Bengt-van Loosdrecht is the ambassador of the Netherlands to Ethiopia and the African Union. Having stayed in Ethiopia for two years, the career diplomat reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on what he has learned, his perspectives on the changing landscape of the nation, his vision and lessons learned and how the experiences of Holland in areas of food security can be emulated in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You have been in Ethiopia for three years. What have been the highlights so far?
Bengt-van Loosdrecht: I hit the ground running in August of 2016. In those days, there was unrest in the country. As a diplomat I had to do crises management, because there were attacks against Dutch farms. This was in the Oromia Regional State as well as Amhara. It was an interesting experience as it taught me how to deal with these issues and it really brought me into contact with the government. I had to discuss the issues with high officials. In that sense I valued the crises period, also because it brought us together at the embassy and helped us to make the best of our team.
However, that not a highlight but rather a defining moment. That is how I see it. As a highlight, I would say, I really enjoyed the speech of the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). I really appreciate the peaceful transition of power in the country. It was an encouraging sign.
I cannot help but ask you about the building your embassy is in. It’s both unique and beautiful. Can you tell me about that?
That would be my pleasure! It was designed by two Dutch architects. One of them is a professor of architecture in Holland. It was built in 2006. Emperor Haile Selassie I leased it to the Government of The Netherlands in 1950, but we never had a real embassy on it. There was the residence of the ambassador and the embassy staff worked inside a container. It was a bad situation.
So this embassy was built, inspired by the Lalibela rock churches. It has a bit of a church-like atmosphere. The roof of the building represents a Dutch landscape, with water and dry land alternating. The building also perfectly blends in with the surrounding landscape and trees. It’s a beautiful building that showcases the talents of Dutch architects. We are proud of it.
Most Ethiopians know the Netherlands through its exportation of Ethiopian flowers. I know the Netherlands through the wonderful Tulip festival in Ottawa, Canada which showcases fresh-cut flowers that are made-in-the Netherlands. How do you envision your nation to be noted, remembered in Ethiopia?
You always hope everyone views your nation positively. I hope we can go beyond the clichés. People often think of the Netherlands as the country of flowers, milk and windmills. It’s a very good image but we are more than that. We are a country of innovation, specifically in agriculture. We are a very small country but we are also the second largest exporter of agriculture products in the world.
We have developed techniques to add value to our products, whether it is milk, flowers, vegetables or fruits. In Eastern Africa there are many possibilities for Dutch farms to introduce such technologies contribute to the export of these countries.
In Ethiopia, Dutch flower growers have been welcomed by government, yet they are sometimes viewed with suspicion by the local population. The flower growers adhere to all the international social, environmental and labor standards. Consumers demand that the products they buy are produced in a responsible way.
I hear you have been speaking to high-level officials, including Arkebe Oqubay (PhD) on the challenges of farmers, including the issues of Sher, the largest Dutch owned farm in Ethiopia. What has been the outcome?
There are many Dutch flower growers in Oromia. When there are issues, I discuss those with Oromia regional government, including the Oromia Investment Commission. We recently had a big meeting.
The heart of the matter is that there are negative perceptions about Dutch famers in Ethiopia – that they are bad for the environment and they exploit people. It is important to realize that most exporters are to live up to high consumer demands in the West. As I said, it not acceptable in the Netherlands or in other western countries to import flowers from farms that pollute their environment. The Netherlands promotes corporate social responsibility. We urge all Dutch businesses to adhere to international and Ethiopian standards.
The second thing we discussed was the possibility of a joint scientific study to identify the sources of pollution in for instance Lake Ziway. Apart from Dutch farms, there are many smallholders around the lake, who use pesticides as well. So in order to address pollution in the lake, it would be good to have indisputable evidence of where the pollution comes from.
To reduce the use of pesticides, the Netherlands Embassy has contributed to the development of so-called wetlands, designed by WUR (Wageningen and Research). These wetlands purify contaminated water, which is then re-used to water the flowers.
Also, many Dutch flower farms control pests and diseases by IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs. This means they use natural enemies (like wasps and spiders) against different types of insects to reduce the use of chemicals and thus reduce their ecological footprint.
Also we discussed legislations in this country. At this moment, the legislation of this country continues to encourage the import of pesticides and discourages the imports of biological plant protection products. We would like to see that reversed as Dutch farmers are in favor of the later. But the legislation is not there yet. There are demands for not polluting but then, the government is allowing pesticides – really dirty stuff that is not allowed in Europe but allowed in Ethiopia. I think something should be done there.
Ethiopia has always benefited from foreign aids from western nations. Ethiopia is determined to lure foreign investment not aid, like before. How do you see the role of aid in the country?
Also in the Netherlands, the views on aid are changing. The idea of aid is that it should benefit the recipient nation and, somehow, also the donor country. Our work in Ethiopia focuses on aid and trade,
We have a huge aid program in the area of food security. A nation with a huge growing population should be able to feed itself. To do so, Ethiopia will need agricultural transformation. As I told you the Netherlands has a lot of experience in this field. We try to use that knowledge and experience to assist agricultural transformation in Ethiopia.
You probably have a few more years till your term in Ethiopia expires. You started public service as a young communication professional, played a role in policy and now you are your countries representative in Ethiopia. Looking back, what are some of the wisdom you have gained over the years, you wish you had or known as a much younger person or advice you would give for one starting their career now?
That is a great question. Be open minded, wherever you go, be it in Africa or elsewhere. Don’t have a misconception of a certain country. Never, ever underestimate people’s capacities. When you are young, you are sure of yourself, you think you know exactly how things are and should be run. When you go to a country, like in Ethiopia; you shut your mouth and listen. Show respect. Expect people to take charge. In all the exchanges one has, as a diplomat, always, put people first. There are many areas where we can learn from each other. There are many things that are great about Ethiopia and working perfectly.