With roots both in Tanzania and the Netherlands, Henri Van Eeghen has worked in the private sector running the oldest family business in the Netherlands and in many other positions across the world, and also in international development organisations, before his present role as CEO of Synergos – the global change institution with footprint in several countries, including Nigeria.
He has equally been involved in philanthropy work as an active member of the Synergos Global Philanthropists Circle in the past five years, through which he, alongside his wife Carolien, have taken on responsibilities involving the Syrian refugee crisis, on impact investing and spiritual civilisation.
Henri Van Eeghen’s work brought him to Nigeria very recently, where Synergos that he leads is keenly engaged in agricultural interventions, with its State Partnership for Agriculture carrying out very critical programmes in Kaduna, Kogi and Benue States, and is at the centre of some major innovation and collaborations with farmers and other agricultural stakeholders. On the sideline of his recent visit, he spoke with Premium Times’ Ololade Bamidele on the work that Synergos does and what motivates its deepening intervention programmes in Nigeria.
PT: What is it about the work you do globally, and your background?
Henri Van Eeghen: My family’s roots are actually in Tanzania. I grew up there since the Second World War when my parents went to live in what was then Tangayika. So, there is a very strong connection to the African continent. I have lived for extended periods of time in Kenya and South Africa, and so many other countries. I have been active in the corporate world – in forestry and the paper business and packaging, and have also run a family company out of the Netherlands. I am a Dutch national. But my roots have been in both Africa and in the Netherlands. And then, I have spent most of my life visiting different countries. Since about a year now, I have lived and worked for an organisation in New York, and we are a global organisation, with the office in New York as a service office for the countries that we work in. And Nigeria is one of the countries that we work in. We also work in Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Namibia, South Africa, Bangladesh and so on. It is quite a wide variety of countries.
Synergos is a group of philanthropists from all continents; we have members from 33 countries. And we do advisory work; like here in Nigeria, we do advisory work, particularly in the agriculture sector.
PT: What occurs to you when you think about Nigeria or when Nigeria is mentioned?
Henri Van Eeghen: First of all, it is a really exciting country to be in. Culturally, it’s really an exciting country, and in some ways it’s quite similar to the Dutch characteristics; we are quite direct, and I think Nigerians like to be quite direct as well; we are quite engaged and people are very engaged here as well. And at the same time we also notice that the differences in Nigeria are enormous for the different areas, as you probably notice… in the Niger Delta or in the North-East, or if you are in Abuja or you’re in Lagos, they are different ecosystems altogether.
PT: Absolutely so.
So, that means that as an outsider, and I’m not an expert on Nigeria – of course, because I don’t live here, but there is great need to bridge the leadership within Nigeria, to work more for our common goals. That’s going to be the challenge going forward, and our organisation specifically works on leadership and leadership skills, and forms of self-protection. And we feel that in many ecosystems and not just Nigeria – it can be in my own country, the Netherlands, or the United States, if you look inside an ecosystem which is not functioning so well, the problems are usually not technical but they usually have to do with leadership. And so, addressing leadership is a critical step to improving the ecosystem. And that is the kind of work that we have been doing in Nigeria with the Ministry of Agriculture, with the Vice President’s office as well, and with some of the governors in different states. And, of course, local leaders and women leaders, particularly, as well. My advice, if I can give any advice, and I am careful about that because I am an outsider: I think developing women as leaders in Nigeria is going to be key in the future. It is like balancing life out.
PT: What is the attraction to Nigeria – is it the opportunity to help in solving the complex levels of poverty and issues related to poverty in the country?
Henri Van Eeghen: That may be a part of it… As you know, we have marvelous people here on the ground led by Adewale Ajadi, our Nigeria Country Director, and he’s been instrumental in identifying the needs that are here. We’ve got a great team of people here and the initiatives come from him, identifying – with others in Nigeria – the needs, and so all the work that we do have to be locally owned; we don’t come in flying from everywhere. We may bring in some expertise, some new methodologies, some new ways of looking at things, but change really happens from within. And that is normal… In our personal lives, I see it; it’s our own self-reflection, which would lead to a change in our own behaviour and a change in looking at the world around us, and our particular role in it. So, that’s a very important component of the work that we do. We don’t need to have a huge footprint in Nigeria, there is no need for that because we have a lot of people here in Nigeria that we work with and who do excellent work, but we do share common values and a common way of looking at leadership and the need for growth in the leadership qualities within different ecosystems. That’s our type of work. We may work with some families in Nigeria too. And that is very useful as well. Because I think that there is an enormous amount of goodwill inside Nigeria for change, for hope, for a better future, and I can feel that too. And you can figure that with young people, especially – they have great hope of a different future for themselves, and we are all responsible for creating an environment within which they can flourish. That is the challenge.
