40 YEARS OF GFA – FROM HUMBLE PIG PEN TO CONSULTING POWERHOUSE
GFA turns 40 this year – a reason to celebrate and reflect. Not only did development cooperation change dramatically across this almost half a century, but GFA has also been able to write an amazing success story. We took this as an opportunity to host exciting events at six different locations. We discussed hot issues with experts and guests. We recorded all the events and put them online. GFA's managing directors Anja Desai, Heiko Weißleder and Ilona Schadl will take you along on a journey featuring the best moments of these events in a short video.
Anja Desai, Managing Director
Looking back into the future – GFA kick-off in Hamburg
The kick-off event hosted current and former GFA staff members, who influenced, witnessed and currently drive GFA’s evolution from conventional development cooperation in the company’s early days to the international cooperation of today and the future. Moderator Jan Prothmann captured key take-aways from 40 years of constant evolvement in GFA and a look at the future role of consulting services in addressing global challenges.
In a cut-in video, GFA founder Johannes Lagemann looked back at the humble beginnings of GFA in a converted pig pen at the periphery of Hamburg in 1982. The original 4-6 staff members had to overcome essential problems regarding proposal writing, project management and finance. Even when the first long-term projects had been won after a few years, it took the founder a high entrepreneurial risk to cover the pre-financing requirements with an individual, unlimited bank guarantee. The banks, at the time, considered the GFA business model too risky.
But the banks were proven wrong. Today, GFA Consulting Group is one of the leading consulting companies in Europe with 340 staff in Hamburg alone, 1,424 worldwide, at an annual turnover of EUR 141 million Euro A first milestone in the company’s rapid development was its access to the East European and Central Asian agro-industrial sector right after the Iron Curtain came down in 1989. GFA seized this historical opportunity by assisting the privatization of state enterprises. As a result, the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture made the company, to this day, the General Agent of its Bilateral Cooperation Program. Moreover, as privatization and management of agro-industries required data-based approaches, the IT and financial management competencies that GFA B.I.S., founded 30 years ago, was able to provide came in a timely fashion.
It also enabled GFA Consulting Group to become the trusted fiscal agent and public finance management advisor for donors such as the US-based Millennium Challenge Corporation, World Bank, or European Commission. When GFA established more subsidiaries such as Medica or International Management Consulting in the 1990s, the adaptive and multi-disciplinary qualifications of the company’s staff proved an advantage.
Indeed, the ultimate keystone to success for GFA remained the recruitment of professionals who shared a type of creative optimism and continue to shape the company’s vision and values. One of them is Christoph Schaefer-Kehnert, an agricultural economist who is now a member of GFA’s supervisory board and was managing director of GFA Consulting Group and other GFA companies. Anja Desai, one of the managing directors for GFA Consulting Group with degrees in political science and public administration, confirmed this view as “continuous change coming from within the company, from colleagues who push for their own innovative ideas”. For example, this was clearly visible during greening of GFA’s buildings, the establishment of the Digital Innovation Unit or in the collaborative setup of the Climate Cluster. As GFA staff can become shareholders of their company and responsibilities are delegated, this keeps the team spirit up and creates a corporate culture of dedication and trust.
When asked about the future of GFA, Mark Tyrrell, a data scientist at the Digital Innovation Unit, stressed that the digital transformation and data-based services GFA and its three IT companies – GFA B.I.S., GFA SysCom and TolaData – is known for have always been a competitive advantage. Nadia Kovalcikova, a consultant in the Governance Department, reminded her colleagues of the importance to put meaning and structure to often-heard buzzwords like ‘big data’, ‘sustainable future’ or ‘agile’. Johannes von Stamm from the Education, Skills Development and Employment Department, spoke up in favor of traveling as a consultant in contrast to home office because of local inspirations, e.g. in his work in green transformation. Anja Desai concluded that GFA has moved from ‘expert’ to ‘advisor’ who listens first, keeps a critical mind, builds networks and welcomes collaboration.
