Q&A: Pranav Chopra of Nemi on using tea to help refugees

Pranav Chopra of Nemi

Launched in 2016, Nemi is a social purpose business focused on rebuilding refugee lives by creating employment opportunities through selling Indian specialist tea across the UK and beyond.

Nemi’s tea stalls have been popping up at festivals and events across the UK since last summer, and its chai can now be found in more than 20 cafes. And just as customers are queuing up to enjoy Nemi’s unique blend of teas and spices, media outlets including Times of India, Huffington Post and TriplePundit have been queuing up to tell its unique story.

It’s been an inspiring journey so far, but founder Pranav Chopra has set his sights much, much higher. Having left a corporate job to create Nemi, Pranav aims to build an international F&B brand that does well by doing good.

Purpose caught up with Pranav to talk tea, social purpose and global domination.

Q. How commercially ambitious is Nemi?

I’m absolutely treating this as a corporate, commercial business. The refugee story gives us a competitive edge in a market where it’s often difficult to differentiate yourself. But we tend to tell the “impact story” second — if people aren’t interested in good chai in the first place, there’s not much we can do, after all.

At the moment, we’ve been focusing on the tea stalls at food markets and getting into independent cafes, but we are working hard on getting into boutique retailers by the end of the year — Planet Organic and Wholefoods at first, and then pushing next year for a presence in supermarkets. We’re also exploring contract catering to large firms.

To do this, we’ve had to diversify from chai to include ‘Indian breakfast” and Earl Grey blends, but chai will always be our flagship product — we are authentic Indian tea specialists.

Distributors in China and India have also told us that there is massive demand for UK-made goods in their markets, so we are looking at how to make the most of this.

So yes, we see this as an opportunity to grow into a global brand.

Q. And what’s your ambition in terms of social impact?

It’s simple — the bigger we grow, the more refugees we employ.

As far as the tea stalls are concerned, we are planning to create a social franchising model that will allow refugees to run their own stalls and, in a virtuous circle, hire more refugees to work for them.

But we also want to create employment opportunities that go beyond making tea. By becoming a large-scale commercial business, we can hire refugees for their commercial skills, not just for entry-level work. For example, we have a journalist from Sudan with 25 years’ experience working for us. As well as making tea, he’s helped out with blog posts and marketing, and managed to get a short-term contract from an Arabic newspaper off the back of it. The more we grow, the more we can offer those kinds of opportunities.

Q. How did you personally come to the decision to set up Nemi?

I’ve always liked using entrepreneurialism to create an impact. In the past, for example, I created a startup called Slumdog Travels, which used tourism to fund education in India.

I got the idea for Nemi after seeing an episode of BBC Hardtalk about an Iraqi family who had fled to Germany but were now returning to Iraq — putting themselves in real danger — because they had failed to integrate or find work. This just seemed crazy. The more I read, the more I saw that lack of integration and issues around language, education and employment are the key problems holding refugees back from successfully resettling.

That’s the problem that Nemi exists to solve. We work with the Refugee Council UK, Migrants Resource Centre and other organisations to give refugees a chance of paid work. In fact, I decided from day one that we would pay them; they are not volunteers.

Q. What have been your biggest challenges at Nemi?

Well, the biggest difference from past social ventures I’ve worked on is that Nemi’s beneficiaries are also its employees — I work elbow-to-elbow with the people that the business is there to help, so I see the impact day in, day out.

That’s not always easy. In fact, I just had to let someone go, right in the middle of a really busy festival. It’s the first time I’ve ever fired anyone! Which is a very difficult decision to make when the point of your business is to create employment opportunities. However I think it will end up being a valuable experience for the employee I had to let go — to realize that if you underperform, you may lose your job — even if it’s unpleasant in the short term.

Q. How is it different leading a mission-led business as opposed to a purely profit-led business?

I have one full-time employee and one part-time employee in our head office, both of them non-refugees, who have past experience in the F&B and social sector. In finding people to work with, obviously it was important to find people who were also driven by a sense of mission and genuinely cared about the refugee crisis.

Q. Does it change the way you make decisions?

I think the main thing is that the team knows that they have the freedom to challenge my plans. I’ve very protective of the tea stall part of the business, for instance, while the others will challenge it in terms of its profitability and put forward other models. And then we have a healthy, evidence-based debate about it. To me, that really shows that they care and are aligned with the core aims of the business.

The refugees chip in with ideas as well. They challenge me to create new products so that they will make more money! For example, our new iced tea came from our refugee workers.

This is a lesson I learned from the corporate world, where often junior people don’t get a chance to share their ideas. Everyone should feel equally able to put forward ideas and have them heard.

Q. How else does Nemi differ from your past experience in the corporate world?

In some ways the corporate world is pretty easy-going in comparison — now I have to worry about making ends meet, making payroll, as well as managing the refugees. But at the same time, there’s the buzz of being an entrepreneur, of being my own boss.

And again, it’s a great motivator to be working alongside your beneficiaries and seeing them increase in confidence day-to-day, or to hear them speak positively about the business — it makes you feel very proud, and keeps you going after the long, exhausting hours.

Q. What’s your number one tip for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Hire someone right away! The day that I went full-time with Nemi, I hired our first full-time employee. There’s nothing like the pressure of having to meet someone’s salary to focus your mind.

It’s also worth noting that your business model doesn’t have to be complex in order to make an impact. I sell tea and water. It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering idea.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2017 print issue of Purpose. For more on creative leadership, problem solving and purposeful business, please visit thehouse.co.uk or get in touch at hello@thehouse.co.uk.