Danone Morocco saga highlights enduring role of consumer boycott

Centrale Danone lost 40 percent of its sales and suffered a net loss of €13.5 million in the first half of 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 12 January 2019

Danone Morocco saga highlights enduring role of consumer boycott

  • Success of social media campaign against high milk prices is in the tradition of the great Iranian tobacco revolt
  • Centrale Danone employs 6,000 people in Morocco but did not renew contracts with more 880 temporary workers as it was forced to cut milk production by 30 percent

LONDON: In April, a series of posts appeared on Facebook and Twitter, urging the people of Morocco not to buy Danone brand fresh milk as a protest against the company’s high prices.
Within weeks, Centrale Danone, which is French-owned, lost 40 percent of its sales and suffered a net loss of €13.5 million in the first half of 2018.
It did not stop there. The company employs 6,000 people in Morocco but did not renew contracts with more 880 temporary workers as it was forced to cut milk production by 30 percent. That led to disgruntled employees protesting in front of the national parliament against the boycott which threatened their livelihoods.
Two months later, in June, the chief executive of Danone, Emmanuel Faber, arrived in Morocco to “listen and understand the reasons for the boycott from the people on the ground.”
In September, after a consultation exercise lasting weeks, Faber announced a cut in the price of fresh pasteurised milk and revealed a new, cheaper semi-skimmed milk-in-a-pouch. He also declared that despite its troubles, Danone “will never leave Morocco.”
As well as Danone milk, protesters targeted Sidi Ali mineral water and Afriquia petrol stations.
“It was an incredible campaign,” said Soraya El-Kahlaoui, a lecturer in Morocco. “It involved all types of people — working class, the bourgeoisie — and it got the result everyone wanted.”
The Danone boycott in Morocco succeeded because it was about more than milk prices. It was also about popular struggle.
“For any protest to succeed, people have to be mobilized, they have to be persuaded of the rightness of a cause,” said John Chalcraft, professor of Middle East history and politics at the London School of Economics. As a tool of protest, boycotting can be both powerful and safe, he added. “People have a role without the risk of ending up in prison. No one can accuse them of breaking the law.”
Nor is it new to the Middle East. In 1890, Iranians revolted en masse against the Shah granting a tobacco concession to Britain. The deal gave the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia a monopoly over the production, and sale of tobacco for 50 years. In return, the Shah, Nasir Al-Din, was to be paid £15,000 a year (equivalent to $2.35 million today) plus a share of the profits.


Coming on top of other concessions granted to foreigners, this was too much. Persian tobacco was much prized and at the time the industry employed more than 200,000 people. The first protests were organized by bazaaris (merchants) but the clergy soon joined in, issuing a fatwa against tobacco consumption. The merchants closed the bazaars and Iranians — such heavy smokers that they even lit up in mosques — gave up smoking. Beaten by the boycott, the Shah canceled the concession in January 1892.
Just as the tobacco boycott was a protest against exploitation by the rich, so the inflated milk prices in Morocco were seen as evidence of collusion between big business and the government.
“It would not be stupid to compare that earlier period with the contemporary one,” said Chalcraft. “Boycott is a familiar form of protest in the Middle East.”
In 1945, the Arab League adopted a boycott of all Israeli goods. Six years later, they extended the boycott to anyone trading with Israel. The blacklisted companies included big names such as Revlon, Bulova Watches and the Chase Manhattan Bank. The boycott ended gradually. Egypt dropped out in 1979, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and finally, the GCC in 1994.
It was partly revived in 2005 when Palestinians launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and more particularly against goods emanating from or being sold in the settlements in the Occupied Territories.
Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School, doubts the effectiveness of boycotts.
“The buying behavior of most consumers is much less affected by ethical concerns than they might claim in response to a survey,” he said. “Tech firms such as Facebook, Amazon and Uber have been widely criticized for some of their business and labor management practices but very few consumers have stopped using them on those grounds.”
Danone said the milk boycott was in reality a wider protest against the high cost of living in Morocco. After conducting a wide public consultation exercise over the summer, involving nearly 10 million people, Danone reduced the price of a 470ml pack of milk down to what it was 10 years ago.
The milk boycotters’ slogan was “Khali i rib” — “let the milk flow.” Danone adopted the same slogan as it tried to rebuild consumer trust.
“It hasn’t worked,” said Soraya El-Kahlaoui. “The image of the brand is very damaged.”


With products sold in over 120 markets, Danone generated sales of €24.7 billion in 2017.

INTERVIEW: Saadia Zahidi — A woman’s voice amid the macho power players at Davos

Updated 27 min 22 sec ago

INTERVIEW: Saadia Zahidi — A woman’s voice amid the macho power players at Davos

  • Saadia Zahidi, 38-years-old, is a member of the WEF’s managing board
  • She agrees that the WEF has a challenge on the low level of female participation at Davos

DAVOS: The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which kicks off tomorrow in the Swiss resort of Davos, is predominantly a late-middle-aged male affair. About 78 percent of the attendees in 2019 are men, with an average age of 54.
Saadia Zahidi is a breath of Alpine fresh air in this clubby world of macho power players. The 38-year-old member of the WEF’s managing board, and head of its Center for the New Economy and Society, is a rising star at the forum, and a key shaper of its thinking on social, gender and employment issues.
She agrees that the WEF has a challenge on the low level of female participation at Davos. But she believes that only reflects the wider world, where despite years of recognizing the need for gender equality in politics, business and society at large, women are still a minority when it comes to the commanding heights of the policymaking process.
“There’s a long way to go to get to 50/50 participation at Davos, but that reflects a global problem, reflecting the practices of global leadership,” she said. Only single-digit percentage proportions of the leaders of the world’s biggest corporations are female, while only a slightly bigger number of heads of state are women, she said, adding: “We have quite a way to go.”
As she recognizes, it is not just a WEF problem. Last year, she published a seminal work on gender equality as it especially related to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. It is entitled “Fifty Million Rising,” a reference to the number of women that have joined the workforce in Islamic economies.
The work was optimistic in tone, charting the progress of women as more equal participants in their economies, be they McDonald’s workers in Pakistan, IT technicians in Egypt, or running big conglomerates in Saudi Arabia. The underlying message was that the empowerment of women was inexorable.
By the end of last year, Zahidi seemed to have lost some of that positivity. A report authored by her for the WEF on the gender gap — the difference in pay and conditions for men and women doing more or less the same job — found that on average, female workers were paid just 63 percent of men’s wages for the same job.

