Mr. Sanjay Sethi, Executive Director of the Plant Based Foods Industry Association, is a food and agribusiness expert who is working to build successful integrated supply chains in India, the Middle East, and Africa. He has established sustainable food businesses over the course of his three-decade career across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Eastern Europe. He is the recipient of the Chief Sustainability Officer of the Year and the Africa Food Prize Awards. He has served on the board of the UN Environment and International Rice Research Institute initiative known as the Sustainable Rice Platform. Additionally, he served on the Global Agribusiness Alliance steering group for the Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
Below are the highlights of the interview conducted between World’s Leaders and Sanjay Sethi:
Describe who you are as a person, inside and outside of the workplace. Describe your background and what did you do before you started/joined the company?
I have always been inquisitive, have tried to experiment and take calculated risks, and I believe in asking quick questions. I had the opportunity to work in locations such as Africa and the Middle East, and the knowledge gained from working in different geographies and segments of the food value chain gave me insights that I was eager to bring to India. The satisfaction of developing not just an organization but also an entire category from the beginning in a rapidly developing country like India makes what I call “a dream job.” I don’t have to stress about edging past others or doing something my conscience forbids me to do. It makes me glad to know that what I do contributes in some ways to the improvement of the environment and animal welfare. This is what makes it very different from the usual corporate life. I am grateful that during this journey, we have received a lot of support so far from the industry, consumers, universities, and the government. We have 86 members at present and wish to grow PBFIA even more so we can accommodate more people and can work together in this sector towards research, the creation of common service centers, and a Center of Excellence to create a transformation in the food industry using innovation, science, and technology.
Tell us about the inception of the company. How did it all start?
I decided to utilize my experiences and learning to setup a unique organization in India, the Plant Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA), which is a not-for-profit organization that supports all the stakeholders in this sector. Earlier, when I was on the board of the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), I observed that customers were not yet willing to reward the sustainable progress and would not pay any premium, when we introduced the SRP label. I then sensed the potential of plant-based foods because they mimic animal sources of food such as meat and dairy in terms of taste and texture, allowing us to develop our food system sustainably by promoting a healthy plant-based lifestyle. Consumers are willing to go the extra mile to taste these yummy alternatives and are also ready to pay the premium. I immediately sensed that this sustainable revolution will keep growing because it is backed by consumers.
What has made you successful? What do you value?
Getting people with a diverse skillset in our small team—with a chef, nutritionist, food technologist, and management consultant—and with my background in agricultural supply chain, we were able to overcome a diverse set of challenges and setup this unique organization, which is a hybrid of a trade association, incubator, and Center of Excellence. We always take into consideration their interests and unique skills so that everybody operates within their ikigai zone and brings out the best in them.
Which are the major services of the company and how do the company to get ahead in the competition? What value-added services does the company provide?
The Plant Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA) is a CEO-led APEX organization that represents the entire plant-based foods industry in India.Currently, PBFIA with its 86 members, focuses on four major workstreams: policy advocacy; innovation; investment; and supply chain.
With sustainability and health as the key driving forces behind the activities of the association, the foremost aim of PBFIA is to make plant-based foods mainstream while providing new avenues for economic growth. PBFIA supports the growth of a robust ecosystem for the plant-based food industry in India through strategic collaborations, the creation of networks between stakeholders, facilitating research to enhance the capabilities of the sector, pushing for positive policy-making, and the dissemination of key trends and information in the interest of its members.
The Indian plant-based foods industry is represented by the PBFIA on the global platform of the International Plant Based Foods Working Group (IPBFWG), which is comprised of plant-based foods focused associations from around the world.
What are the most important aspects of a company’s culture? What principles do you believe in and how do you build this culture?
While allocating tasks, we always take into consideration their interests and unique skills so that everybody operates within their ikigai zone. I believe in hiring people based on two factors: trust and teachability. That is why my entire team is under 30 years old, as they are still very malleable and teachable.
What is the significance of innovative ideas in the company?
We at PBFIA are all entrepreneurs. I believe in developing leaders rather than followers. I have valued creative ideas the most, and I believe in giving one the freedom to explore their creativity to unlock the most unique ideas.
What are your responsibilities as the Executive Director of the company? What is the happiest part of your daily routine?
I direct agendas for the association, harmonize the team, lead the team with inspired thought leadership, curate the vision of the association, and address problems and opportunities for PBFIA. My favorite part of the day is when I make alliances and forge new partnerships. Also, when I am engaging with multilevel stakeholders.
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
I believe it is more important to be the right person on the team than to find the right person to work with. Allow your team members to choose the work they are best at from the work you require of them.
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