It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of Grounded since we might say it unofficially began at several points in time, so let’s start with how you two first met.
G: We stumbled on each other in the forests of southern Zambia and we took it from there, I guess (laughs). We worked together on an assignment where we were both asked to give our opinion. I think we really liked working together—that’s where it started.
T: Ya, I had set up a legal entity to do the work in the Baviaanskloof, and then had the opportunity to take it into my own business and see if we could expand what we had done into other areas. But I didn’t want to do that alone, so I was actually looking for a business partner. Because I had been working with Gijs in Zambia and that was going really well, I asked him if he wanted to join me, basically. That’s how we decided to partner and work together.
What was the project you were working on in Zambia?
G: At the time, the assignment was to look for business opportunities around a landscape project run by the Peace Parks Foundation. They set up trans-boundary parks—international parks—since animals don’t know borders. One of the important linkages between two parks, a park in Botswana and a park in Zambia, is where they identified an opportunity to create a corridor for animals. They understood that the only way to make it work though, was to find income streams for the people adjacent to the corridor.
We came in and said, ‘okay, what opportunities might we identify, and what would it take to develop those? What might be potential hurdles?’ That was the first reason we came in.
Let’s hear a little bit about you two individually. Thekla, starting off in the business world in Europe, how did you wind up caring about agriculture in Africa?
T: Well, the work I did in business was mostly strategy consulting type work. Through some of those projects, I was already involved in climate change, water security and land degradation, looking at the implications of those things for the strategies of large companies. I was quite aware of the issues, but mostly on a high-level—a global level. I had also done some work with an organisation called True Price, which looked at the value chains of different products. That was more on a product level, but also quite systemic, looking at the environmental and social challenges across the value chain of, for instance, a chocolate bar.
It really struck me that a lot of these problems seemed to boil down to a farming level. That is where a lot of these things come together: there’s deforestation happening, land degradation, water scarcity, food security issues. So I thought it was quite an interesting angle.
It really struck me that a lot of these problems seemed to boil down to a farming level.
Then I went on a cycling trip for two months in Asia. And when you are cycling a lot of the time you’re not in a city but cycling through agricultural land or through nature. That’s when it really hit home for me. I saw all those landscapes and thought, ya, it would be really interesting to work with farmers and see how you can use the land sustainably. ‘Cause I saw some land-use that was just clearly unsustainable—very extractive, a lot of pesticides etc. You could just see in other areas it looked healthier and a little bit more in balance—even though I was not an expert at the time.
Just, you know, I had nothing else to do than just look at these fields, basically, all day on my bike. (Laughs).
When I came back, I decided, okay, I’m going to do something with this. I didn’t want to work in head offices anymore, but more with real people, on what it’s really about.
What about you, Gijs? Maybe talk a little bit about your experience in agriculture, and tie it into your vision for sustainable agriculture through Grounded as well.
G: For me, I’ve always been passionate about farming and the farming community growing up, despite the fact that my parents are not farmers. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I always liked to be outside working on farms. Then you start studying, working and I always knew I wanted to have my own company or do something with a social enterprise. I believe business has a role to play in changing the world; and maybe I was biased, but I realized there’s a lot of potential in agriculture when it comes to food security and environmental challenges. Sooner or later, I thought, I have to do something with this. So I started traveling the world. I started visiting farmers and thought, okay, what is my role to play?
Generally speaking, I think we both see agriculture going very high-tech vertical farming, greenhouses. But I think there’s also a role for natural farming, especially since we use so much of the land for agriculture. The more naturally we can integrate it, the better it is. The more natural we can make our farming systems, the more natural services we can deliver to the environment. Ultimately, we believe that if you do that really well over the long term, you have a better, more profitable farm that gives you a better product.
The more natural we can make our farming systems, the more natural services we can deliver to the environment.
T: Maybe to add that, what we’re hoping and believing, I think, is that instead of agriculture being this thing that is always in competition with nature, and actually kind of destroys nature, you can use agriculture to restore nature—to amplify it. If you do it right. To build more soils, yes, but it can also play a huge role in combating climate change because trees or plants or whatever kind of crops, and also the soil, have an enormous capacity to store carbon.
What’s the most promising project in the Grounded portfolio today?