The overall picture is that gender equality has stalled. The future of our labor market may not be as equal as the trajectory we thought we were on.

At current rates of progress, it would take 202 years to close that gap, leading her to conclude: “The overall picture is that gender equality has stalled. The future of our labor market may not be as equal as the trajectory we thought we were on.”
So what has gone wrong in the movement to empower women?
Zahidi identifies two main reasons for the lack of progress. “There have been big shifts in the labor market with greater use of technology and automation, and women have borne the greater brunt associated with those changes,” she said.
“There’s a perception that blue-collar men in manufacturing are being put out of work by automation, but many women in service sectors, especially in the emerging world, are feeling the effects just as much if not more.”
More women than ever are graduating from universities, but many are not qualified in the skills required in the modern digital world, in science, technology and maths.
The second reason is that many countries and societies are still not balancing domestic roles more efficiently between men and women. “It still seems to be women who have the main responsibility for unpaid care work, be it in child care, elder care or other aspects of home life,” she said.
“So women are less present in the paid economy than they are in the unpaid economy. It’s a structural factor, but you shouldn’t really need a business case to move forward on gender equality, because there’s also a very clear moral argument to be made.”
The movement for gender equality and female empowerment has been a factor in social and economic policymaking in many Arab Gulf economies, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where it is a prominent feature of the Vision 2030 reform plan.



Born in Lahore, Pakistan, 1980


•Smith College, Massachusetts, US — economics degree

•Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland — master’s in international economics

•Harvard Kennedy School — master’s in public administration


•Joined WEF as economist, 2003

•Currently head of WEF’s Center for the New Economy and Society; •member of managing board


Zahidi agrees that there has been some progress in recent decades, with greater investment in girls’ education leading to more skilled women in employment and all the social and cultural changes that brings. That advancement can also lead to “pushback” by women against some of the cultural and social restraints imposed on them by conservative societies.
“It’s not surprising now that there are more questions being asked about the viability of something like the (Saudi) guardianship laws,” she said. “Largely speaking, the guardianship laws are an additional barrier, whether it’s a question of transport, the ability to get from point A to point B. Is it a question of availability of transport, or because you don’t have the permission of one person? It’s a barrier that women will face and men won’t face.”
Although probably best known for her work at the WEF on gender and employment issues, last year her role was broadened to take responsibility for the “new economics” that the forum views as essential in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the confluence of digital, technological and communications factors that the WEF sees as having a profound effect on economic relations.
In October 2018, Zahidi led a study group at a WEF meeting in Dubai on the subject of the new economy. Those deliberations resulted in the recent publication of a WEF white paper on the subject. Her enthusiasm on the topic is obvious and infectious.
“It was an exercise in how to offer newer as well as the traditional voices on how we manage and direct our economy,” she said. She believes that modern economies, under pressure from digitalization and technological change amid volatile geo-economic conditions, have to seek answers to four big questions.
“First, do we need to fundamentally rethink what constitutes economic value, and what practical avenues exist for doing so?” she asked. She believes that new types of assets and economic activity are not well understood, and that new sources of consumer welfare are not adequately measured.
“What’s the value of the open knowledge on Wikipedia, or the toll taken by the incursion of digital technology into our private lives?” she asked. The answers will have fundamental repercussions for traditional methods of valuing economic activity, such as gross domestic product (GDP) and the price mechanism, she believes.
Second, Zahidi posed the question of whether, in the age of Big Data, we need to address the issue of the market concentration created by online platforms. Digital platforms bring undoubted benefits in terms of new services, greater choice, faster access and lower costs.


There’s a long way to go to get to 50/50 participation or men and women at Davos, but that reflects a global problem.

“Yet at the same time, scale and the resulting concentration of market power can offset some of these benefits, with potential repercussions on innovation, quality and distributional outcomes,” she said, adding that we need to think again about the regulatory regimes that govern the digital economy.
Third, the new economics must consider whether policymakers need to put in place practical measures for job creation. Technology and automation are forcing major transformations on employment practices. “If managed wisely, these transformations could lead to a new age of good work, good jobs and improved quality of life for all. If managed poorly, they pose the risk of greater inequality and broader polarization,” she wrote in the white paper.
Finally, the new economics must consider the need for new social “safety nets” for those who get left behind by the rapidly changing digital transformation. “In developed economies, the efficacy of social insurance policies tied to formal work and stable employment contracts is depleting, as increasing numbers of people become displaced or experience insecure work, low pay and unequal access to good jobs,” she said.
“In developing economies, where work has largely been diverse and informal, technological advances look set to continue that trend and offer additional flexible work opportunities, leaving open the question of what a future social protection model might look like.”
These issues will be among the questions considered at Davos 2019. Despite the withdrawal from the annual meeting of some prominent regular attendees — most of the US government sector, for example — Zahidi is confident that it will be another success. “My main aim this year is to raise and discuss issues that are starting to pose challenges, and to build coalitions to tackle them,” she said.