Interview – Akshay Chowdhry, group vice president of Gemini Edibles & Fats (GEF) India

GEM meets pandemic induced demand for stocking of essential commodities

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Akshay Chowdhry
Akshay Chowdhry, Group Vice President, Gemini Edibles & Fats India

Akshay Chowdhry is the group vice president of Gemini Edibles & Fats (GEF) India that manufactures Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils. Chowdhry speaks about GEM’s product line, manufacturing facilities, packaging solutions, and the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic to Packaging South Asia’s associate editor, Priyanka Kirti Tanwar.

Packaging South Asia – Tell us about your product line.

Akshay Chowdhry – Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils, our flagship brand, is widely recognized for Freedom Refined Sunflower Oil. We have added variants like Freedom Physically Refined Rice Bran Oil, Freedom Groundnut Oil, and Freedom Kacchi Ghani Mustard Oil to offer the customers options for their specific requirements.

We have First Klass, the brand for palmolein oil. We also have a range for value-added fats with the brands B.Rite, Fabula, and Magik for bakery fats. Apart from this we also do bulk trading of edible oils.

Packaging South Asia – How is sunflower oil better than other types of oil?

Akshay Chowdhry – Consumers are growing health-conscious and more concerned about the health impact of all the ingredients that are used for cooking. Edible oil forms an essential part of the food being cooked.

‘Freedom’ has always focused on bringing, for the customers, edible oils which are healthy, and cook tasty food. Freedom Refined Sunflower Oil is fortified with essential vitamins A, D, and E. It is not sticky, non-greasy, with a balanced HDL/LDL profile making it healthy for the heart. The oil helps you cook more in less oil.

Packaging South Asia – Tell us about your oil manufacturing facility.

Akshay Chowdhry – Gemini Edibles and Fats India has three plants – two in Kakinada, and one in Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. GEF India is presently operating on approximately 100% capacity utilization. The company has commissioned its new plant in Kakinada which is built over 12 acres. It is the largest private sector investment in Kakinada. The Kakinada plant is designed and assembled by deft professionals using superlative quality components and advanced engineering concepts like the use of robotics, along with an integrated packaging setup. The manufacturing unit has a capacity of 1200 MT per day refining sunflower oil and palm oil. This takes our total installed capacity to 2350 MT per day.

Packaging South Asia – What are the factors that decide the retail price of Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils?

Akshay Chowdhry – Several global factors determine the prices of edible oil as the country imports around 70% of its requirements. Capacity, import/export, supply/demand, cost, quality, consistency, trustworthiness are the major factors that decide the retail price.

Recently, Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils has been recognized among the urban Indian consumer’s top 5 cooking oil choices in the Ipsos Urban Consumer Sentiment Survey 2020. The survey was conducted to understand the consumer behavior and perception towards the brand. Quality, consistency, and trustworthiness were the major criteria of the consumers, while the price remained a factor of concern; consumers were willing to pay more for hygienically produced food products that have been consistent with their quality and brand messaging.

Packaging South Asia – Which state is the highest consumer of your brand? What are the possible factors contributing to this?

Akshay Chowdhry – Freedom Healthy Cooking Oil is the top packaged edible oil firm in its home base of South India, especially in the states of Odisha, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, where it holds between 35% to 55% of market share depending on the state.

We are relatively new to the Karnataka market and plan special focused campaigns to rapidly increase our market share in 2021.

The key strengths for the wide acceptance and growth of our brand ‘Freedom Healthy Cooking Oil’ are consistently good quality, a robust distribution network ensuring the brand presence in more than 85% of the retail outlets, and modern retail. Apart from this we have carried out our very focused consumer engagement and connect activities to aid brand recall and consumption.

Packaging South Asia – What kind of packaging solutions do you use for Freedom Cooking Oils?

Akshay Chowdhry – Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils have leveraged innovative packaging solutions based on consumer feedback – for creating product differentiation, increasing share of voice, and enhancing presence at the point of purchase.

Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils are available in 1 liter and 500-milliliter pouches, 1 liter PET bottle, 2-liter jar, and 5-liter SKU besides a 15-liter tin.

The new 1-liter PET bottle of Freedom Refined Sunflower Oil has been especially designed keeping in mind the present-day modern families and their usage. The 1-liter SKU has a sleek design in a plain see-through bottle with a tamper-proof CTC cap for flow control thus avoiding spillage. The pack offers convenience as it has a strong grip making the bottle easy to handle. The new pack will be ideal for the present-day woman who is looking at choices to save time and eliminate storage complexities. The sleek, beautifully crafted PET bottle is an ideal choice for households for domestic usage during the upcoming festival season.

Akshay Chowdhry
Product line of Freedom Healthy Cooking OIls

Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils is also available in a 5-liter jar. This was the first product to be launched by the company in India. We have designed the bottle keeping in mind the theme – ‘your right to happiness’. Bright colours like orange and yellow were used to make the jar look visually appealing. A series of waves were used which finally culminated around the neck of the jar to reflect the theme of happiness. The label area of the jar with waves has a unique shape that gives a distinct character to the bottle. 

