BAGHABARIGHAT, Bangladesh -- The country's largest milk cooperative turned the corner towards profitability after it took a more commercial approach to business and hired professional managers in 1991, says an FAO case study of Milk Vita.

Unfair competition from foreign powdered milk dumped on the Bangladesh market disappeared in that year as well, according to the case study: "Milk Vita did not start to make a net profit until the early 1990s, when the dumping of imported milk powder declined significantly, as stockpiles in exporting countries declined."

Milk Vita's strength is that it has not only attracted good managers to this rural corner of Bangladesh 200 kilometers from Dhaka but also teams of professionals, such as qualified veterinarians. They keep the vast Milk Vita herds healthy and ensure the improvement of breeds through an artificial insemination programme.

Educated people in developing countries often are not keen to live and work in the countryside, preferring desk jobs in clean urban offices, and big city conveniences and nightlife. This small dirty river port town, for example, has neither a cinema nor restaurants nor even a dependable electricity supply. Unfortunately, the poor rural areas, where most people live and where hunger and underdevelopment are most prevalent, have the greatest need for dedicated technical and professional people. Professionals come to work for Milk Vita in the field out of idealism, but also attracted by better terms and conditions of employment than other companies and opportunities for advancement.

Meet some of Milk Vita's managers:

Mohammed Altaf Hossain, an engineer and deputy general manager of the Milk Vita plant here, is checking on repairs to a big boiler, dressed in a stylish dark suit. It is going to be a long night. "I work a normal shift, until thereีs a problem. Then I stay until it's fixed," he says.

His management secrets include communicating with cooperative members and fixing problems the minute they arise. "We hold regular meetings with 300 farmer representatives," he notes. "One area said they had transport problems because of low water. They couldn't get the boats in. So we learned early about this problem and could fix it."

His vision? "Our ambition is to increase production in the plant by 10 to 20 percent a year."

Dr Mohammad Abdul Barik, who has a doctorate in veterinary science and is Deputy General Manager for Societies, drives the long, potholed road to the plant from Milk Vita headquarters in a Dhaka industrial park to show visitors around. At nine that evening, finding a spare hour, he calls a spontaneous meeting of his team of veterinarians, who live in the Milk Vita compound, to discuss problems and solutions.

"The vets are on standby to go out on motorcycles and by boat at the first sign of disease, which can spread very rapidly among cattle," he says. "Government services are not found in these villages."

The secret of Milk Vita's success, he says, results from "our commitment to the milk producers, and we don't compromise on quality."

Dr Mohammed Abdul Khaleque, manager of training, had the challenge of changing poor hygiene, such as the practice of using mud as a lubricant on udders when milking cows. "We found that we not only had to train producers how to care for animals and handle the milk in a hygienic manner, but we had to help the families keep healthy as well, for example, by teaching them to boil their drinking water," he says. He also had to respect the demands on the busy lives of villagers -- such as by developing a mobile unit to take the training to the client.

August 2002