HomeInterviewsDr. Maliha Mannan Ahmed, Director, Gemcon Group

Dr. Maliha Mannan Ahmed, Director, Gemcon Group


Rooting for Quality


You founded the herbal line Meena Herbal at Gemcon Group 12 years ago, marking your presence in the cosmetic industry. How has the journey been so far?
It’s been a challenging journey, but it has given me the opportunity to have free reign on things that I want to do and create products that I know are value-added and stringently researched. I have had the liberty to experiment with the products I want to introduce in the market. We started our journey in 2003. It was in a very small scale and I was fortunate to have Meena Bazaar as our own retail.

We have our organic tea garden which requires a lot of shade trees and we have established a huge plantation of Ayurvedic/Herbal trees. The seeds, the fruits, the leaves even sometimes the bark, they are all coming to use for different sort of herbal products and ayurvedic medicines. We now have a yield from the shade trees. Since we have a big plantation we decided to have an herbal unit within the company.

Antibiotics are necessary and have no alternative in acute conditions, but preventive measures ensure continuous well being. For example having a shot of turmeric, or a shot of neem leaf juice, or using turmeric as antiseptic or using aloe vera for a burn – all these things – are gentle and effective on the immune system. Since our plantations have these ingredients we wanted to create value-added products and that’s how the range broadened.

Initially, we used to sell a lot of food supplements. However, food supplements in Bangladesh face a lot of issue with standardization, and whether it falls under drug license or not. It created compliance issues along with trademark issues. We have an ayurvedic drug license, which enables us to manufacture ayurvedic medicines but currently, we are only selling two products as food supplements, one is Triphala and the other is our laxative tea.

From a doctor to an entrepreneur – what has the shift been like?
The transition happened organically and it has been an interesting ride. Being an entrepreneur has its upside like getting to be your own boss, but you have to be prepared to take up challenges and shoulder a lot of responsibilities. It’s fun in the beginning when you have all the functional areas set up. It is service orientated, and I believe I am still in the service industry in some form or fashion. And my background as a doctor assists me in understanding where the essential minerals and nutrients lie and how we should extract them.

I have done extensive research on the chemicals that are added to shampoos. Most shampoos contain DMDM Hydantoin, and nowadays there is an anti paraben hype. Paraben is still good instead of DMDM Hydantoin which is actually a derivative of Formalin. Better of all evils is Paraben. The hype about shampoos being sulfate-free or paraben-free doesn’t necessarily translate to the products not containing other carcinogenic properties. We don’t use PPD, this is a chemical used in the mehedi tubes available in the market. This is the reason of our not making mehedi tubes for a long time. PPD is usually used in hair dye and in some people it causes dermatitis and in extreme cases can cause kidney failure. We don’t use any alcohol to make the herbal extract. We use herbal extract base, but it is made with an organic solution. Other things like bleach or hydroquinone as fairness agents are also avoided in our manufacturing process. Being in Bangladesh there is a certain limitation since you don’t get all the ingredients in the market. Our volume is low, which is why we don’t have the necessary volume to import. When you import the cost rises, so we are constantly doing a cost-benefit analysis and striving to get bigger.

What has been your inspiration behind the Meena Herbal and Organikare?
Meena Herbal is the original brand we started off with, and Organikare came out two years ago. Now we have decided we’ll have everything under Organikare. Herbal doesn’t translate quality in our country, and through Organikare we want to make the target customers aware that herbal is, in fact, an upgrade. The name Oragnikare is appealing and accurately expresses what we stand for. It lets consumers know that we use ingredients from our organic gardens and that we persevere towards making eco-friendly and environmentally friendly products. And we care. We have the aloe vera gel, the turmeric body lotion, the coffee scrub – each and every one of our products has natural ingredients in it. There is a perception that while there are natural ingredients, there are still preservatives. A little preservative that helps the product from being perishable is good. You really don’t want to use mold your face and hair, do you? We ensure we have the right blend of herbs, the right blend of chemicals to make a value-added product with the right texture, with the right amount of preservatives.

