These are thoughts shared in an emailed interview with the AgriBusiness and Food Industry magazine (published in the November 2014 issue.)
A Perspective on the Indian market:
Our first word of advice to companies that are looking at India as an evolving and large market, is to acknowledge the fact that that it has very diverse cuisines and food cultures.
Both Indian and international companies wishing to enter this market for the first time need to understand and acknowledge that one-size certainly does not fit everyone.
The variety of finished products needed requires food companies to address smaller quantities and to have flexible production.
Therefore, suppliers of capital equipment and technology also need to be able to think about how they can make their solutions more flexible to adapt to changing market needs, and also to price them appropriately for the Indian market. Simply extending solutions that work in large, developed markets such as Western Europe and North America is not the best approach.
I would use the example of one of our clients, a manufacturer of bakery automation equipment, who have approached the market with an open mind. After initial investigations they have gone back to the drawing board and created production lines that have smaller capacity, can produce multiple products including Indian specialities, and which are techno-commercially more feasible for an Indian customer to adopt.
There is no reason to think that India’s food industry should follow exactly the same development curve as the west. The population is much larger, with significantly lower income, and needs that are far more diverse and changing far more rapidly than in most other economies. The technical and technological models for India need to be strongly focussed on four major attributes:
Agricultural, horticultural and animal husbandry practices and technologies, as well as those in the downstream sectors such as food processing, need to perhaps even look at setting new benchmarks for accessibility and long-term sustainability.
Food processing and the Indian consumer market:
Food processing has been part of human history since we learned to transform hunted, gathered and farmed raw products into new foods through curing, cooking, culturing etc. This processing has been driven by mainly two major factors: to make the raw material into a product that is more palatable and easily consumed (for example, from raw grains to bread), or to extend the storage life of the raw material (for example, in the form of cheese, pickles, or sweets, or using cooling and freezing).
However, during the last century, processing has been driven mostly by “convenience” by providing partly or fully cooked options, to reduce the time spent by individuals in cooking and to instead apply that time to activities outside home. Social structures in India are changing, as individuals are migrating out of their home-towns to other locations within the country. The number of households is increasing dramatically, while cooking time and cooking skills are both declining. With this, out-of-home consumption as well as partially or fully-cooked packaged foods are bound to rise, leading to greater need of food processing capacities.
Also, with increasing industrialisation of food manufacturing, standards have become important both for efficiency and for safety. We’re seeing signs of such development happening in recent years in India as well – expectations of both consumers as well as regulatory authorities are higher with each passing year. The industry needs to invest proactively in better technology and processes in all areas – cultivation, handling, processing, packaging, storage and transportation – to raise the standards of hygiene, safety, traceability etc.
Food productivity needs urgent attention:
India is among the largest producers of many agricultural products. However, our yields per head of workforce, per animal, per hectare, or per litre of water consumed can be improved significantly. Not only is the population growing, but per capita consumption of most products will rise as the economic situation of each family unit changes. Better practices, technologies and know-how need to be acquired and applied to dramatically improve Indian agricultural productivity.
An interesting model of development to look at is the “golden triangle” approach followed by the Netherlands – active and intensive cooperation between the government, academic institutions and the private sector.
So far, by and large, academic institutions in India have limited themselves to “teaching” and have stayed away from actively collaborating with industry. Academic institutions and the industry typically connect only for the occasional “lecture” by senior individual from industry, or during the time of recruitment of fresh talent. Government largely limits itself to creating macro-level policies. More effective communication and coordination between these three legs could help to dramatically improve the standards in the agricultural and food sector in India and make the nation not just self-sufficient but significantly more competitive in both cost and quality of the final products.
Similarly, active collaboration within the industry itself is important to achieve combined growth, which can only happen if companies step beyond the usual industry association framework.
Local production and service of food processing equipment is an important factor:
In cases where the market is large enough, local production of the equipment should certainly be investigated because it can help to bring down the initial capital cost for customers, and also provide a quicker service and support base.
A first step that a company takes is to create a local presence, either through a distributor or agent, or by directly opening a sales and service office of its own. However, most international companies need to gain a certain degree of confidence in the market, both in terms of sustained demand and in terms of operating conditions, before they would invest in manufacturing in India, since it takes a whole different level of management commitment as well as financial involvement.
