As owner of one of the UK's largest volume suppliers of rice with a turnover of £36m and an additional £9m abroad, you would expect Moni Varma to be pretty happy with his lot. But there is always room for improvement, he believes.

After 20 years producing rice for supermarket own-label and under its own brand, Varma has signalled a new era for the company - branching out into microwaveable rice, pasta and curry sauces in an attempt to shift focus to the more value-added end of the market.

"We want to produce convenience rice of a restaurant quality and to do that we have had to spend a lot of money," he says.

"It's an ambitious project that we're undertaking but we hope to have the rice ranges in production in mid March and the pasta in three months. The curries are about six months away yet."

So far £25m has been invested, £12m of which was spent on a new factory near Veetee's other site in Kent, but Varma anticipates the final figure will be much higher.

The move also marks a new emphasis on the Veetee brand. "When Veetee started we had to do a lot of own-label work, which allowed us to keep our head above water," says Varma. "Right now our focus is on promoting our own brand. What's exciting me now is the value-added side of the market."

Veetee has its work cut out. In a market dominated by Masterfoods' Uncle Ben's brand, worth £80m, and with Tilda by far the next biggest brand at £32m, there's plenty of competition.

"Rice is always going to be a commodity," concedes Varma, "but there's no stopping NPD. I don't want to do something that has been done before. If other players have been doing it then I'm not interested. What is the point of just adding to something?"

Varma hopes to set Veetee apart from its competitors by using specialist equipment that he claims is the first of its kind in the UK, although he is keeping the finer details under wraps.

"I realised a long time ago that to make money out of rice I had to bring in variation.

"We have looked at many opportunities for growth and expansion over the past few years but one thing I didn't want was Veetee being just another product on the shelf." Varma is hoping his latest venture will boost sales by some £50m. He plans to more than double the company's UK turnover to £100m within five years and he also wants to branch out into new areas.

"I think we should be in the chilled and frozen sectors as well as ambient sectors," he says.

"In the long term we have a projected turnover of £150m and we can supply everywhere in Europe from the two factories that we have in Kent."

Despite the dominance of the Tilda and Uncle Ben's brands, Varma insists it is not difficult for Veetee to get listings, which are equally split between the multiples and ­independents.

One problem the company has faced, however, is counterfeit rice, which prompted a drop of 25-30% in Veetee's profits back in 2002.

"In days gone by it was a big problem. Every time we went to supermarkets saying basmati cost £1,000 they would say they would only pay £400 because of the counterfeit rice situation. It created a lot of difficult sales losses."

He says an industry crackdown and new technical developments to test the authenticity of basmati rice have helped remedy the problem and that counterfeits are not such an issue for the business any longer. "It's like anything. When you get something very cheap you know it's probably not right."

Even so, the rice market remains challenging. When he formed the company back in 1986 the EEC imposed a levy of £450/tonne on imported white rice, whereas brown rice could be imported at the much lower rate of £200/tonne.

This was a major influence in his decision to enter the industry. However, he set up his own mill in the UK to produce white rice much more cheaply than importing it.

But this levy system is disappearing and the margins involved with milling your own rice have fallen.

"I believe rice milling will go back to the country of origin, which is going to be a big challenge," he says. "But I think a few mills will survive in the UK."

Not that this fazes a man who has spent the past 20 years ­building a successful rice business.

"Many people would have run away because of the hard work involved in this business and the uncertainties. But not me."

Take note Uncle Ben's.n