Story - Luuk Zonneveld

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Why am I CEO of BIO?

I first set foot on African soil over 30 years ago, at the estuary of the Nile. Bored with my own world, I was intent on discovering a new one – and trying to make a living while doing so by sending my writings to newspapers and weeklies in the Netherlands. Using boats, trains, buses and horse carts, I wrote a travel-series about my trip along the majestic Nile, from its delta in Alexandria down to its sources in volcanic central Africa. I dispatched articles about Egypt’s unequal economic development, the civil war in Sudan, the proxy war between Ethiopia and Somalia, and about the scourge of leprosy. My articles were well-received by a “developed world” eager to find out about what was really going on in Africa, at a time when fax, internet and smartphone were still  unthought-of . And on my end, I was immensely enjoying myself.
Until one day, in a village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, completely isolated by the surrounding jungle, I came upon an elderly man serenely sitting under the village square mango tree. He greeted me, stretching out his arms, and said “Karibu, welcome. What have you come to do here?”

His simple question left me speechless.

Indeed, what had I, a privileged young white male from another world thousands of miles away, come for here, in this old man’s village? His question made me realize that above all, I had come for myself: to satisfy my curiosity, my longing for a different world, more appealing than my own; to make money; and, to be perfectly honest, to learn about myself.

Years later, when I had been contracted to travel around Africa, Asia and Latin America for what nowadays is called “the direct sourcing” of specialty coffees, teas and other tropical crops, I was reminded of this insight by the admonishment of my first real boss. “Whenever you are negotiating a deal,” he insisted, “always ask yourself: Wie wordt er beter van?” - badly translated as: who(se life) will be better because of it? “And always make sure that all involved parties stand to benefit from the deal fairly, as this is the only way your deal will stand the test of time and overcome adversities.”
Back in the 1980s, that was quite a radical view as since Africa’s colonization, the colonizers’ only interest was to maximize their gains, to be the only ones to have a better life because of their deals. The colonial traders succeeded for an terribly long time, and – even though they ultimately lost their overseas empires - grossly unfair terms of trade between the poor and the rich have yet to disappear.

After decolonization, “development cooperation” claimed that its only interest was that the “developing countries” would become better because of its money, its projects, its “knowledge transfer” and “trickle-down” economics. Its claim fooled many back home for an awfully long time, but hardly anybody in its “target countries”, where people were all too aware, and experienced every day, that “development cooperation” was certainly, if sometimes not foremost, also about taking care very well of its home countries’ own interests, thank you. Although development cooperation undoubtedly contributed to major improvement in poor people’s lives, few are aware that ever since the advent of colonialism and up until today, there is more money flowing from the poor to the rich countries than the other way around.

In my subsequent years of traveling to hunt down the most exquisite coffee, the most delectable cocoa beans and the finest tea leaves, I realized time and again that I was visiting societies that had been around for centuries if not millennia; societies of elaborate civilization when most Europeans were still illiterates wearing animal skins; societies that had so far managed very well without my intrusion. I was a guest on their turf, and whatever I came to do, the only decent attitude was for me to ask and wait for them to approve – or refuse. My boss’ question: “who(se life) will be better because of the deal” became the guide of my business dealings. Only transactions that seek to reward all parties equitably, taking into account everybody’s interests and concerns and providing for flexibility and leniency when a party is in trouble, can lead to sustainable success.
This conviction of always seeking a “fair” deal has been serving me well. Although it may seem illogical for a business not to always maximize its benefits, and to do so at the expense of its counterparts if need be, most business people I have come across welcome and end up sharing the equitable approach.
In the 2000s, the years that I led the Fairtrade system, we often took executives and top managers of major food and retail multinationals to ”origin”, as they call the fields and orchards where their raw produce come from. In a few days of harvesting coffee berries with the women and children and evenings discussing with farmers and villagers, I could see their insight grow that sustainable cooperation has to be built on mutual respect and successful business on mutual benefits. Upon returning home, I was elated to sign up companies like Starbucks, Marks & Spencer’s, E. Leclerc and Delhaize for Fairtrade.

Then why become CEO of BIO?
Because the foundation of BIO’s business model is doing equitable business in view of long-term success for both our investors and our clients, whether these might be small businesswomen, farmers or fishermen or companies. And because of BIO’s scale and outreach. With just one investment we enable a client to employ thousands of people, improving the lives of multitudes directly and indirectly dependent on them. BIO’s investments contribute to economic growth, to tax income for the delivery of public goods and services, to innovation in digital technologies and to the fight against climate change -  on communal, regional and arguably even at national level.
In doing so – and in my view making BIO’s business model sustainable - we in Belgium are also “becoming better” because of our activity. We provide high-quality employment to some 60 people directly and a multiple of that indirectly, we provide taxes and dividend income to our shareholder the Belgian State and population, and our ambitious project to encourage private investors to co-invest with us is booking its initial successes.

This of course doesn’t mean that, on a Sunday evening, sipping an inspiring red wine – dark ruby-red, oak-barrel, vanilla with a touch of cloves, listening to ensnaring music or reading a spellbinding book, I never ask myself why - for Heaven’s sake - I should get up at six the next morning to go to work. But seeing the early-morning fog over the Ardennes dissipate at dawn during my train ride to Brussels, I feel privileged to work at BIO. Because I know that, the next time I find myself confronted with an elderly man’s welcoming question, I will have my answer ready.

Luuk Zonneveld

Born in Nijmegen, The Netherlands
1987 – 1992 Purchasing manager tropical commodities
2001 – 2008 CEO, Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International
2012 - CEO, Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries SA/NV