rupees.
The journey was frightening, especially when storms came up, Tappoobhai recalled some 70 years later. “We were on the deck and open to the elements.”
“I really thought the deck would split from all the noise it was making. Only after much assurance from the others was I able to control some of the terror.”
He remembered being seasick for most of the journey and even well after landing on Nukulau Island (an island off the coast of the main island of Viti Levu in Fiji) for the quarantine. “On the ship, because we were vegetarians, we could only make our meals once the fireplace was free and everybody else’s meal was cooked we made what we could and survived on that.”
“Water was rationed and we felt thirsty most of the time. We slept on bunkers.The ship dropped anchor at Nukulau Island on May 19, 1932 and there followed a week of spraying, injecting (to induce diarrhoea) and powdering to ensure the immigrants were disease free.”
Friendly officials and locals guided the boys to a sailing canoe which was to take them from Suva to Sigatoka.
This was the only mode of travel between the centres as the roads had not been built. The canoe deposited them up the Sigatoka River after a day’s journey and Tappoobhai met his father again after 15 years.
From the National Archives
Fiji Times Wed May 11, 1932 – The Steamer Ganges, 6000 tons, Captain LC Robson arrives from Calcutta this morning with 150 Indians and departs next Saturday (May 14). The new arrivals were transferred today in punts to Nukulau Island.
Fiji Times May 19, 1932 – The Indian passengers who arrived by the Ganges were released from Quarantine yesterday afternoon. As the launches arrived from Nukulau, the scene at Princes Landing was a very animated one.
A Model Family Man
The First Years in Fiji
Tappoobhai lived with his father in Kavanagasau (in the interior of the Sigatoka Valley Road) in a lean-to one bedroom shack. Cooking was done in a small shed with fireplace. Tappoobhai had to cook and do other household chores until his father put him in school.
Fate was not kind to Tappoobhai. His father put him in school, first at Cuvu for six months and then at Kavanagasau. After getting a smattering of the English language, his father could not afford to send him to school anymore and Tappoobhai was again denied an opportunity for education.
He is philosophical about it: “I could handle names of the products I sold but the English language as a whole has been denied to me,” he says. That did not stop him from being a voracious reader, in Hindi and Gujarati.
Tappoobhai read books and magazines on a regular basis well into his 90s. His beliefs were shaped by reading all the volumes of the life of Mahatama Gandhi and the life and message of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Except for his hearing, his mental faculties remained acute until his passing at the age of 94, a good fortune he attributed to his continued interest in things around him and his love for reading.
Arriving in Fiji in the early 30s, Tappoobhai chose to make the best of his circumstances. Fiji, while not the land of opportunity it was being bandied about in India, nevertheless was an opportunity.
He resolved to work hard in fact, he had little choice in the matter also as circumstances ganged up on him.
Tappoobhai worked for various businesses in those first years in Fiji, including a stint as an apprentice tailor with Kara Punja. In 1936 he went into business with his brother Nanji, opening up a small grocery store in Wairambetia, Lautoka to service the cane belt in that area.
Two years was enough to tell the brothers about the dire situation of doing business in the economically repressed area, where the Colonial Sugar Refining (CSR) Company dictated lives autocratically. The business was closed and Tappoobhai moved to Sigatoka.
Tappoobhai decided to revive the family tradition of jewellery making. He would work flat out to make silver jewellery (earrings and anklets) and then go pedalling his bicycle hawking it in the hilly terrains of the Sigatoka Valley Road area to sell what he had made by hand.
He operated from a tiny workshop, working over a small forge, melting the silver, purifying it. Once cooled, he would beat silver into wires the thickness of hair. Such delicacy allowed him to fashion artistic pieces of silver jewellery after long hours at the forge. It was a one-man show, hardwork combined with rare skills.
He was making a living albeit a hard-earned and backbreaking one. He had a reputation of being a good guy, able to earn a living and provide for his family, credentials enough to start getting offers of marriage.
Finally a family friend settled it all and Tappoobhai was married to Ladhi Ben in 1940.
And his luck seemed to change also. It was 1941 and American soldiers had started getting based in Fiji as the war front shifted to the Pacific.
Now Tappoobhai had a market that he barely could service. He was selling as fast as he could handmake the silver jewellery pieces. The business then went from being a handcrafted jewellery store to a grocery business and then to grocery/drapery and general goods store.
The hard work and the dedication started to pay-off for Tappoobhai. The rental for his first business was five pounds a month. Six year later he shifted into better premises, willingly paying 40 pounds a month.
In 1962 he paid three thousand pounds for his own piece of land. Within two decades from starting his own business, Tappoobhai had made his first major capital investment. It was the start of an organisation that would go national within the next two to three decades, opening up shops all around the country and becoming a household name in Fiji.
He also had a small truck that serviced the business and he had hired his first employee, an indigenous Fijian man named Bulou after whom is named a major investment company of the Tappoo Group.
He now had his own shop, a wife who lent an able hand and an economy that was stable and conducive to business. It was also time to start a family.
The children were schooling. It was still hard times: running a business and raising a family, and the streak of persistence that marked Tappoobhai held everything together.
“Kanti was the smartest,” he says of his eldest. Kanti was the catalyst that changed Tappoo from a smalltown grocer into a major national retailer.
Kanti changed the small-scale produce distribution around Viti Levu into a mammoth national distribution unit that now deals with some of the most famous branded names in the world.
He changed the grocery/drapery business into a duty free and luxury goods business that extended into hotels and later into the airport concession arena.
With other brothers joining him as they finished their education, Kanti steered the company into an expansionary mode that continued finding avenues of interest in any aspect of retailing and distribution.
The Secret of Success
“The Grace of God”, Tappoobhai stated when asked what is the secret of the success of the company.
“It is more the success of the family than the company that I am concerned about,” he said.
“The company can only be good when the family is united, supportive and together,” he added.
Tappoobhai retired in 1972, handing over the running of his shop to his eldest son, later to be joined by other sons and their sons.
Devoutly religious and a great believer in the human values of truth, righteousness, peace, love and nonviolence Tappoobhai had striven to imbue these values into his family.
“When the family is strong and on the right path, whatever they do will be right,” he said.
“It is by the grace of God that my family has been together as one and that is all I ask from the Almighty,” he said.
On the company itself, Tappoobhai saw it a vehicle to do good.
“It was Mahatma Gandhi who taught me that rather than giving handouts, one should create jobs so that people benefit in the long run,” he said.
At the time of the interview in 2007, there were 800 people working for the Tappoo Group. In mid 2018, the total number of staff had surpassed 1700. “I am happy that the company offers this great service to the nation,” he said, adding “there is more benefit in offering people a chance to earn their living than in giving alms”.
On the nation that he has come to call his own: “I only wish we had the unity that we had before. We worked together; Hindus, Muslims, Christians. Race was never a problem.”
“We did not have any division. Even now I go to Kavanagasau, or the village or settlement around Sigatoka and the respect they show me is humbling,” Tappoobhai said in 2007.
“I have very fond memories of my life with the Fijians and the Indian cane farmers with whom I have lived and interacted so much throughout my working life.”
The Tappoo family grew up with the villagers of Laselase (where the first Tappoo store was established).
Tappoobhai died peacefully in his sleep on May 8, 2010 at his home in Sigatoka. He was 94 years old. The headquarters of the Tappoo Group remains in Sigatoka to this day.
– Nalinesh Arun, Senior Journalist and writer