An Interview with Stefano Pelle on CSR

Published in SouthAsia (August 2007)

Stefano Pelle, author of ‘Understanding Emerging Markets, Building Business BRIC by Brick’, Chief Operating Officer of Perfetti Van Melle Group and recipient of Knight Commander Award from the Italian President, talks to Ayesha Hoda

Tell our readers a little about your work experience.

I have been working for a long time for Perfetti Van Melle, which is an Italian multinational company operating worldwide in the sugar confectionery industry. Its products are distributed in around 130 countries. Presently, I am the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer and am looking after Russia and the CIS countries, South Asia, including Afghanistan and Burma and some parts of Africa.

Prior to this, I have worked in several other companies including Johnson & Johnson and Danone and thus have gained extensive experience in FMCG and the services sector.

Please shed some light on your initiative called COIN and who it will benefit.

Since I strongly believe in Corporate Social Responsibility, I created a trust – Children Of India Now (COIN), before I left India, to help people in need there.

COIN was established in the beginning of 2007 and registered a few months after; it is thus a nascent and a very recent initiative.

The activities schedule includes support for Children Education (which has been happening regularly), support for children’s health problems, support for mothers of children who cannot take care of themselves as well as some other activities (e.g. food for orphanages, etc).

COIN would like to give a chance for a better life to children, be they orphaned or abandoned, or children who need help, whose parents cannot provide them with even basic needs such as healthcare and education. It is associated with some institutes taking care of children and hopefully it will grow in the years to come and help these children build their future and their lives.

Any particular reasons for interest in this area?

I have been involved in CSR activities, particularly in activities towards children, even before creating this trust. We started CSR activities in our company (Perfetti Van Melle) a few years ago in India. We have been involved in initiatives such as free medical assistance to remote villages, training of people without jobs in our factories, training of women without jobs, provision of work tools and help to orphanages and several other activities with some local NGOs. Our Bangladeshi company has recently started some activities on similar lines.

Since I have lived and worked in India for a number of years, I have been able to personally see and realise how many millions of children will never have the chance of a decent standard of living if somebody does not help them or their families. After writing my book, Understanding Emerging Markets – Building Business Bric by Brick, the royalties of which go entirely to the COIN trust, I thought that I could give a further chance to my readers, to contribute to this cause.

What motivated you to write the book?

The reason I wrote the book was mainly to put down in black and white and thus share, my experience of working in emerging markets. I have lived for over eight years in India and now I am based in Dubai. I directly take care of two of the BRIC; thus I have acquired quite a bit of knowledge in doing business in these.

My book is a blend of practical hints for those who want to start working in these countries (or who are already working there) and business theories coming from my educational background in several institutes in Europe and Asia.

I happen to also teach in some institutes in Italy and India when my schedule allows, giving lectures on emerging markets, developing countries, the evolution of BRIC countries and so on. So academics and field experience really added to my perspectives on business-related subjects as well as with some chapters of general interest (e.g. Geopolitics) or others on sustainable development, CSR, etc., issues which are generating a great amount of interest these days. You could say that it is not only a business book but will be informative and interesting even for a general audience.

How important is Corporate Social Responsibility in South Asia?

I think CSR is very important since the number of people who live below the poverty line is still very high. On the other hand, the economies in most of the South Asian countries are doing very well – India is expected to have a very dominating economy by 2050.

Even now, there are many successful companies and individuals there. So, a small contribution from those who can afford it can make a difference in the life of the less privileged ones. Companies have started understanding this, and some of them are moving their first steps; some others have been involved in CSR activities for a long time: Tata is one outstanding example of a large Indian conglomerate doing an excellent job in this field.

Do you think NGOs are playing a significant role in the development of the (South Asian) region? How reliable are they?

There are so many NGOs and it is difficult to generalise. Some of them are certainly doing a very good job. Our company in India has been associated with a few of these, and the experience has been very positive. On the other hand, sometimes too much of granted help from NGOs at a country level may turn to be not fully positive. This is the case when the help does not aim to enable people to help themselves, but the contributions are given on a regular basis without a clear agenda.

Sometimes these funds are not used to create the infrastructure or the tools necessary to enhance the quality of life of those in need. They instead become the source of income of the country: in this case the governments use the same for their current needs instead of employing the same to become self-sufficient.

How much support are you getting for COIN?

Not much to tell the truth. It is also a fact that, apart from the mention in my book about donations, there has been no form of advertising for COIN: thus many people may not even know of its existence as yet.

Furthermore, it is not always easy to know which trust/association is actually doing something good: people are hesitant to donate money if they are not reassured about the genuine intentions of the organisations that collect funds.