Farewell interview Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Kenya, Somalia and the Seychelles, H.E. Frans Makken

In 5 years you can harvest maize multiple times but after planting an avocado tree you will need to wait at least another 5 years before you will have fruits. Depending on the crop, 5 years can be a long time or just the beginning of something bigger. In the case of H.E. Ambassador Frans Makken, a lot has happened in 5 years. In light of his departure, we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. This interview shines a light on the posting of Ambassador Makken here with us in Nairobi, Kenya.

Farmers continuously show their adaptability and continue to prepare themselves for the future. Climate change, changing markets, growing demands and changing interest require all stakeholders in the agriculture sector to show their flexibility. A key strength in the world today.

Ambassador Frans Makken saw the Big 4 of the Kenyan government come into existence, he witnessed new ministers come and shifts in the focus. Ambassador Makken, who has a background in agriculture himself, has guided, supported and represented the Netherlands throughout the last years, supporting the agricultural sector in all its aspects.

Frans Makken
Frans Makken

You have agriculture background yourself; did you have certain expectations before you came to Kenya as an ambassador?

Towards the end of one’s working life, there is this tendency to look back and wonder about it all. What strikes me is how often you cross paths again with people and programs you have dealt with in the past ‘in another life’ as they say. Although an economist by training, the first 14 years before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were devoted totally to agriculture, having worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Agro-Economic Research institute (LEI-DLO). Coming to Kenya I knew there would be a program in agriculture, but there were many more flashbacks than I had expected. My first ever FAO mission to Africa was on locusts along the Senegal River in the context of a remote sensing program. The locust outbreaks in Kenya and Somalia made this mission look like happening yesterday. At LEI-DLO, I was instrumental in setting up IFDC in Lomé, Togo, and not only did I meet IFDC as an organization in Kenya I even met staff from that time. Matters of Food Security and Post-Harvest Losses were my key responsibilities at FAO and are now a very important part of our embassy program for Kenya. I also worked a lot with Wageningen University (WUR), but it is no surprise to also find them in Kenya, WUR is everywhere!

How would you characterize the bilateral relations between Kenya and the Netherlands?

Ever since its independence, Kenya and the Netherlands have had very strong ties. During my tenure, we entered a new phase in our bilateral relationship, as we went from an aid to a trade approach. This was highly appreciated by the Kenyan government, since it meant the start of a real partnership on an equal footing rather than the traditional donor-recipient relationship. This also allowed me to work much more closely with the Kenyan government, as we were dealing with such matters as improving the trade and investment climate by tackling institutional hurdles and helping Kenya to improve its doing-business ranking. There is a lot at stake: for the last five years in a row, the Netherlands has been ranked as the largest export market for Kenyan products in Europe, the main destination for Kenya’s cut flowers, vegetables and fruits. I am proud of the fact that despite COVID-19 we managed to get the cargo flights going again, even to the point of daily flights already a few weeks after the start of the pandemic. This strong relationship, but also the fact that so many summits take place in Kenya, brought many ministers to Kenya, which underscores the relevance of our work in Kenya.

What do you think are the successes for agriculture during your posting in Kenya?

There are many emanating from the combined agriculture and food security programs of our Embassy. The value-chain approach is extremely important as it encompasses many lessons learnt from the past: isolated projects that do not take the entire chain into account are bound to fail. What use are e.g. inputs and credit if there is no market? Or if is there is not enough water? Our activities in floriculture, aquaculture, horticulture, potatoes, and dairy all have in common that they are perceived with an eye on economic and ecological sustainability, climate resilience and, most importantly, fit to scale up.

The first Agriculture Working Group between the governments of Kenya and the Netherlands, July 2019, Nairobi

What moment you are most proud of as ambassador in Kenya representing the Dutch agricultural sector?

It is good to stress that as an Ambassador you fully depend on your colleagues who have an intricate knowledge of the projects, programs and, most importantly, the obstacles. They tell you that it is time to see a minister or other decision makers to discuss these obstacles. I can therefore only say that I am proud of my colleagues of the Agriculture Team who so very often made me look good. Successes always put the Ambassador in the lime light, whereas the real winners remain on the background. I am referring to the creation of the Dutch-Kenyan Agriculture Working Group, the continued dialogue with our partners to stimulate the seed potato sector, the impressive third largest in the world IFTEX flower exhibitions and interventions at the level of the President to unblock the fertilizer import congestions due to unfair checking regimes. By the way, the President always mentions potatoes when he sees me, which goes to show the level of recognition of the Netherlands as a partner in the potato sector.

What do you think the future will bring for the agricultural sector in Kenya?

Obviously, COVID-19 is hitting Kenya’s agriculture sector hard and it reveals its weakness: lack of diversification. Kenya really has to avoid complacency: the market for roses shows some saturation and margins are small, airfreight costs for vegetables are only affordable in combination with other cargo, food imports are still very high, etc. The pandemic hopefully will trigger some structural changes in the sector that will reduce volatility risks in the future.

What lessons did you learn during your stay in Kenya, which of these lessons would you like to share with the sector?

During my work, I have seen how the various institutions dealing with tax, standards, phytosanitary rules and regulations, etc. can further improve to facilitate trade. In our contacts with the President, we have raised this and managed to get some streamlining done which eased the throughput in Mombasa and reduced surprise visits to companies. However, unpredictability is always bad for business and the sector should get organized in conjunction with commercial chambers of the various Embassies to convey clear and constructive messages to government. Often unhelpful practices have grown over time and need a reset. This can best be done through the forging of good relationships with decision makers, where needed with the help of an Embassy.

H.E. Mr. Makken in conversation with companies in the aquaculture sector during the Eldoret Agribusiness Fair

Any advice for the new agricultural companies that want to start in Kenya?

Important strides have been made regarding the registration of new companies in Kenya, but that is the easy part. It is important to know a lot about the sector you are about to enter, to know about possible pitfalls and challenges and, preferably, come in with innovative ideas. Kenya and Kenyans are open to innovation and eager to stand out internationally. More of the same is not what Kenya needs at the moment

What are your plans for the coming years, will agriculture be part of your retirement plan as it is for many Kenyans?

Haha, no agriculture will not be part of it. I will always wander around food markets and drive through the countryside, no matter where, remembering the many field visits I was privileged to do in a host of countries. However, after retirement I hope to devote more time to culture instead of agriculture.

What advice would you give to your successor, the sector and Kenya?

No two ambassadors are the same and one should stay close to one’s strong points and personality. After me, it will be different, but for sure, anyone who is ambassador to Kenya cannot escape the importance of agriculture to this promising country. I am confident that my successor will benefit as much as I did from a very able and motivated Agricultural Team in promoting the sector, which is undeniably the most important pillar of economic growth in the near future. Innovation and sustainable value chains are key to a great future of Kenya.

In July 2020 we said goodbye to Ambassador Mr. Frans Makken. The Netherland embassy as a whole, and agriculture team in specific, thank him for his leadership and his valuable contribution.