During his early days as a collector, Rajeeb Samdani knew that simply aggregating artworks into a pile and calling it a collection was not going to be enough. He wanted a 'richer relationship' with art, the artist, the art world. He used the same mantra in his journey as an entrepreneur as he realised without running his business ventures successfully, he couldn't funnel money to fire his passion for art.
In Bangladesh's art and culture scene, Rajeeb is a famous name for founding the Samdani Art Foundation (SAF) along with his wife Nadia Samdani and for being the co-founder and trustee of Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) which in the past few years has become the biggest art festival of the country. One 'lesser known' fact that sometimes gets lost from view is that he founded several successful business entities and has been running them with panache.
Rajeeb pioneered the frozen food business in Bangladesh under the brand name 'Golden Harvest' which now holds a lion's share of the country's frozen food market. The IT company named 'Golden Harvest InfoTech Limited' (GHITL) that he founded with only 20 people now has over 1,800 people and works with clientele from USA, UK, France, Germany and more.
In fact, the Golden Harvest group of which he is the managing director has interests in diversified sectors including frozen food, IT, food processing, agriculture, dairy, Ice-cream, QSR, dry food, cold chain, construction, industrial, office interior, insurance, infrastructure development, commodities, logistics and real estate.
The journey into entrepreneurship
This visionary entrepreneur took the road less-travelled at a time when others invested in ready-made garments (RMG) industry. Unbeknownst to most people, Rajeeb first ventured into the world of information technology (IT) and founded GHITL in 1999.
The multi-disciplinary outsourcing company works on digitising data from handwritten documents. It also provides Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) services. The software that GHITL develops here is being exported to China, India, USA, Canada and other countries.
"Our employees, who even don't know a little German, are frequently processing data in German and other foreign languages. The data we are digitising now from German, Cyrillic Russian, Spanish, Italian, French, Latin, Portuguese and old English are several hundred years old. We are the only company in the world that digitises data from Cyrillic Russian," Rajeeb told The Business Standard.
During this pandemic, when the world economy got hit and most of the countries including Bangladesh were forced to impose a shutdown, GHITL took only 10 days to bring all their 1,800 employees online and made them work without interruption.
"Thanks to our IT infrastructure and advanced technology, we overcame the dark situation. Our exports were pretty good in the last year," said Rajeeb, "while many lost their jobs and faced wage curtail. We have already decided to recruit another 5,200 workers in the coming two years, and to launch new software through which we will train our BPO operators about artificial intelligence and machine learning."
Even before starting his IT firm, Rajeeb—then a student at the age of 23—thought of trying out his luck in business in 1997 when a friend told him to form a commodity brokerage house. They started with three employees and after 24 years, now they have nearly 6,500 people.
"To be frank, I started from zero. I am a first-generation businessman. Both of my parents were service holders and they wanted me to pursue a career like them," Rajeeb said, "But I thought of something else. I was even called a black sheep of our family for that."
There was a reason behind his parent's initial disappointment. While studying Business at the American College in Singapore, Rajeeb thought of putting his studies on hold and going back to Bangladesh. Then he got enrolled at the North South University. He didn't even finish his degree there.
"As I said, I got engaged in business during my student life and I had to concentrate on doing business, rather than studying it."
Expansions under the golden harvest group
In 2004, Rajeeb started the frozen food business under the brand name 'Golden Harvest'. Aside from pioneering frozen food in the local market, the company started exporting their products to Australia, USA, Europe and other countries.
"Now you will find at least 22 such frozen food processing companies operating in the market, but it was us who first ventured into this untried avenue," mentioned Rajeeb.
"Our next focus is on products ready to eat like Tehari, Morog Polao etc. This year, we will diversify our products in the food business linking with e-commerce. Any challenge brings in opportunity. Covid-19 has hit us hard and made us learn new things. E-commerce is the future for us."
In 2012, Golden Harvest expanded a joint venture business into the logistics industry with its Japanese partner Nippon Express, the largest logistic company in Asia and the fourth largest logistic company in the world.
"Our logistics company now has three wings: Export-Import of garments related products; infrastructure, including logistics support to developing heavy industries like mono rail, bridges; and domestic delivery and storage. Under Japanese management we have become one of the leading logistic operators in Bangladesh."
Golden Harvest launched its Ice-cream brand 'Bloop' in 2016. Besides, in partnership with Jubilant Food Works Limited, Golden Harvest launched the franchise of Domino's Pizza in Bangladesh in 2019. Domino's has four outlets in Dhaka and four other outlets are on the cards. Domino's Dhanmondi holds the global world record in terms of sales and the number of orders.
"When we opened our Dhanmondi outlet, clients would stand in queues on the streets for pizza. Domino's was the first food company that introduced contactless delivery. Others followed later," said Rajeeb.
Golden Harvest achieved another milestone through forming a joint venture with IFC (International Finance Corporation)—a member of World Bank Group— in 2019 to set up the country's first cold chain network. The project, which received the 'Deal of the Year' award from Hong Kong in 2019, will go live at the end of this year.
"The project with IFC will work not only in terms of money, but also regarding expertise and knowledge. With it coming into effect, a revolution will take place for industries in Bangladesh," Rajeeb asserts, "The venture will increase food safety and quality of delivered products, reduce spoilage and contribute to the development of the country's logistics infrastructure and benefit export-import activities."
Love for arts and culture
Along with his wife Nadia Samdani, Rajeeb collects artworks from all over the world and has over 3,000 modern and contemporary artworks. Art from their collection has travelled to major exhibitions, such as documenta 14; Shanghai Biennale; Office for Contemporary Art, Norway; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Kunstsammlung Nordhrhein, Düsseldorf; Gwangju Biennale, South Korea and Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India.
SAF—the foundation that the couple formed in 2011 supports the country's contemporary art and architecture along with globally prestigious art biennale, collectives and initiatives. DAS, initiated by them, is now the biggest art festival of the country.
The couple's new initiative is the Srihatta—Samdani Art Centre and Sculpture Park. Established under SAF, it is due to open in Sylhet in 2021. The centre is designed by Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, who won the Aga Khan Award in 2016. This is also the country's first sculpture park and permanent art space for international modern and contemporary art.
"We have set up the park, which will focus on art, architecture, music, writing, curating, research and more," said the art connoisseur.
The Samdanis were the first and only South Asians to receive the Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage award in 2017. "It's a huge honour for us to receive the prestigious award. We donated the award money worth 15,000 Euro to Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy," said Rajeeb. They were also recognised on the Top 200 Collectors list by ARTnews from 2015–2020, the Power 100 list in 2015-2020 by Art Review and The World's Top 100 Art Collectors 2016 by ArtNet News.
Rajeeb is the founding member and co-chair of the South Asian Acquisition Committee of Tate Modern Museum, UK. He is a member of Tate's International Council and founding members of Harvard University Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute's Arts Advisory Council, USA. The Samdanis, who are members of Tate's International Council, are also members of Alserkal Avenue Programming Committee, Dubai and advisory council members of Art Dubai Art Fair.
Rajeeb firmly believes in giving back to society. He is a trustee and secretary general of the Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation, founder of the Alvina Samdani Trust and Taher Ahmed Choudhury Charitable Hospital in Bhadeshwar, Golapganj, Sylhet.
"My parents – Enamuzzaman Chowdhury and Zaheda Khatoon are my driving force, while my better-half Nadia Samdani is a great inspiration for all the feathers so far added to my crown. We have three daughters. I have taught them norms and values and how to respect others. Giving back to the society is my philosophy and I want to involve my daughters in such activities," Rajeeb concluded.