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Danone highlights enduring role of consumer boycott

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 people in Morocco. “It involved all types — 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.

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