I am not comfortable using plastics, but we don’t have an aluminum tube industry in Bangladesh. I want to go into glass jars, into aluminum tubes, recyclable packs, but we don’t have the support supply chain in Bangladesh. Organikare is a lot more value-added because we have the ready to use packs, perfect for the busy urbanites. My target segment is everybody. We have a trial and error process, and it can go on for two years before we release anything in the market. I have a pride of being Bangladeshi, and I tell my people who work for me that let’s make a product that as a Bangladeshi we can be proud of, and has export quality.

What were the challenges of establishing Meena Herbal as a frontrunner? What do you to set yourself apart from your competitors?
It is an ongoing challenge since we are still leveraging our market base. We have established a presence, and have garnered word of mouth popularity. With the move from Meena Herbal to Organikare, we are going to establish a cohesive brand image for consumers to get on board with.

We want Organikare to become the Bangladeshi Forrest Essentials or Loccitane. We want to become the number one go-to brand when you talk about good herbal organic products from Bangladesh.

As global brands have cashed in and captured the Bangladesh market, how does Meena Herbal and Organikare retain their firm hold on the market?
We are working hard, and we will continue to work hard to establish ourselves as the go-to herbal organic health and wellness line. Globalization is ever-present and to survive in the world we have to create new markets and we have to create new products and this will help businesses expand. We are working towards becoming big players locally, and with Organikare we are ushering in a new era for the herbal cosmetics industry of Bangladesh.

What marketing or branding strategies are in place to build and sustain customer loyalty?
The good thing for Meena and Organikare is that we have had a good run, we have a good presence in modern retail. All the superstores carry our products, so that itself gives us a good name because we are a brand placed in good locations. Our customers can find us in Shwapno, Aranya, Unimart, Agora, Meena Bazaar. I keep getting suggestions to compromise on the quality for better revenue. I am a purist. I will not dilute the brand, and compromise on the quality of the product.

What are the shifting trends we will continue to see in the cosmetic industry?
It is going to be a fantastic game ahead. We used to sell Arjuna tree bark concoction and that’s a heart muscle strengthener, it strengthens the contractions of the heart, and gives a better cardiac output, which is good for people with blood pressure, heart failures – it has done wonders for them. We don’t sell it anymore, but people who ask us we make it for them. We used to have another ayurvedic concoction which was very good for stroke prevention. It is made out of aloe vera and turmeric juice. You don’t get amnesia if you have it on a regular basis, and it purifies your blood.
People can’t do without makeup but we still don’t have a Bangladeshi makeup brand, this will change. Many brands that are homegrown are flourishing and they will fill this market gap for a locally produced quality makeup brand. We have beautiful soaps in the market, I see many brands with only an online presence through Facebook and Instagram selling things I used to make before but stopped, now finally there are customers for those products.

Since AI and big data is becoming more and more prevalent within industries. Does Gemcon employ the use of AI and big data to get a feel for what consumers are looking for?
Through Meena Bazaar we are already getting into big data, and through our other brands, we are compiling data of our customers. We recently floated the business intelligence software so we are getting there. Bangladesh with 168 million people, the data is massive. The beauty is this large number of the population are trapped in 147, 500 sq. kilometers.

Are there new products in the pipeline that consumers can look forward to in 2019? What’s the most in-demand cosmetic product from the two lines?
There are – like a scalp nourishing oil, an anti-hair fall kit, herbal shampoo and maybe a new line. Our powder packs from Meena Herbal are very popular, and from Organikare our turmeric and aloe vera are in-demand. Once we have successfully integrated Meena Herbal under Oragnikare, we will be taking the step towards establishing a homegrown herbal cosmetic brand that offers quality while being affordable.

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Marjiya Ahmed is a literature student whose world is incomplete without music. Besides for listening to her favorite tracks, she fancies poetry