A visionary beyond compare, one of the pioneers to take the plunge into eCommerce in India, a ‘mediapreneur’ with the eyes on the horizon, a magnanimous philanthropist and a noted orator, Cochin Herald Editor-in-Chief Ansif Ashraf, who met an untimely end on January 27, was a man for all seasons. Read about the fascinating and inspiring journey of this extraordinary man who showed how dreams can be translated into reality
Renjith Leen –
As they say, many have sight, but only a few are blessed with vision. And fewer are the ones who really combine vision with venture and climb the stairs instead of merely staring at the steps, as eminent Czech statesman Vaclav Havel once put it. One such rare gem of purest ray serene was Ansif Ashraf, the Editor-in-Chief and helmsman of Cochin Herald; the owner of London-based news portal and magazine British Herald and Asian Herald, the soon-to-be-launched UAE-based online news platform. He made waves in the media industry and the entrepreneurial world armed with grit, foresight and oodles of self-confidence. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that chronicles can be written about this astute visionary’s jaw-dropping entrepreneurial journey starting from Kochi and spanning Britain, China and the UAE. He achieved so much in so little time and was eyeing more brands around the world to bring to the Herald stable when fate with her abhorred shears cut short his life on January 27, 2021. He was only 37. Cochin Herald takes readers through the fascinating saga of its guiding star.
A foretaste of the media industry
Born in Thane, Maharashtra, on November 15, 1983, to Dr Sheikh Mohammed Ashraf and Naseem Ashraf, Ansif had a good multi-lingual and multi-cultural exposure which stood him in good stead later on in life. It also helped him develop a broad outlook and see the world sans blinkers, something essential for an entrepreneur and media honcho. His first tryst with the media industry happened in his hometown in the early 90s. After relocating to Kochi, his father was instrumental in establishing Cochin Herald, a Sunday newspaper in Malayalam on November 1, 1992. He watched with awe and curiosity how Dr Mohammed deftly balanced the roles of managing director and editor-in-chief. The newspaper was the voice of the voiceless of the port city and carried articles aimed at the development of Kochi. Unfortunately, he had to step down following certain issues with the management a few years later. This painful episode remained etched in the mind of Ansif who vowed to be at the helm of Cochin Herald one day.
Making of an entrepreneur
Right from childhood, Ansif was determination personified and he admired his father a lot. It was Dr Mohammed who instilled in his eldest son the lofty principles and ideals that one needs to treasure while embarking on a career. After completing his studies from The Cochin College, a stone’s throw from his residence in Koovappadam, Ansif knew that a 9 am-to-5 pm-job was not his cup of tea. At that time, the dot com revolution was slowly gaining momentum in India and the young man was enticed by it. He had the vision to foresee information technology ruling the world and decided to take the plunge.
He started his career as a graphic designer, working from his residence at the dawn of the new millennium. He lost no time in starting a photography and designing studio in 2001. Ansif’s avid interest in technology and the internet unveiled the mine of opportunities in eCommerce, which was in its infancy in the country.
Rendezvous with Alibaba.com
During his days as a photographer, a friend told Ansif that photo printers and cartridges were cheaper in China. The tech-savvy novice entrepreneur lost no time in doing an online search only to stumble upon Chinese eCommerce firm Alibaba.com. He struck while the iron was hot by deciding to harness the opportunities provided by this site to begin an e-venture despite stiff opposition from his family as they did not want him to enter business. With the humble capital of Rs 2 lakh, his entire savings from his days as a shutterbug, Ansif began his entrepreneurial pursuits by importing photo printers from China. It was in 2006 that he started Paradise Group in Kochi trading in rubber and carbon black. In the bat of an eyelid, it grew phenomenally so much that he soon had offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai in China, Taipei in Taiwan and Samanabad in Pakistan. Two years down the line, he set up AGI Holdings to sell Centrifuge Separators. Later, it went on to become the sole distributor of Zhejiang Qingji Ind Co Ltd, China, in selling their separators in Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam and Malaysia. AGI was also able to deliver the technology required for manufacturing EMR fabric that helps deactivate bombs which are mobile triggered.
His outstanding success in e-Commerce was well noticed and he was one of the pioneers who popularised it in the country as a viable business option. It was an act of destiny that the very same online platform which catapulted him into the business world decided to honour him as a champion of eCommerce. In 2008, Alibaba chose Ansif as one of the world’s Top Ten e-Business Champions of the Year and felicitated him at the Small and Medium Enterprise Summit of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Hanghzhou, the global headquarters of the world’s largest business-to-business enterprise. And that was just the beginning.
A dream comes true
Ever since his father had to relinquish responsibilities in Cochin Herald in 1995, Ansif was determined to come to the helm of the publication one day. His dream came true in 2011 after earning a coveted position in the entrepreneurial world. After much effort, he was able to win control of the titles of Cochin Herald. What the father lost was regained by the son.
