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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.