In January 2014, Éric Ipavec became the new General Manager of Grameen Danone Foods, the social business co-created by Danone and Professor Muhammad Yunus, and the first to be supported by the danone.communities fund.
Éric Ipavec’s previous career reflects his curiosity and his attachment to Danone. He joined the group right after completing his studies as an agri-food engineer, and worked successively in the R&D, manufacturing and supply chain teams, which led him to live in France and the UK, and since 2008 to work with emerging countries in the Africa, Asia and Middle-East region. His first acquaintance with social business dates back to 2010, when he was asked by danone.communities to support La Laiterie du Berger on supply chain issues, and it struck a chord with him.
By the end of 2013, as he was willing to become a General Manager and was offered to be Grameen Danone Food’s, he quickly accepted the offer, after just a week spent in Bangladesh for a field trip.To sum up, Éric Ipavec ‘quite likes big changes,’ and he has taken on this new challenge with contagious enthusiasm. He told us about the highlights and difficulties of managing a social business in Bangladesh, and shared a few wishes for the future.
How did the transition between a “classic” and a social business go for you?
In 2010, when I first got to work concretely on a social business with La Laiterie du Berger, it really struck a chord with me. I had always had an “unexpressed” social side, I had personally invested in the danone.communities fund, so making my contribution to one of its projects was really great. I loved the challenge of developing a business in a country where it is not easy, with an added social dimension on top of that. It planted seeds, and I have been looking for an opportunity in a social business ever since.
But really, the reason why I have stayed at Danone since the start of my career is because I always found there was a strong focus on social issues, and on people, in all of my jobs. When I first started working at Grameen Danone Foods six months ago, I did not need to change my mindset, there was no gap there. I did not feel that I was on a learning curve just because it was a social business.
Can you tell us more about the team at Grameen Danone Foods?
There are 300 people, and 7 Board members – they are all Bangladeshi, which makes me the only expatriate in the team! I was lucky to join a team that was already in place, with people who are quite young and who have taken on heavy responsibilities. And above all, they have this extraordinary enthusiasm, which is something I have frequently met in developing countries, and the will to prove they can act and make a difference! People are not there by accident, our social business missions are in their blood. As a manager, it is encouraging and exciting, it’s just great!
What about the challenges?
There are cultural gaps when it comes to education and training. It is important to take the time to understand the work culture of the country and develop solutions together. It is also important to develop trust and confidence to help the staff grow. In a developing country, you face problems related to processes, skills, resources, infrastructure, etc. For instance, at the Bogra plant, we experience on average 3 to 5 power shortages every day.
There are challenges related to the people, too, and they come with our mission to reduce poverty. We need to make sure that “our” farmers will still sell us their milk, that “our” Shokti ladies will keep working with us and will be motivated to communicate the products’ nutritional benefits, to recruit new consumers, etc. These people’s ongoing loyalty is key to our model. Giving them confidence and trust is an important part of our job. But these are also the people who experience the social impact of Grameen Danone Foods from the inside; we monitor how it impacts their revenue and other indicators (how many have a phone, a television, toilets, etc.). And we are, of course, applying the same logic to our 300 own GDFL employees to help them grow and to motivate them every day.
What are your objectives for Grameen Danone Foods?
The first is to develop the business and use the Bogra plant to full capacity to make the model sustainable and replicable. Currently, we work with around 600 Shokti ladies and 500 farmers and we produce 100,000 pots a day. But there are over 20 million children in the target age group in Bangladesh! We aim to cover the entire country. To do that, we recently launched a new product: Shokti Plus Pocket, a thick dairy product, packaged in a 40g pouch, with a Long Shelf Life, that does not need to be refrigerated. A product like that, which contains as many nutrients as Shokti Doi yogurt, enables us to push our nutritional mission out to areas where there are no refrigerators. We have high expectations for it.
Another objective is to share with other social (or not!) businesses the competencies and experiences acquired and developed through open source access. I also wish to keep helping the people to grow in their jobs. I really hope that I will find the next General Manager of Danone Grameen Foods among the local team, and that I will be the last non-Bangladeshi GM
How do you see your own future? How do you see the rest of your career?
My first desire is to succeed in this challenge, for the business but also for myself. What excites me most is helping people thrive, and even more so in a social business context. It is one of the most beautiful experiences I have had with Danone. I get up every day knowing I am doing something useful for the country and its people, for the team and that we are doing it all together. It confirms my attachment to emerging countries, where the emotional and human dimensions play a bigger part than in mature markets.
I do not think that Social Business and Classic Business at Danone are worlds apart: they share the same mission, the same nutrition-centred values and the same focus on people. But the more time I spend in a social business, the more I believe in the model, in its sustainability. It is a great alternative to classic economic models. Social business is also a strong and structured movement, with people of all ages who have incredible faith, will and enthusiasm for this kind of model. It gives you hope! So I guess that the rest of my career will be in that kind of environment, because I feel that is where I belong. But for now I am starting my work with Grameen Danone Foods, I am learning new things every day and I am focusing on achieving our goals!