Dairy Asia on the Global Agenda – Vinod Ahuja on the Advantages of Being a Partner

Vinod Ahuja spoke to the secretariat about the main advantages he sees for Dairy Asia to be a partner on the Global Agenda.
The FAO policy analyst from the regional office in Bangkok delves into Dairy Asia’s endeavors to promote the production and consumption of milk as means to enhance the nutritional status and reduce stunting of children in Asia.
Vinod is looking for investors in school milk initiatives, which are a straight-forward tool to reach all children irrespective of their social background.
Dairy Asia’s slogan: “A glass of milk a day for the Asian child!”

Interview Transcript

Vinod Ahuja, Dairy Asia: I am based here in Bangkok at the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific as livestock policy officer. I have been engaged in a number of regional projects and programmes. One of them has been related to developing the dairy sector in the region. In the process, we have now been able to promote a regional platform called Dairy Asia, which has about thirteen member countries already onboard.

Pascal Corbé, Global Agenda consultant: Dairy Asia forms an Action Network on the Global Agenda. From your perspective, what is the key advantage of being on the Agenda?

I see Dairy Asia and the Global Agenda as natural allies, because they have so much in common when it comes to our vision, our core values, our structure and the governance process. Over the last year or so, we have been able to bring thirteen member countries together. These members are generally committed toward the Sustainable Development Goals and demonstrate that contribution to the work. This has been possible because the Global Agenda was associated with the inception phase of Dairy Asia and mentored Dairy Asia in the initial phase. That has been a key factor which contributed to what we are today.

PC: As an Action Network of the Global Agenda, where do you see the main challenges coming in the near future? How can the partnership that Global Agenda is support you in your working?

VA: The Global Agenda provided really valuable mentoring support and also initial seed financial support for this Network. All the members of Dairy Asian hugely value the support that they got. Because of that, we are now in existence and we now have a network, we have a plan in place, and members are committed to it. The challenge we are now facing is mobilising financial resources to sustain this. Dairy Asia has still not come to the point that it has become an independent platform that can sustain itself. We are gradually working with some Global Platforms, for example the sustainability framework trying to organise resources, so that we can sustain this activity for at least another three years or so. That is where we are going to need support also from the Global Agenda - to help us link investors who believe in the core values of multi-stakeholder decisionmaking and the stakeholder partnerships, who are willing to invest in a platform like this.

That’s where we really need a lot of support - helping us organise resource to bring us into our independence as an independent platform.

PC: From your end, what are you putting into it to make the interest of possible investors go up?

VA: We recently had a meeting of all of the national focal points and the steering committee, and this is precisely the question that we asked the focal points and the steering committee members, that if we go to the investors, the first question is, what are we willing to put into this? And all the members are committed to putting what they can bring to this in terms of in-kind resources, providing human resources, and so on. The difficulty is a lot of the members being either from the nonprofit sector or from the government sector, they have difficulty in committing cash resources. And, this is where we need an investor who can bring in some cash and finance to the steering committee, but members would bring the huge organisational network that they have in the ground, and they are willing to bring in human resources, and they are willing to bring all kinds of in-kind sources.

PC: There is also the big meeting coming up of the Global Agenda in May in Addis, the Multi-stakeholder Partnership meeting. What is your expectation with regards to this meeting?

VA: Yes, I was present at the last MSP in Panama last year and I really was inspired with the positivity that there was and the commitment towards the common goals, particularly toward the Sustainable Development Goals. We really want to be able to build on that. We want to be able to establish global linkages. And we want to be able to showcase and share our programme, and what we are doing. And hopefully, also can meet some investors who are willing to invest in this activity. So, sharing of experience, looking for partners and hopefully looking investors.

PC: I want to talk to you about something else, about the issue of the consumption of milk in Asia. We know that it was historically in some parts it was a little bit lower because of cultural issues, but it has gone up quite a lot. Obviously, from a public health perspective, it would be good to raise the nutritional status of people if the consumption would go up more. I would believe that is part of your objective - to raise that consumption of milk. What are you faced with? What are the challenges when you look at that?

VA: This is the region where consumption is growing most rapidly. In fact, production cannot keep up with consumption. But, let’s also look at some other statistics. If we look at the global number of malnourished people, there are about 800 million, as per the global estimate; 500 million in the Asia-Pacific region. If you look at the child stunting, 30% of the children in this region are stunted. This really should be unacceptable. And I think that dairy sector can play a huge role in dealing with the issues of nutrition and malnutrition.

Our slogan really is “a glass of Asian milk a day, for the Asian child,” and this is what we are working towards. Our approach is to try and promote milk in schools, because that’s where you can reach out to the children - irrespective of what background they come from. We have some excellent experiences in this region: Thailand has a National School Milk Programme that has been running for the last 15 years, and it has been shown to actually contribute to nutrition and reduced stunting. We have other experiences in the region. What we are trying to do now is to pull in that experience, and talk to the governments to promote milk in schools. That is the challenge that we face in terms of having good practices and having both the public and the private investors willing to invest in promoting milk in schools.  

PC:  Generally speaking, obviously, Dairy Asia is promoting the economic interests of farmers, and all the players along the value chain in dairy. What is your main challenge when it comes to that in particular?

VA:  If you really look at the structure of production and distribution of milk and dairy products in Asia, it is primarily a small product activity. In fact 80% of the milk in the region is produced by very small producers. And also, if you look at the value chain, there are a number of small and medium enterprises who are engaged in this. The challenge is that many of these systems, both at the production level and the distribution level, are coming under pressure from large players and from the large processors. Some of it because of the belief that the large processors can deliver better quality milk - although there is no such evidence that smallholders cannot do it. So, some of it is because of the policies that the governments have pursued in some countries, and some of it is market forces that small producers do not have the capacity to be able to deal with the dynamics of the market and the market forces.

And that’s really where our challenge comes in. We work for the smallholders, and we want to educate on the cause of the smallholders. So we want to inform the policymakers and stakeholders based on the evidence that smallholders can become responsive and responsible players. In that sense, you can really contribute to poverty alleviation or poverty reduction, you can get social dividend of empowerment of women in marginalised communities and so on. That’s the real challenge we are trying to address.

PC: I want to come to an end now and wrap it up and bring it home to the Agenda in a way. If you put it in a nutshell, the upcoming Multi-Stakeholder Partnership meeting, your involvement in general in the Agenda, what kind of consensus would you like the MSP and the Agenda as such to reach that will help you to promote what you think is the most important for the dairy sector?

V: What I would really like to see come out of this meeting for the dairy or for the livestock sector - when we talk about potential, in terms of contributing towards nutrition, contributing toward a better environment in public health, it’s not that things are not going on in the countries. In fact, there is so much innovation already ongoing in the countries, that my personal belief is that if you could just connect that dots, we would make a huge contribution towards some of the public goals. The difficulty is, that in order to be able to connect those dots, we need invest in some of the international public goods, such as multi-stakeholder platforms and dialogue processes. Unfortunately, the environment for investing in international and regional public goods, is not so favourable. And that’s what I am hoping - there will be a consensus that people will see there is value in investing in such processes. Because, it’s not the technology that we need, it’s the solutions that are already on the ground, and we want to connect people. And in that, that will become the real driving force for development.

PC: Thank you very much.

V:  Thank you very much for the opportunity to share some of these thoughts and messages. I think these are important, and I hope some of these will be taken onboard as the meeting goes on.