With the announcement of the government’s “Make in India” initiative, hopefully more international companies will come forward to take advantage of the changing operating environment in the country.
(If you’re in a hurry, go to the Slideshare presentation, and bookmark this post for a complete read later.)
These pages usually focus on the consumer and retail sector, its constituents, its problems and the opportunities therein.
The consumer and retail sector is all about choice, and it is worth noting that we’ve just concluded what was possibly the most massive consumer event in the world. I’m referring, of course, to the Indian elections, where more than 500 “consumers” were bombarded with above-the-line and below-the-line marketing by various organisations pushing their brand, product (candidate) and services (ideology and manifesto).
The sum total of analyses of India’s 2014 election results already exceeds what one sane person can read in a lifetime. The BJP and its allies have won a majority of seats unprecedented among non-Congress alliances, in the first-past-the-post system. While opinions may be fractured, the Parliamentary mandate is clear.
In this context and in this spirit, it is also relevant for us to take the big picture view. Retail is a sector that touches the lives of virtually every citizen of this country on a daily basis. So anything that affects their lives and their aspirations have a direct bearing on the retail business as well.
India’s citizens are creative and entrepreneurial. They are hungry for growth. While they are respectful of heritage, they are also devastated by the decline that has come about over decades, centuries, and are determined to change this situation. What they need is the government to shoulder its responsibilities.
If there is one narrative that can pull diverse, divided strands of opinion together, it is “inclusive growth”. Throughout his campaign Narendra Modi has repeated the mantra: “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (literally “all together, development for all”). In recent weeks, on more than one occasion he has extended this to mean pulling together the efforts of leaders across the political spectrum as well. At the time of this writing, the Prime Minister elect Modi has already set out to manage expectations. He has positioned himself as “mazdoor (labourer) no. 1”, and is asking the electorate for 10-years, making it amply clear that there is no magic broom to remove the dirt of corruption overnight, nor a magic hand that will conjure out ever-increasing incomes out of bottomless magic pockets.
While there are many problems to be tackled at the macro and the micro-level, I think the “business of government” can be captured broadly in an 8-point agenda, and each of these has a significant bearing on the consumers of this country, and the businesses they transact with:
1. Healthcare: While India’s average life-expectancy has improved steadily since Independence it still hangs in the mid-60s while China’s and Brazil’s is over 73. India offers less than one bed for every thousand of its citizens, while both China and Brazil are well over 2. The United Kingdom, whose National Health Service is constantly lambasted as being “overstretched”, offers about 4 hospital beds per 1000 people, and the average for former British colonies is also around 4. Public healthcare infrastructure in India – from primary to speciality – remains critically under-funded, and the public hospitals that exist are chronically under-equipped and under-staffed. Where equipment exists, it is underutilised, as commission-seeking individuals refer patients to the burgeoning private clinics and hospitals. Over the last decade or so private healthcare providers have achieved prominence in the media and among investors, and concessional access to public infrastructure and assets such as land, but they have proved to be consistently out of reach of the general public. Livelihoods and family savings are routinely destroyed in the search for better-quality healthcare in the new, profit-maximising business models. Health should be every citizen’s fundamental right, as one of the foundation stones of a strong nation. It is a right that is denied daily to hundreds of millions. Providing health support is the core business of the government, and needs urgent attention and substantial investment dispersed nationally.
2. Power: India’s power consumption average is about one-third of the Chinese average and less than a tenth of the USA, and this is not only because Indians have smaller homes or live more frugally, but because hundreds of millions of Indians spend most of their days and nights without electricity. If you think you can get a sense of the deprivation from a household that gets power a few hours a day, you actually have to visit one where power availability has improved due to grid power or micro or off-grid availability through solar or biomass units – the enormous impact that the improved power availability has on the lifestyle, livelihood and quality of life can only be truly gauged then. Across the nation, private participation has been invited into the power sector at different times, but the execution has been mixed. Private companies would also like to serve those areas where population concentration and decent financials allow the private provider to create a profitable business. Large swathes of the Indian population lie outside of such areas, and the onus is upon the government to provide the required electricity for households to live a fuller life, for students to complete their lessons, for healthcare and administrative facilities to run effectively, for small entrepreneurs to be able to grow their businesses.
