The interview - Anil Vora

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2000, 12:00am

Anil Vora is usually described, in the occasional news items which surface about him here, as an inventor. He is the managing director of a Hong Kong company called Global Inventions, which makes a variety of unexpected items. If you have ever perused those glossy catalogues which fall out of overseas Sunday supplements, offering gizmos you never knew you needed - Personalised handheld megaphones! A hundred Bible phrases on a computer screen shaped like a crucifix! - and found yourself wondering who on earth thought them up, the answer is, possibly, Anil Vora (and in those two examples, definitely Anil Vora).

He has a showroom and office on Mody Road where we met for tea and biscuits, provided by his wife, Pravina. Vora sat under a sign which read 'Ovulation Watch - US$8.95' and I sat next to several shelves of what looked like standard watches and calculators. The trademark flair which distinguishes the products of Global Inventions, however, is their combination of several functions in an often unexpected fashion. Some of those watches, for instance, were also mosquito repellents, or mosquito repellents combined with torches or watches which tell you how many calories you are burning while jogging or what the outside temperature is.

Vora, who has a wide, elastic smile and twinkly eyes, is by way of being an innovation himself, resembling as he does an engaging Indian leprechaun. When I told him this, he laughed agreeably. He's a highly agreeable man: every time I made a comment, even a contradictory one, Vora said, 'You are right!' which made this one of the more delightful interviews I've done.

He dates his first invention to his childhood in Kenya in 1953, when he was a six-year-old who disliked going to the outside lavatory in snake-infested darkness and came up with the shoe-cum-torch (note that he was in combination mode even then). Unfortunately, the shoes he cut up to insert bulbs and batteries were his mother's, for which she gave him a hearty slap. 'I was a mischievous person, a little mischievous engineer,' beamed Vora. Fast-forward 18 years and young Vora, now a graduate of Birmingham University, is working for the Birmingham firm of Joseph Lucas, which makes generators and dynamos. 'I was a naughty boy and they kicked me out. I was experimenting.' On what? Vora paused. 'Different things I was not supposed to do.' Despondent, he went to London, where he seems to have reinvented himself. His career zig-zagged from postman to proprietor of a lingerie shop to player in the property market. There were a few Vora-esque ventures: 'Do you remember a ruler with a calculator inside? That was my idea way back in '81. Then I put a clock inside it.' But it wasn't until he came to Hong Kong in June 1993 that Global Inventions sprang to life.

His first newsworthy idea was the Gusty. Vora reached into a corner of the room and unsuperstitiously popped open an umbrella. 'I saw my little wife standing at a bus-stop one day, holding her umbrella with difficulty,' he explained. 'Thank the Lord I was driving my car, so I picked her up. But I had a vision to overcome that problem.' He put his hands into four holes, each covered with a flap, and explained that as these vented the air pressure, the umbrella wouldn't blow inside out. 'I had to use my engineering knowledge to make the vents the right size and contour.' The Gusty was a success - even that retail behemoth, Wal-mart, ordered some - but it didn't have a double-up function (unless you count Vora's musings that it was 'like a parachute') and so he moved on to the Penperf. The Penperf, as you will have guessed from its name, was a combination of writing implement and scent dispenser. Vora loved mathematics at school so I asked him to give the Penperf marks out of 10, and he said 40 (the Gusty got 65). The No-Burp Milk Bottle should have followed, and in fact samples were made, but there have been tedious problems in production. 'You need a lot of what are called safety standards,' explained Vora.

Then there was the Mobile Squelcher, unveiled in October. This inspired gadget, when pointed at any mobile telephone, instantly ended all conversation by scrambling the signals, and would have made Vora his fortune in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority, like Mrs Vora in Kenya, didn't see the brilliance behind the concept, and issued its own metaphorical slap.

'Knuckles rapped,' explained Vora briefly, looking momentarily embarrassed. I said there must be lots of similar social problems just waiting to be solved in Hong Kong and he cried, 'Tell me, tell me! I'll pay you a royalty!' This reminded me to ask a vulgar question: is it a lucrative business? 'You are quite right!' replied Vora. 'Most inventors have lovely ideas but are usually broke. I was a frustrated inventor but now I'm a marketing company. Other inventors come to us and we manufacture things.

Let me tell you a few recent ideas. Here' - he reached towards a shelf - 'are binoculars with built-in radio.' I wondered who might seek out this combination and Vora said, 'People going horse-racing.' (Later on, he showed me a lengthy retail description which said they'd also be ideal for theatregoers. I doubted this would go down well with other members of the audience and Vora said, after a moment's sober reflection, 'You are right. It's a misprint.') 'Now this is an interesting idea,' he continued, demonstrating a loo-roll-holder with attached radio and, bafflingly, a button labelled 'Emergency Siren'. 'This is so you can listen to the radio when you go to the toilet,' explained Vora. How's it doing? 'Good, good, six or seven marks out of 10.' He pointed to a kitchen-paper dispenser, also with radio and siren, and remarked, 'That's from listening to what you folks, women, want.' He has, he says, one great inventive dream. He went off to get a piece of paper to show me while Pravina came in to take away the teacups, and said, affectionately, 'He's too honest, he's always giving away too much.' Vora returned, sat down and drew a diagram of a bag, containing a membrane, which, if filled with dirty water, would provide filtered, drinkable water in two hours. He's working on the concept with someone in England, and the pair have applied for a patent, and would like to liaise with one of the big charities for the bag's distribution. No attached radios, no temperature gauges, no talking translators, just pure water.

I said that sounded like good karma to me and Vora said, 'Thank you. This is really next to my heart, if I can do it. This would crown all the effort, basically. It would make me a very, very, happy person.'