PT: Why is agriculture your entry point in solving some of the complex experiences of poverty in Nigeria, in relation to all the needs that were identified at the outset of Synergos’ work here?
Henri Van Eeghen: This is a good question. It could be partly accidental because we happen to know some people. And at the same time when I look at the agricultural sector in Nigeria over the last years, it has actually weakened, and you can see this with the increase of imports, and the changing food habits to eating more rice and other products. And at the same time, you have a huge growth in your population. I hear you are now about 200 million people and growing. And at the same time, you have an incredible need to import food into Nigeria. And so, I think that one of the things that you collectively as a country need to address – and I think there is some stepping up at the moment – is the agriculture sector; it should be the backbone of your society. And Nigeria has very fertile grounds and a lot of opportunities to improve the agriculture and to be more self-sufficient. I think the drive you have at the moment in really addressing this is good, and I think Adewale also is very much of the opinion that those are good things – and as such farmers should be supported to increase their yields and so on; but all of that again is about: what is the leadership within the system? And how can we support to make change there, so that we get to better policymaking and better implementation of the change that is needed to be more self-sufficient as a country? And I think that should really be a high priority. And, I think for some people in politics, it has become a high priority too. In 50 years’ time, you might be 250 or 300 million people, and imagine if the agricultural sector stays at the level it is today, you would be solely dependent on food from the outside world and that will not be a good thing.
PT: You are absolutely correct about that.
Henri Van Eeghen: So, whatever we can do to support, we will do this.
PT: How are you carrying forward some of the work you are doing in Nigeria? And, are there other levels of interventions you are considering in Nigeria, whether in terms of building leadership capacities or such-like? Are you going to be working with other social groups?
Henri Van Eeghen: One of the exciting new ideas born here is to see whether we can support young women leadership development within Nigeria. We are in the process of putting a programme together for 40-60 young women in the age group of 25 to 35 from across the different political and geographical areas in Nigeria, for them to work on their own leadership skills. That is something that we are just starting out now and we are discussing with a whole lot of people here in Nigeria. It is an exciting thing.
PT: Why are the essential anchors of your work in Synergos around the methodology of bridging leadership, engaging with diversity, collaboration, etc.?
Henri Van Eeghen: The reason is not that difficult. If you want to be a strong leader – and a leader can be one in your family or in your work – then the first start has to be self-reflection; you have to look at yourself: What is your role? What are your qualities? What are some of the things that are inhibiting you from becoming a greater leader? So, you need to work on the self in order to be able to fulfill a greater leadership role outside. And the other thing within our specific type of work is that we really have to understand what it is to collaborate. Collaboration is not that we do something and then ask you to come with us – that is called traditional partnership. Collaboration is: I give something away and you give something away, and we find a space together. So, collaboration is a much more difficult thing to do because it can never be that you remain owning the lead – no! It is shared ownership. So, the first area that we really think is important is to look at systems change and to understand a system really well.
So, if you look at the agricultural sector, we produce white papers on the sector; we really analyse how the system is functioning and maybe areas not functioning so well, because that analyses is a basis to work from, and to then to look at what are your common goal settings as you work with different leaders within the system. So, that is central to our work, and that is our approach and that is what we are really good at. And we combine that in many places with philanthropists who are interested in supporting that kind of work, and we are connected to philanthropists in Africa as well. And we have some of the philanthropists who have real interests in governance structures because, of course, when you look within a sector like agriculture, the governance is really an important one too. And it is part of the solution often, as well.
PT: Is this your first time in Nigeria?
Henri Van Eeghen: No. Maybe 11th or 12th time.
PT: On the Synergos job, is this your first time in Nigeria?
Henri Van Eeghen: Yes. For Synergos, it is the first time. But I have been here many times. I’ve been in Port Harcourt and different parts of the North-East. I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy different parts and to see the big differences between them. I was in Lagos with Adewale, and I could see the big difference between Lagos and Abuja. And when you fly back into Abuja, it as if you are getting into tranquility. The roads are a little bit empty; you get into your hotel in 20 minutes (from the airport). But in Lagos, you’ll just say: “We’ll see what time we arrive.” They’re quite different.
PT: Every time you leave Nigeria, what are your takeaways about Nigeria? What always amazes you; what strikes you? What is your Nigerian experience like, generally?
Henri Van Eeghen: I think, a sense of deep connection to a whole number of people. And I could feel that with the people we met when we were in Lagos. We met people from Dangote Foundation and I felt a deep connection – and with our own people in our office – and a shared vision of change. I feel very convinced about this in leaving Nigeria now, and I am already looking forward to coming back.