Banking on the vast pool of knowledge and experience gained from globe-trotting while forging new business deals, and after much discussions with experts, Ansif thought out of the box and decided to bring out Cochin Herald as an English business magazine from Kochi in 2012. He was supported in his decision by some of the doyens in the media and business domains such as eminent journalist Anand Parthasarathy and Avinash Naik, who was the then Head of Online Business at Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd. Incidentally, Parthasarathy is one of the mentors of the magazine, which brings to the limelight the crème de la crème of the business and startup realm in Kerala and abroad as well as change-makers and celebrities.
Wind in the sails of Cochin Herald
The first issue of the magazine featured V P Nandakumar, MD and CEO of Manappuram Finance Ltd, and it was released by the then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Since then, there has been no looking back and the magazine has reached coveted heights, earning the praise of ace businessmen, influencers and prominent NRKs in the GCC, Europe and USA. Its USP is its eclectic, unbiased mix of articles, including profiles, analyses and sector reports.
Ansif never stopped dreaming big and it was dreams and his staunch faith in the almighty that fuelled his stellar pursuits of success all throughout. Blessed with the Midas touch, he played an instrumental role in making the publication a brand to reckon with. It became the talk of the town when it began to host the annual Kerala State Business Excellence Awards (KSBEA) given away to top businessmen, politicians and administrators from 2012. It is an evening of glamour and splendour when achievers from various spheres rub shoulders with the elite fostering friendships and business ties as well. Even trailblazers hailing from fields as diverse as the media, philanthropy, governance, international relations and entertainment are feted during the gala ceremony. To make it more visible in the GCC, Ansif also organised the Global Leadership Awards in the UAE under the auspices of Cochin Herald. Some of the award winners include A M Gopalan of the Gokulam Group of Companies; Riaz Ahmed hailing from the Abad Group; Vinod Manjila of Double Horse brand; George Muthoot George of Muthoot Finance Ltd; Shrikanth Bhasi of Carnival Group and Dr Regeena J Murli, who is at the helm of the Jeppiar Group of Institutions.
In love with innovation, Ansif went one step ahead to widen the ambit of Cochin Herald, making it a specialised printer in the short-run book and self-publishing industry by bringing out books for clients – both individuals and organisations.
From Kochi to London
Despite his busy schedule as a honcho, Ansif found time to read and keep himself updated on all what is happening on the mediascape. The urge to aim for greater heights and expand the horizon made him dream even bigger. He surprised everyone with his decision to set up a media platform based in Britain, a sweet way of showing the former colonial masters that Indians are a force to reckon with. “I had a feeling that Cochin Herald’s orbit was limited to Kerala and its extended diaspora around the world. There was a boundary as the name itself suggests. That was when I dreamt of another outfit which was different and big at the same time,” he once told his friends.
It was the success stories of Indians who made it big in the UK that made him wish to gain a foothold in the British media industry. With the staunch support of his mentor Lord Ranger, a millionaire Indian-origin businessman and Member of the House of Lords, he successfully acquired the intellectual property rights of the brand “British Herald” in 2018 and restructured it into an online news and information delivery platform. Owned by Ansif’s Herald Media Network Ltd, UK, its office is located in tony Central London and the outfit leverages on its strengths in the digital media and communication market and it is emerging as one of the leading players in the new digital media landscape.
British Herald features original reportage, commentary and analysis spanning business, investment, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership and lifestyle and has Lord Ranger as its patron. “The Peer’s success story, struggle and achievements inspired me to take the plunge,” Ansif once said. Under the same moniker, British Herald also has a bi-monthly e-magazine which is available on Magzter, Amazonkindle and Issuu. A watershed occasion for the magazine was when its issue featuring British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the cover was endorsed by the Conservative Party leader himself. Ansif’s penchant to bring together people and build up ties became evident during the debut edition of British Herald’s Business Leadership Awards in London on October 11, 2019. The glittering event saw the participation of a host of businessmen, international dignitaries and celebrities. The award winners included London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Gopichand Hinduja of the Hinduja Group, Lord Ranger, fashion designer Karen Millen, MOBO Awards founder Kanya King and actor Ali Fazal. Her Royal Highness Princess Katarina, singer Kanika Kapoor and British actor Preeya Kalidas were among the elite attendees. He is also one of the privileged few media personalities from India to become a member of the London Press Club.
The Herald Honcho
One starry evening last year, Ansif walked into the ballroom of a plush hotel in Kochi for a soiree. Suited and booted for the occasion, he traipsed in when his friends and acquaintances encircled him and said in unison ‘here comes the Herald Man’. They were right in awarding him that moniker as he is known as the man behind two stellar publications. When they jokingly asked him if another Herald would make an entry, Ansif surprised them with the answer. “Yes, indeed. I have acquired the licence for Asian Herald in the UAE.” With British Herald making waves and Cochin Herald becoming a brand of repute in Kerala, Ansif eyed a slice of the Asian domain and acquired the media licence for Asian Herald, which was originally founded in March 2001 in the US as the world’s first online news portal for the Asian diaspora. Based in Sharjah, it is all set for take-off. Its licence was awarded by the UAE’s National Media Council and will be based in Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone, bringing information and news to 48 Asian nations.
