Posts Tagged ‘grassroots’

Lessons from the Amul brand for grassroots enterprises

We also mourn the passing of Dr Verghese Kurien this weekend. The man behind India’s Operation Flood – a grassroots social enterprise based on dairy farmer’s cooperatives that grew into India’s biggest FMCG brand – Amul – while becoming the replicable model for converting India from a net milk importer to the world’s largest producer. Operation Flood is the world’s largest dairy development project. From his speech on the history of the Amul brand and the reasons for its success, I am going to pull out key snippets and look at them from the point of view of the timeless lessons to be learnt from those who have gone on before us:

The brand name AMUL, from the Sanskrit Amoolya, meaning priceless, was suggested by a quality control expert in Anand. The first products with the Amul brand name were launched in 1955. Since then, they have been in use in millions of homes in all parts of India, and beyond. Today Amul is a symbol of many things: Of high quality products sold at reasonable prices, of availability, of service.

There is something more, though, that makes the Amul brand special and that something is the reason for our commitment to quality and value for money. Amul is the brand name of 2 million farmers, members of 10,000 village dairy cooperative societies throughout Gujarat. This is the heart of Amul, it is what gives strength to Amul, and it is what is so special about the Amul saga.
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You will appreciate that when the lives of lakhs of farmers depend on a brand, and when your history is grounded in the Independence movement, when not only competitors but even your own government questions you, then your resolve to be the best is like the finest steel.

Amul, therefore, is a brand with a difference. That difference manifests itself in a larger than life purpose. The purpose – freedom to farmers by giving total control over procurement, production and marketing. Amul and all other milk products produced by cooperatives were born in struggle. It was the producers’ struggle for command over the resources that they create, a struggle to obtain equitable returns and a struggle for liberation from dependence on middlemen. It was a struggle against exploitation. A refusal to be cowed down in the face of what others believed to be the impossible.

Amul’s birth was thus a harbinger of the economic independence of our farmer brethren. Amul’s mission was the development of farmers, nutrition to the nation, and heart in heart, the real development of India.
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This led to replication of the Anand pattern through the Operation Flood programme which has, amongst others, three major achievements to its credit, namely: making dairying India’s largest self-sustainable rural employment programme, bringing India close to self-sufficiency in milk production, and trebling the nation’s milk production within a span of two and a half decades to make India the world’s largest milk producer.
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Over the course of Operation Flood, milk has been transformed from a commodity into a brand, from insufficient production to self sufficient production, from rationing to plentiful availability, from loose, unhygienic milk to milk that is pure and sure, from subjugation to a symbol of farmer’s economic independence, to being the consumer’s greatest insurance policy for good health.
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There is also something very special about milk, something which requires that any brand for milk and milk products to act not simply as a seller, but as a trustee. Milk is not a white good or a brown good. It is not something people save their entire lives in order to buy – like a car, or a house. Milk is not a status symbol; rather it is the symbol of nutrition. Milk is a nearly complete food, providing protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients so essential to maintaining good health.
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Our commitment to the producer, and our contract with the consumer are the reasons we are confident that cooperative brands, like Amul, will have an even bigger role to play in the next fifty years. Resources need to be deployed with a purpose and a commitment to deliver better results. There is no limit for a marketing exercise then. It must build India and its culture a second time round.

When I began this exercise, I noticed first the issues of quality, distribution, brand promise and cooperation that he starts his speech with. Aha, I said, these are the lessons that social enterprises seeking to serve the BoP (or whatever you want to call them) could learn from but when I read further, I realized that the true story was no less than one which was about scale, about nation building and financial independence, about a brand which emerged from the farms and fields of rural India to reach grocery stores in every country I’ve been in. (Asian groceries, mind you, as we seek our “taste of India”).

What then is the real lesson to be learnt here? And where is the mention of Amul’s success, much less Operation Flood’s, in the case studies of social enterprise we so often come across? Maybe the answer can be found by going back in time to analyze the reasons for its success, and ability to scale.

From Top to Bottom: New Design Magazine Emerging Markets Special February 2008

The challenge to address the issues faced by the significant proportion of the world’s population who live on less than £ 1 a day has been taken up eagerly by many in the global design industry. The INDEX awards regularly nominate some of the best in the world, and others are frequently seen in the news. Recently the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in the USA held an exhibition of products developed particularly for the developing world on themes such as health, potable water and renewable and affordable energy sources.

