It sounds as unreal as it is unique: An India-China defence joint venture in Africa, a continent over which the Asian giants are at loggerheads for influence.
But in a small corner of the otherwise technology-dominated defence show Defexpo 2014, Delhi-headquartered Kent Industries Ltd has showcased how it brings together cloth from China and handcrafted metallic badges, embroidery, lanyards and ranks handwoven in Delhi to create uniforms and Peak Caps that have been adoring the ceremonial attire of African generals.
The latest addition to their list of VIP clients: General James Hoth Mai, the Chief of General Staff of Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA).
“In 2005, when they signed the peace accord, General James Hoth Mai, then the Deputy Chief of General Staff, approached me after being referred by the Ugandan Ministry of Defence,” said Vinod Chadha, founder of Kent Industries.
“They gave me a theme for the designs. In my hotel suit in Juba, I showed him five-six designs, of which he approved one and since then, we have been supplying SPLA with ceremonial badges, berets, ranks and uniforms,” he said.
Inheriting a business that his uncle founded in 1955-56, Chadha started Kent in 1990. While a majority of his business comes from Hong Kong, whose police, customs, fire personnel he claims wear the ranks and products created by his men, Africa has been the base of his company since inception.
“Historically, we have been supplying to Commonwealth countries. so earlier, the badges, berets, ranks and lanyards would be exported to London from where they would be directed to member-African nations. Later we established ourselves directly in Africa to explore the market and have been there since,” Chadha said.
While South Sudan has been the latest addition to their portfolio, which includes Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia and Tanzania among others, his company has the moulds and dyes of police, military and other services personnel of these countries, “all of which are made in Hong Kong”.
Creating ceremonials is a tough task involving hours of meticulous hand work.
Mohd. Akhtar, 55, one of Chadha’s oldest employees, takes between eight to 15 hours to meticulously weave one badge on a general’s peak cap or “oak-leaf” as he calls it. And he knows that an Army General dons two “oak-leaves” on his peak cap and an army commander, one.
But what makes it unique is that as Akhtar and 20-22 of his co-designers weave the badges, besides ceremonial ranks, lanyards in Delhi, artistic buttons get gold-plated in Hong Kong and a cloth rolls out from a Chinese mill, all to be assembled and sent to forces in African nations.
With three offices so far in Hong Kong, Delhi and a market-centric office in Johannesburg, the fall of the Rupee has been a blessing in disguise for Chadha’s business.
“Labour in China is uncertain. According to my analysis, in the past 11 years, the Chinese Yuan has appreciated 30 per cent and Indian Rupee has on the contrary, fallen 40 per cent. The handicraft, embroidery in India is unmatched while cloth in China and gold-plating in Hong Kong is irreplaceable. After having looked at India as a great place to manufacture for years, we thought of exploring it as a potential market. There have been inquiries and we are hopeful,” Chadha said.