Building a business around refugees seeking that first job

India-born founder’s tea venture gives migrants a leg up

A chance conversation at a restaurant with a group of refugees in North London brought home to entrepreneur Pranav Chopra, how having one’s asylum claim accepted was far from the end of the difficult journey for many who had come to Britain seeking refuge.

Finding a sustainable livelihood remained a major challenge, with employers often paying little regard to the years of experience or academic study they’d built up at home — whether as a political journalist or a mechanical engineer. “The unemployment rate within the refugee community is around six times it is in society more widely… I really wanted to tackle the issue which is getting that first job in the U.K.,” said Mr. Chopra, who was born in New Delhi but has lived in Australia, New Zealand and now the U.K., formerly working as a management consultant.

Last year, he set up NEMI, formerly Chaigaram, a U.K.-based business selling Indian tea blends to cafes across Britain as well as tea stalls at markets across the country. Mr. Chopra said he hoped to expand to other areas, focusing on fair trade produce from food and coffee to clothing, with a focus on helping refugees and others who struggle to get on the employment ladder, including the homeless and ex-offenders.

Tapping demand

He said he hoped that this would tap into rising demand for and knowledge of chai across the West, and has advisors from some of London’s top Indian restaurants, including Vivek Singh from the Cinnamon Club. “We want to make chai a household name across Britain and believe that we would be filling a significant gap in the market.”

To date, the company has taken on 12 refugees, many of who have moved on to other jobs, further education and in one case even setting up his own business. “Some have applied for hundreds of jobs but never been given a chance before.” Mr. Chopra has teamed up with the Refugee Council, a U.K.-based NGO working with refugees, to identify people who would benefit from working with them. Running the tea stalls has proved particularly helpful to refugees who may be reticent in using the English-language skills they’ve built up, and are only in need of a nudge to build up confidence.

“They are making freshly brewed tea, practising their English, educating people about chai, the spices and the health benefits.” As the business scales up Mr. Chopra aims to be able to give refugees more and more opportunities to exercise a diverse range of skills from being regional sales managers to accounts, and in the media.