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Canadian canola oil sizzles for Indian importer

Raman Wadhera was all too happy to comply back in 1999 when he got a call from an uncle in Canada, asking him if he could locate a tandoor oven in India for a friend who ran a restaurant.

One random favour led to another, and a business was born – but then it turned in the opposite direction.

Mr. Wadhera spotted opportunity to sell Canadian goods in India, just as the country was opening up its consumer goods to imports, after decades of socialist controls.

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"Imports had just been liberalized in 2002, and we said: 'Why don't we try this?'" Mr. Wadhera recalled. "Canada worked because we had a small link there. And that's how we brought canola to India."

The term canola was trademarked by the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers' Association (now the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association) to differentiate the superior rapeseed derivative from the older rapeseed varieties.

Mr. Wadhera's OS Group, formerly called Mainra Exports, brought in the cooking oil made from the fat-free Canadian seeds to a market that already had an array of choices.

But he reels off the names of plush South Delhi neighbourhoods, where affluent consumers are ready to pay big money for healthy imported oil.

Moreover, India is known as a market for affordable, high-volume consumer goods for the hundreds of millions of lower middle-class homes, but it also an emerging economy in which Merrill Lynch estimated this year that there are 153,000 millionaires (in U.S. dollars). These are the consumers who can go for high-end products, often through imports.

Canola oil is sold in India for between 130 and 325 rupees ($2.60 to $6.90) a litre. In the latest year alone, Mr. Wadhera's firm has sold about 12,000 litres; it sells the Bunge Capri brand, which goes for the upper end of the price range.

But that's not all. Mr. Wadhera's firm, which he runs with partner Deepika Gulati, also sells air fresheners, dishwashing gel, sugar-free sweeteners, sugar-free candies and bubblegum from Canada, often bought from the Canadian units of global companies.

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For instance, OS imports Oak Leafbubblegum made by Ontario-based Oak Leaf Confections that is part of U.S.-based SweetWorks, Inc.

"We have a specialty in being four or five years ahead of the market," Mr. Wadhera said.

While Canada still accounts for a quarter of his imports, Mr. Wadhera's firm now brings in goods from the United States, Korea, Britain and China as well.

Mr. Wadhera said he is looking out for goods that are not available in the Indian market. OS Group is the kind of importer-partner a Canadian company that has no foothold in India could do with. He can typically be of use to a Canadian firm as a market adviser and consultant as well.

The OS Group has 22 distributors from Kashmir in the north to the former French colony of Puducherry more than 2,000 kilometres south, painstakingly built after years of prodding. It has dedicated staff attached to local distributors in each zone, which helps Mr. Wadhera keep his operation lean and yet reach out to a huge market.

Between them, Mr. Wadhera and his partner take five or six trips a year to Canada, looking for the right products.

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"Soon, we'll be coming up with organic [product]brands," Mr. Wadhera said.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Narayanan Madhavan is associate editor of the business news pages of Hindustan Times, a leading Indian daily newspaper. He has previously worked for Reuters, the international news agency, as well as The Economic Times and Business Standard, India's leading business dailies. Though focused mainly on business and economic journalism with a strong focus on information technology and the Internet, he has also covered or written about issues including politics, diplomacy, cinema, culture, cricket and social issues. He has an honours degree in economics and a master's degree in political science from the University of Delhi.

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About the Author
Small Business Columnist

Narayanan Madhavan, a senior Indian journalist, columnist and editor, has more than 25 years of experience in journalism. He is currently Associate Editor running the business news pages of Hindustan Times, a leading Indian daily newspaper which is part of the capital city New Delhi's culture and growth. More

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