We are living in a crazy and unhealthy world: Vinita Bali

The consumer expert on the lack of nutrition awareness and why there aren’t enough women in boardrooms


Bali says under-nourishment is so pervasive in India that we don’t even notice it. Photo: Jagadeesh N.V./Mint
Bali says under-nourishment is so pervasive in India that we don’t even notice it. Photo: Jagadeesh N.V./Mint

Bengaluru: A year after resigning from her duties at food company Britannia Industries Ltd, Vinita Bali, 59, an experienced hand in the consumer segment where she spent more than three decades navigating markets of Latin America, Africa and India, was recently appointed the chair for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

In this interview, Bali talks about her advisory roles across the development and corporate sectors. Having worked as a food marketer, formerly with beverage maker Coca-Cola Co., the erstwhile Cadbury Schweppes Plc. (now known as Mondelez International), and then Britannia Industries, Bali is one of few women on the boards of large Indian and international corporates such as Titan Co. Ltd, Crisil Ltd, Swiss healthcare company Syngenta AG and Smith and Nephew Plc., as well as the World Gold Council, among others. Edited excerpts:

What has kept you busy after your full-time job at Britannia?

It’s been a little over a year, and I continue to spend time in the corporate sector through boards and strategic advisory, academics, the development sector and the arts.

I travel to different places. I grew up professionally visiting retail outlets, seeing if they had a Coke in place, or chocolate or biscuits. Now when I visit rural areas, I continue to visit shops and homes, in addition to anganwadis and primary health care centres and my interactions are so different. A lot of things come together—malnutrition, hygiene, sanitation, what people are concerned about, how they live and so on.

And the boards I’ve taken up are part of my development and learning plan. I spent 37 years in operational roles around the world in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), so I wanted to learn about healthcare and other sectors. I am a full-time student now, except there’s mostly experiential learning rather than reading a book and writing an exam.

Considering you’ve travelled and worked across markets like Chile and Nigeria, what do you think are the big consumption patterns in India?

When I visited markets earlier and I’ve visited many—be it the barrios of Venezuela, or the favelas of Brazil—you are so focused on, “Oh, do they have Coke or not?” or “How well do they display it?”, etc., and you are looking at people as consumers, you want to see where and how your products fit into their lives. Today I’m observing a lot more, aware of things like nutrition, access to drinking water, healthcare, conditions in which they live, etc. It’s been a gradual journey, where you look at the individual as a consumer to the greater concerns of the individual and you abstract it to a higher level and see what needs to be done or fixed.

Is the Indian consumer calorie-conscious?

Like with most things, some are while others are not. Everyone will tell you that they want to exercise but only a few people actually do it.

The one thing I have realized is how little we know in general about the food we consume, what is nutritious and what is not, the importance of micro-nutrients for example. It’s not just with respect to food, but with respect to a lot of other things we take for granted, like exercise, sleep etc., all of which impact our well-being. We lack a holistic approach to life.

You worked with a food company. Aren’t companies responsible for educating consumers on food nutrition?

The education system is responsible for education, and covers what we learn in college and what gets written in publications, etc. Food companies have to ask: are we giving enough of the right information to the consumer? But it is not just about information we get from food companies. There is a responsibility of the education system and the individual—we have to take greater interest in our well-being, be it food, exercise, or nutrition in general. Most of us grow up with a less than adequate awareness and certainly food companies have a responsibility to educate the consumer, but we cannot rely on them, though they have an important role to play.

Let’s talk about your role at GAIN.

I first interacted with GAIN when they came to India in 2006-07. I was with Britannia at that time. All their work is focused on nutrition, largely under-nutrition, but also understanding the double burden of malnutrition, that is, obese people who are also malnourished. In India, the bigger challenge is still under-nutrition which covers wasting, stunting, micro-nutrient deficiency, etc. Children, adolescent girls and women are most at risk in India.

We are living in a crazy and unhealthy world. Globally, of the 7 billion people—3.5 billion are malnourished, of which approximately 800 million sleep hungry every night and about 200 million of those live in India.

Two simple insights that drove us initially in Britannia were that biscuits are excellent carriers of micro-nutrients and iron-deficiency anaemia was one of the most pervasive deficiencies impacting almost 70% of school-going children.

At that time, Britannia was supplying biscuits for the World Food Programme of the United Nations. And these were biscuits that were calorie- and nutrition-dense, and my thought was that if we’re making this for the world, can’t we do something for our own people in India?

In partnership with GAIN. we developed iron-fortified Tiger biscuits and created a public-private partnership with GAIN and the Naandi Foundation where these specially fortified biscuits were served along with the mid-day meal that Naandi was supplying to schoolchildren in Hyderabad. It is a great example of corporate responsibility when you take a social issue and address its solution as part of your business model.

What are the India-specific challenges for GAIN?

The thing you realize when you start working in the nutrition space is that it is complex as nutrition outcomes are impacted by access to food, micro-nutrients, potable water, hygiene, sanitation and primary healthcare. So it isn’t easy to tackle. In our country, under-nourishment is so pervasive that we don’t even notice it. So an initiative like Swachh Bharat makes sense from a nutrition perspective as well, for its potential to reduce the incidence of communicable diseases, if we simply have a cleaner India.

GAIN in India has been working with several state governments on large-scale oil fortification. Fortification with vitamins and minerals is one of the easiest things to do. The best example in India is iodized salt, which started in a small way in the mid 60s, was made a national mandate in the 1980s and today we almost have universal salt iodization.

I believe we must extend the learning from salt iodization to large-scale food fortification of flour with iron and folic acid, milk with vitamins A and D, oils with vitamins A and D, etc., as all these are proven and can certainly become part of our overall solution to malnutrition .

The other reality of India is that only 10% of food is sold in a branded and packaged form. In the villages people go to the local chakki to get their wheat converted to flour and so the question becomes how to get all nutrients in that flour. We therefore have to think of other solutions.

Despite our progress as a nation there are still not enough women in boardrooms or women entrepreneurs? Why is it hard for women to break the glass ceiling?

I agree, we should have seen more women than we have seen on boards and whilst things are changing, they are not changing as fast as they could.

It also has to do with the larger ecosystem and expectations. I think what is important is that everyone should have an opportunity to live a full life and if my definition of a full life is to not have a 9-5 job, it’s fine.

We also tend to be myopic when we only look at the corporate world (even though I’ve spent most of my life there), and you know what, it’s not the be- and end-all of every person’s existence. There are 2 million NGOs with women as the backbone, who work tirelessly and at very modest salaries and make a big difference to our society. Their contribution is often under-valued and seldom recognized. Look at the fabulous work our Asha workers are doing, the women who work in the anganwadi centres, etc. They are all doing jobs which we don’t value as much as we should. It is painstaking work every day for which they don’t get stock options, or mainstream media coverage.

What do you tell young women entrepreneurs?

Believe in yourself. Believe in your dream. Be responsible for your decisions and actions. I also tell them that passion is great, but it needs to be matched with competence. So just saying it’s my dream and I will pursue it is a great starting point but it’s just not sufficient.

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