Event video, long version ( 1hour)
The power of transformative climate solutions - GFA event at HEAT in Königstein
On 25 May 2022, Daniel Wahby, head of GFA´s Climate & Energy Cluster, and Dietram Oppelt, managing director of HEAT, opened the event in Königstein that challenged guests involved in climate policy and international cooperation. The lead question was how to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and achieve climate neutrality through less carbon-intensive building materials and energy efficiency standards for buildings.
Rose Mwebaza, the director of the Climate Technology Centre & Network, started the discussion with a look at zero carbon buildings and the related challenges and opportunities from the perspective of developing countries. “We know where the transformational changes need to take place”, she stated, namely in urban, energy, water and food production systems guided by national policy frameworks, circular economy strategies, and implementation guides. In many countries, the building sector lacks specific mitigation policies, despite its large share of global CO2 emissions. Therefore, national governments should step up longer-term climate strategies and support regulations to spur uptake of net-zero emissions buildings.
Paul Kellett of the UNEP United4Efficiency (U4E) program highlighted how push and pull effects can contribute to transforming markets to energy efficient appliances and equipment. As the world is going digital, urban, and electric, and especially non-OECD countries have high cooling and appliances growth, his main argument is that “the largest greenhouse gas reductions to get to 2 degrees need to come from end-use energy efficiency and renewables”. Therefore, U4E implements a proven 5-year policy approach for product market transformation, including a step-by-step approach to energy-efficient buildings.
“Why buildings?” asked Stela Ivanova of the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, who took a closer look at global standards and level playing fields related to zero-carbon steel and cement for buildings. In 2020, buildings accounted for 37% of energy-related CO2 emissions, which made them one of the main energy demand sectors beside industry and transport. In addition, floor area in the building sector worldwide is expected to increase by 75% until 2050. As steel and cement account for by far the largest share of the carbon footprint of buildings, efforts to reduce their impact must be massively scaled up to achieve climate neutrality.
Philipp Munzinger, climate and energy specialist at GIZ Proklima, presented fresh ideas on climate-neutral solutions for cooling with natural refrigerants. He referred to a fast growth global cooling trend due to an increasing middle class, changing lifestyles and rising ambient temperatures. Sector-related GHG emissions result from fossil fuel-based electricity use for cooling appliances and highly climate-damaging refrigerants. Some of the latter are up to 13,000 times more climate-damaging than CO2. In comparison with a business-as-usual scenario, a green cooling approach using natural refrigerants could reduce the direct climate impact of refrigeration and air conditioning from 8,0 to 4,6 Mt CO2 eq. Therefore, GIZ Proklima has been implementing more than 240 projects in over 40 developing and emerging countries, promoting integrated ozone and climate protection.
All experts agreed that more and faster results could be achieved in this field if awareness raising and educational efforts as well as the sharing of information and technologies were increased.
Data revolution in development cooperation – Curse or blessing? GFA event in Bonn
The last two years have experienced an unprecedented transformation towards digitalized services across all sectors, while governments struggle with critically needed policies, e.g. on data governance, artificial intelligence or digital identification systems. In Bonn, moderator Leonhard Nima welcomed digital development practitioners and researchers from Germany, Africa and the Middle East to shed some light on related challenges.
Ingmar Weber of the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) has pioneered the use of free-of-charge online social media advertising data for complementing official statistics on measuring SDG trends, international migration, digital gender gaps, poverty and cultural influences on communication patterns. In his presentation, he pointed at surprising insights, e.g. detecting income based solely on the type of mobile phone or using social media data to estimate international migration rates. Hence, the use of digital records for demographic research is particularly important for developing countries, where the expansion of the Internet connectivity is faster than the development of mature demographic registration systems. Weber questions whether better data will lead to better decisions: “Maybe. But remember global warming.”
In a subsequent panel discussion, Thelma Efua Quaye of Smart Africa stressed that the top problem with digitization in Africa is affordability, not connectivity. As 80% of data goes out of Africa, one question is how data sovereignty and ownership can be increased. Smart Africa, therefore, strives for sovereignty of data ownership and harmonized frameworks. A common digital market by 2030 and 50% digital IDs by 2025 will be crucial milestones along the road.
