In the 17 July 2006 issue of Newsweek International, an article by Ron Moreau and Sudip Mazumdar entitled, “Bigger, Faster, Better: India’s top tycoon hopes to kick the country’s nascent boom into hyperdrive by remaking its stores, farms and even its biggest cities,” provides a compelling twist in corporate social responsibility. Earlier this year, Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, Ltd, announced the creation of a new, major business venture under the Reliance umbrella, Reliance Retail, Ltd. This is only one step in Mr. Ambani’s far-reaching vision in retailing that seeks to bring broad-sweeping changes in agricultural production and retailing across India as well as how people live in urban areas:
…Ambani, 49, has finalized plans to invest more than $11 billion over the next decade to build two new satellite cities outside creaking, overcrowded Mumbai and Delhi. He foresees these metropolises emerging within just four years, each with a population of 5 million people making $5,000 a year, on average (or seven times India’s norm), and hosting top multinational companies. And that is all pretty simple – a development on steroids – compared with the idea that really gets Ambani going.
Ambani’s favorite scheme aims to revolutionize in one swoop two of India’s largest but most backward sectors: farming and retail. Despite boom times, India is still a nation where 100 million mostly small farmers work with ox and plow, where 96 percent of retail stores are mom-and-pop shops and most of the roads between farm and store are mud tracks. Ambani plans to invest $5 billion by 2011 to put both the farms and the stores on the road to modernity, connect them through a distribution system guided by the latest logistics technology, and create enough of a surplus to generate $20 billion in agricultural exports annually.
I don’t have a clue whether Mr. Ambani will be successful in achieving what he envisions. Actually, that is not the point. What is significant, though, is that he apparently understands the connections between the circumstances surrounding those who produce food, and food production, logistics, and retail sales to consumers; he is willing to challenge the inadequacies and deficiencies in the current system; and even more, he is taking no small risks in making a significant play to install an alternative system that is more respectful, efficient, and sustainable for those who participate at the “ground level,” so to speak.
Basically, Mr. Ambani is addressing the problem by taking an approach that runs backwards from the conventional wisdom of a globalized model. He is, first, raising the capability and capacity of the farmer / producer, establishing an infrastructure to move productive output swiftly and safely to downstream stages in the value-chain, and providing fair compensation for the farmer / producer to assure sustainability:
To transform Indian farmers into quality suppliers for his new retail chain, Ambani plans to create 1,600 farm-supply hubs across India, providing technical know-how and credit, selling seeds, fertilizer and fuel, and buying produce.
Then, he is scaling the output of the farmer / producer to exceed local demands for food stuff and move the overage into the global market:
He also plans to build some 85 logistics centers to move food to retail outlets and to ports and airports for export. Reliance is gearing up to train tens of thousands of new employees in the next six to eight months to do everything from erecting prefab warehouses to transporting fresh produce. Even Reliance’s admirers note that with little experience in farming or retail, Ambani is taking his biggest risks yet. “There will be mistakes,” Ambani admits. “But we are not scared. We will correct our mistakes fast and move on.”
This is opposite to the typical globalizing business model that strips output from agricultural producers for a pittance and pumps it into the global market at the outset without regard or interest in the sustainability of the producer’s business or preserving the sanctity of the local community. The consequence of the more typical approach is farm consolidation, loss of livelihood and location, and dependence on globalized agriculture for local food supplies – not a good position to be in if supply chains are disrupted.
The critical path is to stabilize the producer / provider at the individual / family / community level; link producers / providers with others through flexible and dynamic networks capable of moving information, goods, and services in response to demand AT A LOCAL LEVEL; and lastly, scale the operations to match output with fluctuations in demand on a global level. This simple three-step formula – localize, link, and globalize – is a useful scorecard to measure the validity of any strategy aimed at utilizing natural resources or leveraging human resources in particular areas. If it strives to globalize first or prematurely, the approach is exploitative at best and unconscionable at worst!
Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, August 27, 2006