From Tanzania to New York: Success Saga of School Dropout Indian-Origin Signage Entrepreneur Babu Khalfan


New York-based entrepreneur Babu Khalfan is fourth generation of Indian-origin Tanzanian nationals. He visited Mumbai recently in search of ways to pay back to the country where his great grandfather was born and brought up. Successful businessman of signage industry both in Tanzania and United States, Babu Khalfan had a talk with Maeeshat Managing Editor Danish Reyaz on plethora of issues related to his personality, profession and future business plan.

Babu Khalfan
Babu Khalfan

Babu Khalfan, you are in Mumbai and planning to open a signage institute in India’s commercial capital. What is the idea behind this venture?

I have been involved in the signage business for almost 50 years now in the United States’ New York City, one of the biggest commercial cities in the world. Thanks to God, I have been very successful in my venture. About 15-17 people, who are very close to me, have also been involved in the same business and have achieved great success.

As for my Mumbai plan, I have always thought of training young people and bringing them to the signage business. As my son has taken over my business, I have lot of time which I want to use to share my knowledge and experience that I gained all these years. I don’t want to sit idle at home and just relax, so I decided to do something for the youth in India. This is my current interest and imparting the knowledge I have is my motto right now.

Can you kindly tell us about yourself, your native place, your generation in Tanzania and how you entered this business?

I am the fourth generation of Indians in Africa. I was born and raised in Madagascar and started my career in Tanzania. I was an artist by nature as was my family. So I started by doing signage for painting-board, sign board and other things. Slowly, the business grew and became big. Ten years later, by the time I left Africa in 1969-70, my business had become very big but there were some problems in Tanzania for Indians and I decided that I had to move. I decided to go to the United States. I settled down in New York and started my business all over again and slowly slowly it turned into a big business. Right now, mine is one of the biggest companies in New York City involved in high-end architectural signage business. My sons have taken over the job. I think there are vast opportunities throughout the world. There is no signage training centre anywhere in the world. I have checked in the United States and Europe – there is none. My upcoming Mumbai signage institute will be the first of its kind in the world.

What is the future of the signage business in India?

India is growing unlike any other country and it’s growing fast. After China, India is the focus of the world, so India will have to basically comply with the world standards like for instance, ADA (American Disability Act) requires several things for the handicapped. That is linked with signage through Braille signs. The Braille signs are need of blind people. The blindness consists of several stages — those who are completely blind have to feel and those who are partially blind can see a little bit. For such people, the letter, its size and color are to be so different and contrast.

New roadways, buildings and public places are being built everywhere in India and they all need signages. All big cities of India will need signage and it’s not something that you build and it remains good for 100 years. It’s good for 10-12 years and then people have to change the signage again. In this period, new designs come in, new products come in and a lot of different stuffs. So if you start now in India, the country will really benefit from the signage facilities in 10-15 years from now.

You mentioned that there is no institute of signage in the world. Why are you going to establish a signage institute in India and why have you chosen Mumbai for it?

I started from Delhi, then I went to Gujarat where I visited couple of universities imparting knowledge about design and signage. Now I am in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India and a big city known throughout the world. It’s growing fast. The last time I came to Mumbai a few years ago, there was no sky way, no proper highways, nothing of that sort and then suddenly there are big bridges, big skyways — in 10 years things have changed completely. Mumbai is the place where there is diversity — people speak also in English and the world knows Mumbai as a major city of India.

Who can take admission in your signage institute and what is the criteria and qualification for admission?

You should know basic language, basic maths and measurement basics, then you can easily learn signage. I am a school dropout but I am an artistic person and had a zeal for doing business, so slowly I grew my business and have come to be what I am today. There are very few people in the signage business. There is no General Motors yet in this industry, there is no one place where you can go and learn signage and that is what I am trying to create here in India.

What will be job opportunities for the graduates of your signage institute?

That’s a very interesting question. I do not know much as I am new in India. In the United States, there are lots of signage industries. However, it is hard to find people with skills — there is no fabricator, no etcher or no engraver in the start. So my Mumbai institute will be a training ground for such people and it will not be limited for Indians only. My plan is to bring people from all around the world to this institute. People can come here and go back to their countries and build a business of their own with their own technical knowledge and explore the wide areas of the signage industry.

You have said that signage business has three parts and you are trying to establish the first part which is education. What are the other parts of this business?

As part of our business in New York, we buy some materials, which are fabricated signs, from China. We train students in graphic designs for signage. The entire subject of signage will give them knowledge about the materials, some knowledge about engineering, little bits of architecture, they’ll also know about designs etc. The Second part is manufacturing. People can come to India and buy the products in relatively cheaper prices than in other countries. The market is very huge and the opportunity to achieve something out of it is very easy. There are so many products in the signage business which can be seen in trade shows that can give an idea about the huge array of products used. Third part is distribution. Signage is a complex product and requires special material, special equipment, and everything special. So, we will also be involved in supplying the signage products which will make us a one-stop shop for all signage needs. You learn, you manufacture and if you start a business in signage you can get materials from the same place.

You are in Mumbai for some days. What responses have you got from people about your idea?

I have met several people for this project and there is not a single person who has given any negative response. I am really encouraged, and it is increasing everyday with the positive responses I am getting about this idea. Everybody understands the concept and wants me to proceed with it.

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