Björn Richter of the Digital Transformation Cluster of the GIZ Global and Sector Program agreed with these views. As “Google and Huawei as investors are already there”, he pointed at much-needed regulation. Learning from Africa through SORMAS – an open-data e-health software originally developed for and field-tested in West Africa that later helped France and Germany during the Covid-19 pandemic – shows that digitization and economic development make for a complex picture. In order to attract the private sector and remain access to existing partners Richter argues that scaling up such success stories quickly is crucial.
Alison Gillwald of Research ICT Africa (RIA) highlighted again that the cost of devices and affordable service plans are major obstacles in the way of digitizing Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic clearly unveiled connectivity problems. “Non-connected means non-educated means poor” strata of the population, Gillwald maintains. Yet, she argued, digitization does not necessarily solve structural inequality, as data is a public good that only creates value by being translated into enabling environments, education and economic development. Gillwald stressed that a trusted environment has to originate from legitimacy. Finally, she points out that because big data and cybersecurity always have a political dimension, Africans should be better represented in big data, e.g. in the SDGs.
The European Green Deal – Perspectives for Albania, an interview with Constanze Schaaff, Chief Technical Advisor and Team Leader
Where else to discuss the European Green Deal from the perspective of the EU candidate if not from the 2022 European Youth Capital Tirana, Albania. GFA Group has been working in the country since the 1990s. In a 90-minute live event, stakeholders from politics, private sector, civil society and donors, shed light on the challenges and opportunities the Green Deal entails for Albania in various sectors. On this occasion, an interview with Constanze Schaaff, Chief Technical Advisor and Team Leader addressed the event’s highlights in an interview.
'Climate change adaption, environmental degradation, and energy dependence are some of the biggest challenges that also Albania is facing right now'. Therefore, we in GFA decided to focus on the EU Green Deal and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans as these initiatives offer many opportunities for countries in the Western Balkans to respond to the mentioned challenges.
This year is important for Albania regarding its integration into the European Union. In July 2022, the EU Council approved the Negotiating Framework for the negotiations with Albania. At the same time, the EU committed 600 million Euros under the IPAIII for the next seven years to support the approximation process.
The GFA anniversary event identified that building capacities and strengthening human resources will be crucial for Albania on its road towards a transformation of the economy. Such measures will make the country more robust and fair, educate young people, create new jobs and safeguard the protection of natural resources such as water and biodiversity. We really hope that the debate on European Green Deal continues and all Albanian citizens learn about its importance.
Which sectors and stakeholders do you see as most relevant in this respect as far as GFA is concerned?
We invited stakeholders from different sectors – public and private, academia and international donors – to the event in Tirana. Also the panel was diverse, composed of speakers with experience in different sectors such as energy, urbanization, circular economy, food and agriculture, education and skills, water management and protected areas. We believe that all of them are crucial for making the Grean Deal a success story for Albania. At the same time, GFA is and has been active in all these sectors. Hence, we hope for future opportunities to contribute to some of the core topics such as developing a green economy, prevention of soil water and air pollution, support for healthy food systems and sustainable agriculture, protecting the biodiversity, taking climate action, including decarbonization, energy and mobility.
What would you say was the highlight of your event?
In my opinion, it is always the people that invigorate such an event. In our case, the panel was full of individuals who have left their mark in the sectors they work in and truly are an inspiration for others to follow. The moderator managed very well to connect these puzzle pieces to complete a full picture of what Albania stands for today. The audience truly represented the wide network of GFA and its partners. The debates stimulated by the GFA anniversary event have also clearly proven the relevance of the European Green Deal.
Project video (4:40 minutes)
Consulting in the Future – Everything Remains Different? GFA event in Berlin
Moderated by Kerstin Humberg, policy experts, development practitioners and coaches used entertaining formats to shed light on questions such as “How does sustainable transformation translate into our work? Why do we need to take a human-centered approach to enable innovation for development? What does it take for consulting companies to effectively facilitate the much needed private sector investments?”