3. Clean water: Imagine one train crash every day of the year, each killing all passengers on board. Sounds catastrophic, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that get some serious attention? Well, it is estimated that around 1600 deaths are caused every day by diarrhoea alone (higher than the train wreck fatalities), and that 21% of communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water. The problem is not only in far flung villages, but acute even in the largest cities of the country. Both those numbers are shamefully high for a nation that wants to see itself as a global superpower. There are no technological gaps for effectively harnessing the existing water resources, and for maintaining cleaning, distribution and recovery systems – only management gaps.
4. Transportation infrastructure: While India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, at about 20 kilometres per 1,000 sq km of land area it compares unfavourably to highly industrialised European countries (Germany: 115 km per thousand sq. km., UK: 65, France: 53) or even the large less densely populated USA (26 km per thousand sq. km.). On road development India’s picture has improved in the last 15 years, but it still trails world-leading economies in terms of length as well as quality. Poor transportation systems cut people off from economic opportunities, and force them to migrate to already overloaded cities, perpetuating problems in both urban and rural areas. Historically, all strong nations, democratic or otherwise, have flourished due to extensive, superior transportation networks. Where people and goods can move quickly and freely, both trade and culture flourish, and build the strongest ties that bind people together.
5. Education: This is another area which has systematically been under-invested in by the government. From pre-schools to universities, the growth of educational institutions for the last 30-40 years has predominantly been in private hands, where affordability is not the prime driver. The number of seats in government-run institutions has not grown in proportion with the population, let alone in correlation with the demand. Access remains a problem, as does the quality. There is no reason why government-run educational institutions need to be bad – there are enough examples around the country within government schools and colleges, where organisational systems and individual intent produces excellence. Without immediate and adequate government focus on education, the massive young population of India will go waste, at worst it would be a ticking time-bomb of under-skilled frustrated underachievers.
6. Environment: This might seem like a strange inclusion in this “development-oriented” list. However, it is essential that the environment should be on a list of core items that the government needs to manage well. The government is usually in the news for either not doing enough (such as not monitoring the systematic encroachment in and destruction of the Aravalli Hills) or, at the other extreme, getting in the way by holding back environmental approvals to development projects. Another term for the environment is “the commons”, reflecting that the natural resources belong to the people, together. The commons need not just protection, but regeneration, resurgence. Defence and political experts around the world list climate change and clashes over natural resources as among the highest conflict risks in coming years, and the evidence is frequently visible. When “growth” is measured only by those activities that extract and deplete the common resources, support and encouragement is provided for those individuals and companies that do this the “best”. It is short-termism and selfishness of the worst sort. Evidence of large scale climate-related changes and the debilitating impact on civilisations exists around the world and across the span of history; the closest might be the Ganga-Saraswati civilisation that is said to have dispersed due to the depletion of one of its greatest rivers. We don’t even need to forecast huge impacts far into the future. Millions of Indians increasingly are born and live with chronic diseases that are related to deteriorating air quality, depleted water resources, polluted soils and disappearing vegetation. Indigenous natural species of plants and animals are declining, mostly invisible to the nation at large. A comprehensive, evolving framework is needed that goes beyond short-term planning and management by knee-jerk reactions.
7. Competition: This is an area which requires little investment, relative to the other items on this list, but a huge amount of intent and follow-through. No economic system is perfect and, indeed, it is the imperfections and discontinuities that provide business opportunities. When the imperfections are exploited by many, competitive forces balance each other out. The need to diversify is well-understood by people who care to think about risks. Concentration of efforts, resources, power behind a few initiatives or organisations can bring about disproportionately good results, but also creates the risk of wipeout. Diversity is a challenge because it creates fragmentation, but it is also an essential source of innovation, combating not just present risks but future threats as well. Self-moderation is too much to expect from even the most enlightened of large business leaders and even the most progressive of industries. Anti-competitive and customer protection frameworks have improved in recent years, but are still understaffed and underequipped. As the economy grows, so does the need to provide oversight against unethical behaviour by large organisations.
