The new book 'Icconomics' and the work of ICCO Investments: An Interview with Marcel Neutel

27 October, 2014

 An Interview with Marcel Neutel, Senior Investment Manager ICCO Investments 

 In September 2014, ICCO published the book “Icconomics: Van MVO-Beleid naar Succesvolle Internationale Business Case” ("Icconomics: From CSR Policy to Successful International Business Case"). This book is a tool for and targeted at managers who aim to create and implement CSR policy.

1. What can you say about the book ‘Icconomics’ and how does it relate to your work for ICCO Investments?

‘Icconomics’ is a book that is very much focused on helping and supporting Dutch entrepreneurs, (mostly Small and Medium-sized Enterprises - SMEs) in thinking how to implement ICSR (ed.: International Corporate Social Responsibility). ICCO Investments, has a different focus. That is why I have to say that I am not an IMVO-expert and therefore not the best person to fully elaborate on the content of the book. ICCO Investments is an investment fund, as part of ICCO Cooperative. As ICCO Investments, we do work together with Dutch entrepreneurs, but mainly with those that are already in a rather advanced stage with ICSR, with those that have a feasible business case and make actual investments in developing countries. The book ‘Icconomics’ addresses and advices Dutch entrepreneurs on how to adjust their business models in terms of ICSR. Hence, 'Icconomics' aims to trigger those Dutch entrepreneurs who have not yet, or to a limited extent only, integrated ICSR in their business models. Based on four (chronological) layers or levels of ICSR,  it thereby provides interested entrepreneurs with guidelines and steps for making ICSR an integral part of one’s conduct of business. 

2. The title of the book suggests an interesting perspective: how to make an actual, profitable business case for CSR instead of it being 'merely' a policy (document) or something noble to strive for. Could you elaborate on this?

Well, viewing ICSR as a tool for actual, concrete business cases; that indeed is the starting point. Companies should not use ICSR as a tool to ‘merely’ show that it has thought about doing something good or socially responsible. Instead it should be seen as a potential integral part of management and as an interesting move from a financial perspective as well. To give an example, the book ‘Icconomics’ sheds light on the case of Albert Heijn. Although Albert Heijn is not an SME, a part of their operations constitutes a good illustration of cooperation with other companies in developing countries that source or buy up vegetables and fruits from family farms and small holder farmers. This is on the one hand a CSR initiative because it helps farmers in developing countries, but it also shows a concrete business case with a focus on the future to secure supply. Food security and hence buying food of a good quality becomes increasingly more difficult and subject to public scrutiny. So it is almost a logical step nowadays for a company like Albert Heijn to see how one can responsibly integrate one’s business in the food supply chain and cooperate more with developing countries in order to eventually guarantee one’s product supply.

3. The book 'Icconomics' is indeed also written from a strategic business perspective for Dutch companies. But if we zoom in to the supplier-perspective in developing countries; how exactly do local farmers there benefit from a CSR business case?

 The main interest for local farmers is that they work with private sector parties that have a stable market position. If we move beyond the example of Albert Heijn, we can think of several other companies that have their products made in developing countries while upholding a central market position here in the Netherlands. In this way they basically enable farmers in developing countries to sell their products on the international markets. So the added value is that one can directly connect Dutch SMEs with Producer Organisations that involve several local farmers, thereby creating benefits for both sides.

4. In contrast to the book 'Icconomics' where Dutch entrepreneurs are addressed, ICCO Investments mostly invests in SMEs in developing countries. In this light, what do you think about the role of financial services (microfinance) in stimulating entrepreneurship?

This depends on the sector, but if we take the case of the agricultural sector again, there are often problems related to quantity, for example a lack of capacity. In order to sell on the international markets, both quantity and quality of products need to be guaranteed, but this can become rather complex when working with several farmers that are fragmented in their operations and therefore have different problems and (financial) needs. This is the moment when microfinance is the perfect tool to ensure, together with farmer organisations, the availability of microcredit facilities for small farmers to organize their farming business. What we often see, however, is the kind of ‘one size fits all’ attitude in that one tends to believe that all African or Asian farmers are potential entrepreneurs. I think it is therefore important to avoid an overemphasis on individual farmers only, especially when we focus on entering the international markets. Financial services are just one part of the whole chain, but a very important one! It belongs to the foundation of the chain. Whether ICCO Investments also invests in MFIs? In principle we don’t, because most MFIs are rather mature  and geographically concentrated in big cities. But we currently do look at an MFI in Asia that focuses on financing farmers producers organisations, on entrepreneurship in rural areas. Since this MFI’s activities are so well aligned to the work of ICCO Investments, we definitely consider the option of a partnership!

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