Ergonomics also ensures that the packaging is convenient to use and user-friendly. We have recently invested in a bottle and tin-making facility at our Kakinada plant. At this facility, we use resins to blow up the bottles as per our specifications. This reduces our dependence on packing materials from vendors. We only get the printed stickers and maintain an efficient automated packing and dispatch line at our facility. This helps us to reduce human intervention in the entire production cycle and in turn maintain the hygiene, safety, and quality of our products.

Packaging South Asia – You brand your cooking oil ‘healthy’ but are you following the FSSAI guidelines when you call your oil ‘Freedom Healthy Cooking Oil’?

Akshay Chowdhry – Yes, Freedom Healthy Cooking Oil not only follows the FSSAI guidelines but also exceeds the specified standards ensuring the best quality product to the customers. We are primarily into edible oils like sunflower, rice bran, mustard, and groundnut under the brand ‘Freedom’ that have a balanced fat profile and are safe for heart health.

To ensure the quality of our product, Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils are manufactured hygienically in a state-of-art plant, undergoing 100 periodic quality checks in batches of 24. Thus, assuring high quality and the trust of good health.

Packaging South Asia – How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected your business?

Akshay Chowdhry – Covid-19 lockdown has changed the way we live, cook and eat food. During the lockdown, most of the F&B outlets were not functioning or functioning keeping in view the social distancing norms. This has left people with no option but to cook at home. We at Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils have witnessed an increased demand for sunflower oil and other variants during the lockdown and even now.

Immediately after the lockdown was announced, we were not able to service the spurt in demand. However, within a few days, we have streamlined operations to ensure we provide the required stocks of Freedom Oils for our customers.

GEF India primarily caters to 3 categories – hotels and institutions followed by the food industry (bakery, packaged fast-food, and snacks) and home segment. Hotels/institutions, weddings, and events (HoReCa) were on a standstill due to the Covid-19 lockdown resulting in a 50% reduction in demand for palm oil. The demand for the industrial segment was more or less maintained. However, there was a 10-15% increase in the demand for sunflower oil which is primarily consumed in households, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Odisha thereby helping us maintain our growth.

Packaging South Asia – People have been storing some commodities at home during the pandemic due to the panic factor. Did this trend affect your packaging operations?

Akshay Chowdhry – Edible oil is an essential commodity so the supply cannot be disrupted. It is our social responsibility to maintain the supply of Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils, in all the geographies that we operate in during the lockdown. We were able to supply the required stocks across the markets that we operate in during the lockdown – even the requirement of pandemic induced demand for stocking essential commodities.

To ensure the same, we got the required approvals with the support of local state and district administration. We have all the permissions facilitating the transportation of packed oil from our plant to various distribution points and the end-users.

Packaging South Asia – Was there a shift in the packaging options for Freedom cooking oils during the pandemic?

Akshay Chowdhry – During the lockdown phase, we have implemented strict measures to ensure that all our members, employees, partners, and stakeholders remain safe from Covid-19. We have taken the responsibility to safeguard and protect employees and workers at the plant.

Our automated production and packing line ensured a smooth operation during the pandemic. The bottling and tin manufacturing unit at the new plant further reduced our dependence on outsourcing thereby ensuring a continuous supply of our edible oil range to the customers.

For the required manpower at our refineries, the local administration and the neighboring communities have been very supportive. We are ensuring proper hygiene and safe working conditions for the workers as per the guidelines issued by the government. We have implemented all guidelines regarding hand sanitization, frequent disinfection of the premises, social distancing, personal hygiene, and temperature verification of employees who come to work. We have also educated the channel partners about the same and motivated them to ensure there is no shortage of stock at the point of purchase. Even after the Covid-19 lockdown has been lifted these safeguards are still being followed at the plant.

Packaging South Asia – What are your expansion plans for the near future?

Akshay Chowdhry – GEF India is presently operating on approximately 100% capacity utilization. We commissioned our state-of-the-art plant in Kakinada which is built over 12 acres. It is the largest private sector investment in Kakinada. The plant is designed and assembled by deft professionals using superlative quality components and advanced engineering concepts like the use of robotics, along with an integrated packaging setup. The manufacturing unit has a capacity of 1200 MT per day for refining sunflower oil and palm oil. This takes our total installed capacity to 2350 MT per day.

The facility will help us support the increased demand for Freedom Oils, and streamline the distribution. We are exploring the opportunities to set up another refinery on the East coast of India, which is going to increase our capacity of producing Freedom Healthy Cooking Oils. We are ready for our continuous transformation towards automation and will keep our consumers assured of the safe, hygienic, and contact-less practices that prioritize their health over anything else.

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