For the love of sustainability


From Munich to Maastricht, and now Nairobi. Jasper Grosskurth (1975), graduate of the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE), has come a long way.

A German national, he now works as Director of Research and Strategy at Research Solutions Africa, a market research firm based in Kenya. Read on for a career path strung together by the common thread of sustainability – and why Africa is forging ahead of Europe when it comes to the environment.

“Sustainability has three components: ecological, social and economic”, says Grosskurth. “The West is making a complete mess of ecological sustainability. We’re producing the excessive CO2 emissions. And we’re the problem in the world when it comes to the disenchantment with the social component. But having said that, the economic component in Europe is sustainable enough.”

In Africa, however, the economic situation is quite different. “Even if we redistribute all the money equally, there will not be enough. Unemployment is up to 95% and very few people are in formal employment. But ecologically, Africa plays only a small role in global CO2 emissions. In some areas there simply isn’t enough money for pesticides and fertilisers, so some agriculture is organic of necessity. At a very basic level, people know they need to be eco-friendly because otherwise they endanger the very foundation of their lives. They know that if trees are felled, they’ll struggle to get water. These kinds of one-to-one, cause-and-effect relationships are very clear here.

“In Europe, discussions on sustainability are at a much more abstract, theoretical level. It’s typical that we expect a certain attitude from other countries, but don’t have this attitude in Europe ourselves. We don’t learn personally from our mistakes, we live in the illusion that our system is permanent and stable, and we haven’t yet reached a turning point. Economically, things are slowly starting to change because of the financial crises. But ecologically, it remains to be seen whether our system is solid enough to go on.”

Overarching theme

As a boy in Munich, Grosskurth always wanted to travel to faraway lands. By the time he started the Master in International Economic Studies at SBE, his goal was clear: to help create greener economies. His next stop was Maastricht’s International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development (ICIS ), where he researched regional sustainability for his PhD. “My dissertation was an attempt to map sustainability dilemmas within organisations, to look for more balanced and more transparent sustainability policies, to see sustainability not as a separate subject but as an overarching theme that cuts across the whole organisation. You need to look at the sum of all processes and try to bring sustainability into everything you do.”

Grosskurth and several colleagues then founded Pantopicon, a consulting firm for long-term issues ranging from regional development and nanotechnology to ageing. “Soon after, I started as​​ a ‘futurist’ at the Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends in The Hague. I worked on a three-year project on the futures of technology in Africa, and published a book on the topic in 2010. That job gave me all sorts of knowledge about Africa and I also built up a network there. I started to feel the urge to put this knowledge into practice; to translate the ‘story’ to the shop floor. Hence the move to Research Solutions Africa in Kenya. I’ve now lived in Nairobi for nine months and I’m hugely happy here – it’s a beautiful city with a very diverse environment.”

Who wants soap?

In his new role as Director of Research and Strategy, Grosskurth is the sole European in a fully Kenyan environment. “We do market research in 20 African countries, collecting data for parties such as Nestlé and Heineken, but also for African companies. The themes we explore are very broad; it’s up to the clients to decide what they want us to investigate. One day we might be doing customer satisfaction surveys, the next we’ll be looking at where consumers are buying a certain type of soap. We also conduct feasibility studies for smaller NGOs or companies, including some from the Netherlands, on the added value of proposed development projects, for example.”

Of help in this work, Grosskurth thinks, was his grounding in Problem-Based Learning (PBL) during his time at SBE. “You have to be able to talk with CEOs and other executives, but also know how to deal with field researchers on the ground. And you have to be sensitive to cultural differences and be able to respond quickly. PBL helps you to be more flexible and adaptable.”

“I’m learning a lot here. It’s important to realise that the various African countries are vastly different. For example, Kenya is very different from Ethiopia. And the differences between people are larger than the differences between cultures. You can find lovely people and not so nice people, more and less honest people, those who can and can’t be corrupted. Given this context, every project is different. Often the environmental factors are the same, it’s just the individual locations that differ.”

Contribution

So how does market research contribute to sustainability in Africa? “In a very concrete way, actually. There’s very little data available in Africa in all sorts of fields. Even population figures have a margin of error of 30%. Look at Kiberia, for example; a slum in Nairobi. Its population was initially estimated at one million inhabitants. Now, thanks to new technologies, there are better reports which put the population at something like 177,000. If you want to make a region sustainable, it makes quite a difference whether you’re looking at 177,000 people or one million! I think that providing better information is a real contribution, because organisations can make more informed decisions that lead to sustainability, such as educating people in the slums or creating jobs.”

Grosskurth also serves a mentor for NaiLab, a business incubator in Nairobi. “The aim is to promote positive employment for university graduates. I supervise projects, and try to connect people, to shine a spotlight on social and ecological issues.”

Passion

That he feels passionately about sustainability is clear – on both a personal and professional level. “Ultimately, my goal is to return to Europe and use the lessons learned in Europe and Africa to take sustainability models to the next level. In my private life I want to make a sustainable impact with new models of living. In the business sphere, I want to integrate sustainability throughout the organisation.

“What sustainability offers organisations is the chance for individual employees to feel comfortable, rather than conflicted. Employees see very acutely the inconsistencies, the discrepancies between their own values ​​and how their company acts. Sustainability can harmonise the two. Contradictions cannot exist in people; you can’t do at work what you don’t do in the private sphere. It’s impossible to be a cold-blooded manager in the office but a caring person at home. No-one can feel comfortable living such a contradiction.

“Sustainability is also about long-term vision, thinking about future generations. You’re no longer thinking one or two years ahead, but 30 to 100. If you as an organisation take long-term effects into account in your strategic thinking, really integrate sustainability into the organisation, into society, you can build the whole of society such that organisations that are more sustainable are also more successful.”

Action

Lofty goals, indeed. But Grosskurth is pragmatic in his approach. “We actually know very little about what is and isn’t sustainable. But you have to act, and when you do, act like you know everything, but think as though you know nothing. There are certain things that are more sustainable than other things, even if they may not seem like it. For example, some plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags. And there are constantly new developments and insights that force you to adjust your beliefs. So you should be open to new developments, always look for ways to test your knowledge, to disprove your assumptions about sustainability.

“And stay away from ‘greenwash’ at all costs – people or companies that claim to be sustainable, but don’t take real action, don’t practise what they preach. It’s pretence; nothing more than window dressing. Whatever you do, you have to take action.”

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