A ‘spiced up’ venture

Published October 11, 2022
Aniqa Irfan, Founder of Tardka Spices
Aniqa Irfan, Founder of Tardka Spices

Spice is not just a food flavouring; it’s a big business around the globe and an ancient one. The flow of spices from one part of the world to another is also believed to have started the process of globalisation at some point in time, many centuries ago. It led to the development of extensive trade infrastructure by land and sea, besides colonising large parts of the world.

Spices have helped people make more fortunes than any other commodity. And this continues to this day as the consumption of spices has increased in recent years due to their health benefits with growing knowledge around healthy eating and healthy living.

So is the awareness about the importance of the quality of the spices people consume, the major reason behind the founding of the start-up, Tardka Spices, by a young entrepreneur, Aniqa Irfan, who holds a Masters of Pharmacy (MPharm) degree from the University of Reading, the UK.

Ms Irfan, the founding CEO of the new spice company, was attracted to venture into the spice business because of her passion for cooking. “When my friend and I started our bespoke food catering business from home and began organising theme parties for friends and families during the Covid-19 lockdown, I realised that it is a very hard and time-consuming process to find quality spices in Pakistan.

Blends available in the market can cause ulcers because of the additives and preservatives mixed in them

“Blends are even harder to find; those available in the market can be harmful because of the additives and preservatives mixed with them. For instance, there is a big chance that you might develop ulcers if you consecutively use the packaged blends of spices for a few days.”

Likewise, many spice suppliers would adulterate their products with bulking agents and blend them with some non-edible rubbish to boost the spice by a big volume. Some spike the spices with substances that give the impression of higher quality by enhancing the colour using food dyes.

“The quality of the products you are using should be perfect because people will eat them. It’s about healthy eating, and you cannot and should not compromise on the quality of ingredients you are using,” Aniqa told Dawn in an interview.

But the idea to set up her own spice business emerged last year when Aniqa’s Bengali coursemate at the Culinary Arts Academy, Switzerland —where she had enrolled for the Swiss Grand Diploma in Culinary Arts —introduced her to Panch Phoran, a blend of five spices Bengalis use for tardka.

“I was on a scholarship at the Geneva-based academy, and one day my Bengali friend ground ingredients and blended those spices into Panch Phoran. The flavour got me thinking, why don’t we have these and other unique local blends in Pakistan?

“So when I returned to Pakistan earlier this year after completing the course and mandatory internship with top world chefs, I decided to set up my own spice company to introduce fellow Pakistanis to the unique but healthy spice blends free from additives and preservatives,” she says.

The young entrepreneur wants to change how spices are washed, dried, ground, blended and packaged in this country. “My training as a pharmacist has helped me a lot in both my cooking and spice blending ventures,” Ms Irfan, who holds the position of deputy director (operations) in the family-owned Pacific Pharmaceuticals, says. “As a pharmacist, I deal with different recipes; so is the case with cooking and spice mixing and blending,” she chuckles.

“When I go to the market for bulk purchases, I ensure that the ingredients I buy are of high quality. If you use adulterated ingredients, no amount of washing can improve the quality. That’s the challenge.”

Currently, her company sells its products to individual restaurants and delis in Lahore. Now she has made arrangements with supermarket chains like Al-Fatah and is stocking up their shelves with her 13 unique blends.

“Combining my experience as a chef and healthcare professional, I take pride in developing innovative spice blends free from additives and preservatives. I mostly use local raw materials but have imported ingredients unavailable in Pakistan. As a result, my spice blends have shorter shelf life than other brands available in the market because these are packed in their purest form. But these are healthy and unique in taste and offer an international experience to people.”

Ms Irfan doesn’t want to stop just at her spice company. “In addition to expanding my spice business and increasing the number of products, I am planning to take our food catering service to the next level by opening a restaurant,” she says. However, she wants her restaurant venture to be both financially and environmentally sustainable.

“My education and experience have shown me how people around the world are becoming increasingly climate-conscious. They are worried about the food industry’s environmental impact, and those related to the food business are proactively responding to these concerns.

“Nonetheless, I am distressed that there is no awareness of this issue in Pakistan. What we do in our kitchens in Pakistan is not sustainable at all. A lot of food is wasted, while millions are forced to sleep on empty stomachs. We must find solutions to these sustainability and hunger issues. Not everything should be about profitability. I want to develop an environment-friendly but affordable model that other entrepreneurs may adopt.”

For Ms Irfan, expanding the business is not just about profit; it’s a path to cultural transformation. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I love helping people, and that’s what entrepreneurs do. They provide products and services to help solve consumers’ problems. I don’t believe anyone is born an entrepreneur, but I believe that the type of environment I grew up in allowed me to nurture and pursue my passion for cooking and business.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, October 11th, 2022

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