No full stops for accolades
Ansif’s fascinating achievements have also fetched him a series of accolades. He was feted by His Excellency Dr Hamad Al Shaibani, Director General of Dubai Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department, at the landmark Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai in 2019 when Cochin Herald was chosen by the emirate as its media partner for Ramadan Dubai 2019. A wizard of the digital domain, his technical prowess was recognised by the Public Relations Society of India and The Telegraph daily and he was presented the Engage 2019 Digital Innovation Award by Prof Saikat Maitra, Vice Chancellor of Abul Kalam Azad University of Technology. The glittering ceremony was attended by dignitaries, including British Deputy High Commissioner Bruce Bucknell.
On August 5, 2019, he was invited by the prestigious Adamas University in Kolkata to give a lecture to the students of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication. Thanks to his impressive track record and authentic credentials, Ansif was made the Brand Ambassador of Alleem in the UAE. The award was organised by Alleem Knowledge Center, one of the most esteemed centres for cutting-edge thinking, best learning practices and research on advance business management in the emirates.
A man of faith and ethics
In spite of his stellar growth in business, Ansif never lost his moorings with his childhood friends, relatives and people in the neighbourhood. Anyone could approach him for help and he could be sure about it. In fact, his rock-hard faith in God, strict adherence to religious principles and pearls of advice from his father made the young entrepreneur never compromise on ethics or sincerity. Deeply spiritual, he believed that the balance in creation governs this world. Over the years, he met different personalities who exerted a considerable amount of influence on him. “Learning about life is not limited to schools or educational institutions. If you can grasp a portion of how others live their life and apply it to your life, then that is also learning. In order to be a successful person, one has to be a good person in life. Being humble, calm and rational in both mind and action is the best way to achieve these qualities, especially when you are an entrepreneur,” he once said.
Ansif was one who always fondly acknowledged the people who guided and mentored him and one such person is Arun Pasricha, a businessman hailing from Punjab whom he met in Kochi. He was one of the first to recognise the entrepreneur in young Ansif, who heeded the Punjabi’s advice – to grow big in business, one has to associate or partner oneself with others. This made him first foray into the rubber trade from the world of photography.
Once when asked about how he managed to stay cool despite juggling different responsibilities, Ansif said the secret lay in meditation and anger management, which he learnt from noted Islamic scholar and preacher Mufti Ismail Menk, the Grand Mufti of Zimbabwe, whom he met in Kochi once. That meeting paved the way for a long and rewarding friendship.
Big admirer of Kalam
Being a man who dreamt and strove to realise them, it was but natural that Ansif venerated former President and Missile Man of India, the late A P J Abdul Kalam. His admiration for this great man made him translate it into a venture to inspire and nurture the youth of the country. In 2018, Ansif was appointed the Secretary General of the Kerala chapter of A P J Abdul Kalam International Foundation run by the family of the former president. He had the privilege of receiving the official letter from Kalam’s elder brother Muthu Meera Lebbai Maraicker at the House of Kalam in the coastal town of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.
Too full of the milk of human kindness
In spite of being an astute businessman, Ansif had the rare trait of being considerate and compassionate. While ascending the ladder of success, he aspired to bring a change to the lives of the less fortunate. That was why he set up Insan Charitable Trust, which is also based in Kochi. He was inspired by the glowing example of his grandmother Roukiya Bi, a towering personality in the Muslim community in those days. One of the very few women who fought odds at a time when education for girls was considered ‘haram, she went on to become an Urdu and Quran teacher at Zanana Madrassa Islamia under Mrs Aasia Bai, another stalwart. Insan has partnered with recognised establishments to undertake charitable initiatives, including sending a large consignment of relief materials to war-ravaged Syria. Ansif played a pivotal role in procuring the materials and shipping them on time.
“I came to the understanding that leaving pecuniary wealth when you leave the world gives nothing to society. If you have to leave a legacy it needs to be more than monetary wealth. You are only remembered for what you have left for the people to remember and through that you are remembered always,” he once said.
An end too soon
To galvanise efforts to launch Asian Herald portal, Ansif shifted base to the UAE in the latter half of 2020 and was successful in opening an office in Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone. Everything went on like clockwork as the hawk-eyed ‘mediapreneur’ left no stone unturned in correcting glitches and preparing for the formal launch of the portal in 2021 when he suddenly took ill and was diagnosed with coronavirus towards the end of January. He experienced uneasiness and breathed his last on January 27. His mortal remains were laid to rest at the Sharjah Khabarsthan (Muslim cemetery) on February 2.
His unexpected demise sent shockwaves across his vast network of friends and acquaintances and the media world, and tributes came flowing in. He is survived by his wife, Ramzeen, two sons, mother Naseem and brother Arshad.