8. Accountability: None of the above can truly happen without transparency in governance, and productivity in public service i.e. respect for schedules, budgets and commitments. Measures such as Right to Information (RTI) have moved the country several steps up the transparency ladder, but accountability to “service deliverables” is still missing in a vast number of people employed in government departments. Entry into “government service” is seen as a ticket to a reasonably comfortable employment if you are inclined to not rock the boat. The idea is to not question the status quo as far as possible, and to ensure that the outcomes for the “overclass” are taken care of. This attitude needs to change. In fact a small start could be made by replacing the phrase “government service” with “public service” – the business of government is to serve the public at large, and this needs to be recognised and acknowledged by everyone involved in it. Efforts in all the other areas will fall flat if accountability and productivity are not embedded into the money and efforts invested. (Imagine if we could sign SLAs – service level agreements – with each and every individual hired for public service roles!) The roles that accountability brings with it include “upholding the law” and “enabling an environment where each citizen has a fair chance of success”.
Someone else might come up with a slightly different list – this is mine, the seven pillars and the overarching beam. I’ve not listed the areas in any specific order of priority. Some of them need more government intervention, some need less private intervention, a few (such as education) need both. These are all areas that are the foundation on which everything else is built. These are the areas which, to a very large extent, determine the levels of dignity with which a country’s citizens lead their lives.
In this day and age, the government is not needed to run steel mills, airlines or even handicraft retail stores. But without high quality and high availability ensured by the government in the above areas, even the most capable individual will find it easier to build a life and even the best private enterprise will find it more profitable to do business elsewhere in the world.
A much-followed new-generation business leader recently rhetorically asked in a social media post that, if we have an economy swinging towards services with a large chunk of it being technology, “Why do we need government?”
The reasons above, my friend, are why and where we need government, because business is not delivering on these areas in an equitable manner, and these are areas where technology will not necessarily provide all the answers. We have years of evidence of this, in some cases decades, and it is time we choose to move.
By and large, most people would rather choose to move something, than move somewhere (else). And the retail business will be one of the first to benefit.
Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?
To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)
For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.
The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.
In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.
Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.
Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.
However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.
Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)
And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)
The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.
Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.
A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:
“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”
I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.
Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”
In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”
So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?
[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle sparked off a debate on whether ecologically friendly can be mainstream, whether customers will switch from traditional to eco-friendly fashions and if so, when. There is the view that eco-friendly products are necessarily niche and cannot match up in fashionability and affordability to ‘mainstream’ products.
I don’t think it is an either/or choice between styling and eco-friendly. To sell, eco-friendly merchandise absolutely MUST be comparable to or better than eco-unfriendly merchandise, both in style and quality.
Pricing is another story. The article also quotes Joslin Van Arsdale (founder of Eco Citizen, a San Francisco boutique devoted to Earth-friendly clothing) as saying, “When it comes to buying green or price, the general public will more likely choose the cheaper item on anything, whether it’s fashion or tomatoes.”
While most consumers will not willingly pay higher prices for eco-friendly merchandise, that may change as the cost of being eco-unfriendly goes up through awareness and legislation. There was a time when safety belts in cars were optional at an extra cost. No one would argue against paying the extra price for safety today.
Perhaps many of us would rather trash the planet cheaply because we may not feel the heat within our lifetimes. That is no reason that others, who feel more responsible, will allow that to happen indefinitely.
One way or the other, eco-friendly merchandise will compare in price, too.
Some of the parity will come from reducing the cost of eco-friendly stuff, but the bulk will probably happen because the cost of being eco-unfriendly will go up.
The original article is here – “Green fashion has new cachet“.
An article in Convenience Store Decisions wonders “Can Packaging Boost Sales?”
According to the article, in November 2008 McDonald’s reported that 82 percent of its packaging in its nine largest markets is now made from renewable materials. And “convenience store retailers are following Mickey D’s lead, seeking to capture a greater share of takeout sales as well as respect the earth with reliable, environmentally friendly packaging that won’t drive up the cost of takeout meals.”
The question is: how much of a selling point is green packaging at retail? Is the sales lift worth the investment in green packaging?
(At the risk of sounding naive,) I think well-conceived green packaging (starting with reduced packaging) would be a win-win-win: lower cost for the retailer, higher acceptability with the consumer, and better for the planet.
On a different note, we do conveniently ignore the true cost of the excessive throw-away packaging. If the cost of disposing that were added to the price of the product, the switch over to green packing might be faster.
I recall reading about a protest in the UK a couple of years ago by consumers who unwrapped excessive packaging at the cash-till and left it there – imagine that at your local supermarket on a Saturday!
The original article from Convenience Store Decisions is here: Can Packaging Boost Sales?