The designers are primarily from leading universities, well known design consultancies or non profit organizations based in the developed world. Few have spent significant time in the environment or conditions under which their designs will be used or actually collaborated on the products with the people for whom they are meant. How do these solutions fare when held up against the design criteria that they be affordable, durable and sustainable? Are they easy to repair and maintain? Does the investment being made make sense in context of the customer’s daily life?

The Mightylite is a longlife solar powered LED light developed for the bottom of the pyramid and first launched in India for the equivalent of £ 25 – that is almost a month’s wages for a populace that earns a meager sum daily and must first spend it on necessities such as salt, rice and cooking oil. It is currently being redesigned to be more affordable. The same goes for the Lifestraw, an ingenious device that provides instant potable water in even the most unhygienic of conditions. It too is considered beyond the reach of the majority for whom it is meant. And the $100 Laptop is currently hovering at $200, however well designed, innovative and advanced it may be.

Price is not the only factor, albeit the most significant one, when looking at the many ways these well-meant solutions have fallen short of the mark. In a recent critique of the Cooper Hewitt’s “Design for the other 90%” exhibition, David Stairs highlighted three common errors he felt that designers made when working on such solutions – first, they were working from remote experience rather than in the field, second, they tended to believe that technology would always have an answer, and finally, they fell prey to gargantuan thinking i.e. instead of addressing the water problems for a village or region or even a country, the current thinking tended towards “erasing worldwide poverty”, “housing 3 billion people” etc.

We believe that the simplest and most effective way to create real solutions that can make a real difference to everyday people’s lives would be to promote local designers and innovators, enabling them to design and build local solutions that fit their local needs. Take Africa, for example, where there is a dearth of design schools across the continent and few formally trained designers, even a cursory observation of the streets of any large city or a village would show numerous makeshift solutions cobbled together with recycled materials or junk. Innovation and ingenuity exists – it is simply not as polished or sophisticated as our aesthetically trained eyes are accustomed to and hence overlooked or considered primitive.

But these solutions – the jugaad of India’s villages where diesel generators built to pump water form the basis of handcrafted vehicles that take vegetables to market or the sheer persistence of the now famous Nigerian who built a working helicopter from scrap – work. And they work within the constraints and conditions of the environment in which they must operate. Furthermore, they are cheap to build and maintain. When there are no formally designed and mass manufactured artifacts to fill the gap between necessity and requirement, one can be conceived of and created by hand in order to meet the need. There’s a farmer in India who welded his handheld pesticide sprayer to a pole fixed to his motorcycle for fields that are too small for a tractor but too large to walk through carrying the heavy load. Or the young man in Africa who designed and built his own windmill, to be feted at the TED conference, without any engineering or design education.

So why do we still believe that the solutions designed in airconditioned offices in New York or London will better serve the needs of the bottom of the pyramid? And why are they developed in isolation? And why not share your expertise when on that field trip to understand the needs of the local populace? The challenge is to design the programs that can transfer the appropriate skills required to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of the end products developed but also suit the learning ability, literacy levels and existing capabilities of the student.

An example that has been successful has been Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in the northwestern Indian desert state of Rajasthan. There, illiterate village women are proud graduates of the ‘barefoot solar engineering’ program that teaches how to build, install and maintain solar powered cookers and panels in their villages. This scheme has the manifold benefits of providing a sustainable income source for these women, a sustainable solution that replaces the use of firewood stoves while minimizing exposure to smoke and soot, improving their overall health as well.

Workshops to transfer skills to locals – such as the inventors and innovators covered in Afrigadget’s website of ingenious contraptions that recycle, reuse and repurpose materials – are one way that designers can make a real difference in the lives of those they seek to serve. The other would be consider the users as cocreators, meaning that rather than bringing in an entirely new and manufactured solution which may not always be required, the design team observe in what ways the challenge or gap is being addressed at present and consider it a working prototype for a potential solution or product. The designers then look at what value they can bring to improve on it or to make it reproducible affordably and sustainably, working with the local designer or inventor to arrive at a final product that actually meets the need and can be used by many.

The biggest lack is information – without access to knowledge of what has been done, how many different villages attempt to solve the same problems of potable water or energy sources by continuously reinventing the wheel in so many different ways? What if we could share this information easily and in a manner accessible by all – if a cost effective rainwater harvesting solution has been designed using recycled materials and uses no power at all and is easy to build and maintain – can that not be shared so that the next homegrown innovator can build one for his own village instead of starting from scratch? This type of information share is the simplest thing that we take for granted in our broadband world where Google provides you with an answer at the touch of your fingertips.