On a cold spring day, we met François Colomban at the Danone Research Centre in Palaiseau. This complex was built ten years ago in an area that perfectly symbolizes the quest for innovative science and techniques: the centre is within a stone’s throw of the renowned Polytechnique engineering school. At the centre, François Colomban runs a four-people team called “Food Design” that works on designing the food products “not of tomorrow, but of the day after tomorrow”. In the “kitchen” adjacent to their office, this creative team comes up with some surprising new products.
The origins of the Food Design unit
Five years ago, François Colomban, formerly R&D Dairy Director for France, requested that the Food Design unit be created and staffed with a “small, creative and mobile team, with unbridled minds and the ability to look at things differently”. He felt that there was a need for Danone to work on some major challenges for the food products of the future: “most of the world’s population growth will be created in Asia, where milk is not a major part of the standard diet, and in the poorest communities”, that cannot afford healthy, nutritious foods, especially dairy foods because they originate from animals and are therefore expensive. Today, with a team which combines engineering expertise with artistic talent, François Colomban savours the luxury of working “like Steve Jobs when he first started, with just three friends” whose creativity is based on a perpetual cycle of imagining ideas and trying them out. Their bright, colourful office, centred on what François calls “the tree of creativity”, has windows decorated with positive and joyful keywords and is the perfect reflection of the way they work.
The Food Design team sometimes creates food products that are new to Danone, containing or not dairy and possibly based on “vegetal milk” or cereals. But it also contributes to defining new business models, in countries and with consumers that are also completely new. François Colomban offers the striking example of their work in Senegal with the Lemateki. Senegalese children suffer from malnutrition. In Dakar schools, children buy their own food over the “lunch” break, from “mamas” who enter the schoolyards and sell sweetened water or biscuits. The team saw a challenge beckoning: “to provide the children with a healthy snack that they can afford and which is also socially beneficial”. This meant coming up with a product that appeals to the children’s tastes, priced at less than 50 CFA (8 euro cents, the average spent on snacks), that respects the environment, comes from locally-produced ingredients and is made and packed locally. To achieve this, François Colomban opted for co-creation. The first step in designing such a product is to understand the consumers, their tastes and their eating habits, which means enlisting the help of someone who already has the necessary expertise. In Senegal, François worked closely with Mrs Diokh, who shared her knowledge of local eating habits and products to help create the recipe of what was to become the Lemateki: a brownish paste with a sweet and slightly acid taste made from local cereals, wrapped in pretty pink packaging. This snack, tailored-made to meet the children’s needs, is now sold by mamas in the schoolyards and will be entirely produced in Senegal by the beginning of 2013, reaching hundreds of schools and creating a dozen jobs. For starters.
Lessons for the future
To invent the Lemateki, François and his team chose to use the price that the children could pay as a starting point. This forced them to “go off the beaten track. We had no solution other than to be extremely innovative. We usually work the opposite way around for markets in developed countries”: it is the product that determines the price, not the contrary. They also decided to adopt an “integrated” approach that would take into account Danone’s environmental and social responsibility. This called for co-creation at each stage of the project, because “creating the most intelligent product possible with a small footprint is not always economical”. These processes are now being put to use in the team’s latest project, in Indonesia. But it is also food for thought for the creation of new products in the developed world. This is what François Colomban calls “reverse innovation”:
With these experimental projects, we try to learn in every field of our work. And what we learn, we tell the company. The experience and expertise we build are completely different and can be useful in developing business for the Western World. What we do has repercussions on other areas of Danone’s business.
And when asked about the food of the future, François Colomban’s mind wanders: “my dream would be food that takes as little energy as possible from the Earth, and provides as much nutrition as possible to people”. He also reflects on a packaging revolution, imagining the ideal of a wrapping material that would be… edible. “The food of the day after tomorrow will be perfectly suited to the consumer, and always safe. I also hope that we will continue to explore the range of ingredients available, and one day cease to use food colourings and preservatives.” But the biggest challenge relates to the role of companies in society: “does our role stop at providing food to people, or do we go further than that and teach people how to eat, and even how to cultivate their own food? The bond between agriculture and food products needs to be restored in the future. This raises questions about the ultimate role of food processing companies”.
François Colomban and his “kitchen”