G: Since I’m a big football fan, I compare it to, ya know, the best football player in the Netherlands, Johan Cruijff, he started playing football in what they called the ‘concrete village’. Everything was stone and concrete. When he was finally allowed onto the pitch, he said it was super easy to play football because he had learned in the harshest environment. It’s the same with us as well—you can play the best game on the best pitch and the best field, but if you start on concrete floors, then you learn to master the skills to make sure everything in your technique is perfect. That’s how I look to the future with Grounded. We started in these challenging environments with highly degraded land, and very bad roads and little infrastructure. Now we are turning things around, looking at opportunities where the soil is not so severely degraded, the landscapes are not so remote, and some economic activity already exists. We try to step into those areas and use all the lessons we’ve learned. That’s what we’re trying to do now in Tanzania and Uganda.
Now we are turning things around, looking at opportunities where the soil is not so severely degraded, the landscapes are not so remote, and some economic activity already exists. We try to step into those areas and use all the lessons we’ve learned.
T: What we see happening in the market is there’s huge demand for sustainably and ethically produced products. A lot of brands are popping up in that space that want to deliver these products to consumers. However, a lot of them really struggle to source their ingredients—often, they don’t even really know where their ingredients come from because they have to buy them from a wholesaler. If they want to do it right, it quickly becomes really expensive.
At the same time, we see that the farmers we work with often struggle to get their products to those kinds of brands, and that’s largely because those smaller brands need smaller volumes. If they use twenty ingredients in their products, they’re not going to reach out to farmers directly to source all their ingredients. And the farmers are not going to phone all the brands who might use only a little bit of their product—it will just take them too much time and money.
So we’re exploring whether we can play a role there, which I think can be really interesting for both of those players, and eventually for consumers, to have access to those products which are really farmed in a regenerative and socially responsible way.
You deal with some pretty massive problems—climate change issues, poverty, the lack of support for rural areas—it’s a lot. How do you guys manage the stress and not…I don’t know…evaporate in the face of all this adversity?
G: First and foremost, we see challenges and we see opportunities, and we want to do things differently. And I think things have to be done differently. I think what helps is what we are voicing to everyone else involved: what we are doing is not a silver bullet. It’s not going to change the world on its own, and it’s not a guarantee for success. We can be honest about it. For me, I think it’s worthwhile failing, so whatever happens that helps me, and it continually allows us to look critically at what we do to change it. We can always find new energy in that because we know that, in short, things have to be different, and we do things differently. And we just have to adapt and work hard to make sure that our different is going to be a success.
First and foremost, we see challenges and we see opportunities, and we want to do things differently.
More on a personal level, in the evening, at the end of the day, I’ll dive into the kitchen—I’ll cut my vegetables and make a nice meal. At the beginning of the day I’ll think about work, but at the end of the day, my mind is on the food and at the table. That’s just how I relax and take my mind off of things. But the first thing in the morning when the alarm goes off (if the alarm goes off —most of the time, not) then your mind is back at work. But it’s super rewarding work and it’s that sense of mission, and I think a lot of us in the company have it. That thing—that goal that we have – is worthwhile pursuing every moment of the day.
T: For me this is an interesting question because I think I didn’t manage to de-stress from all the hard work two years ago, because I’ve just been in a burn-out. For like a year, I couldn’t work. I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite demanding, and it became too demanding for me, especially because I was very involved also on a personal level with the work we did and the people in the landscapes that we work with. When things didn’t go right, I felt responsible personally to fix them, which sometimes was just not possible—or not possible in the short-term. It took a lot from me. I was maybe more used to working in an environment where you can fix things more easily—if you’ve made a mistake it’s in a PowerPoint presentation, or an Excel spreadsheet, or whatever. If you’ve made a mistake in an agricultural project, it’s a very different story. You often have to wait another year for another production cycle to try something else. It’s much, much harder. And it actually takes a huge toll on the farmers who are involved. That got to me.
I think from that period I took quite a lot of support from our team—we have an amazing, caring company culture. That has been something quite special to me, and I think it’s something that helps a lot of us manage the stress—that there’s a really positive vibe in the team. And, of course, really taking time off from work, making sure I get outside. I do a lot of sports. I also like cooking, seeing friends, etc. I think we are quite okay with not working day and night. We might think about it a lot but we’re not sitting behind our computers at 10pm–both Gijs and I, we, we’re like, in bed. (Laughs).