Drawing from her long-standing experience as a BMZ Director General and leader of numerous ODA organizations, Prof. Claudia Warning challenged the notion that “we know everything”. On the contrary, freely elected autocratic governments, the vulnerabilities uncovered by the Covid-19 pandemic or the Russian war on Ukraine prove that framework conditions change continuously. To her, we need to give the ‘old’ but never realized claims for poverty alleviation and equal opportunity more room again, take good governance as a prerequisite seriously, and not tolerate corruption and nepotism. Take partners seriously, she said, “in good and in evil” because “as we live on the edge we should be outspoken and visible”. But how can the consulting sector make that difference? This was the question for three speakers, tasked to present their take in an exciting Pecha Kucha format – 20 slides 20 seconds each.
With a view of positive psychology, Christian Thiele captivated the audience with the power of hope as a driving force for transformation and change. His message was: effective transformation builds on the principle of “positivity, people and purpose”. Capitalize on the strengths and potential of the people involved, he stated, to guide transformation towards its purpose and keep the light at the end of the tunnel in sight.
Along a similar line, Kilian Karg, design researcher by profession, emphasized in his take that effective innovation must be strictly human-centered. To him “technology is not a solution, but an enabler”. Effective innovation needs to be technically feasible, business viable, and socially and environmentally sustainable. But any innovation not in line with the people’s specific needs and their socio-cultural context is bound to fail. To find the right solution, Kilian Karg continued, think inclusive, as to him “diversity beats complexity”, and “dare to fail”. He concluded that with the opportunities that come along with digitization “we have more resources available than ever before”.
Jonathan First, the third gladiator on the Pecha Kucha stage and Managing Director of the South Africa based GFA Climate & Infrastructure, talked straight when sharing his views on what it takes for development cooperation to leverage private-sector funding. To him, the lack of bankable projects is due to the financial risks that typically exist under insecure political and economic conditions in many countries while available instruments mismatch private sector needs. “The key to take projects from feasibility to bankability is concessional loans”, which development finance institutions (DFIs) are meant to provide. If blended in properly, they not only bring down interest rates and allow for extended loan tenors to boost returns on investment. They also mitigate currency risks, which are often decisive for the private sector to come in or not. This is not really a new insight, but, according to Jonathan First, DFIs have to “walk the talk” now, to live up to what is expected of them. Consultants may bring private or public project developers together with concessional and private sector funders. But it is essential that they ”tell DFIs the truth” on what works and what does not, and not only tell DFIs what they want to hear.
In a cut-in and pre-recorded interview led by Kerstin Humberg, Wanjira Mathai, WRI’s Managing Director, Africa and Global Partnerships, underlined Prof. Warning’s hypothesis that structural poverty is the primary challenge and driver of vulnerability in Africa despite its young population and relatively untouched environment. To her, a change of mindset towards positivity and solidarity is part of a recipe for success, particularly in the restoration of ecosystem services. Consultants will have an impact, if they move from paternalism to partnerships, listen to partners and stay on all the way through.
Finally, Kerstin Humberg invited Irina Scheffmann, Director Liaison at GIZ, Christine Heimburger, Director Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq at KfW, and Prof. Warning to the podium to draw conclusions from a German development cooperation perspective: “What now?” What role will the consulting sector play in future? In essence, the three guests fully agreed that partnerships at eye level and good governance on either side is key to master the current crises. The organizations in international development cooperation must indeed walk the talk with regard to finance and to implementation of projects and programs at national, municipal and local level. Accepting and learning from failures is critical and can only happen in an open and honest dialogue. The consulting sector will certainly continue to play an important role not only to provide technical expertise but also to facilitate effective cooperation.
With another piece, the live band GunGun took the audience into the summer garden of the Alte Turnhalle, where GFA staff, speakers and guests enjoyed the social get-together well into the evening.
GFA Event in Senegal – An Interview with Julie Goudet, GFA Consultant
On July 1, GFA staff and key partners from the public and the private sector celebrated the company’s 40th anniversary in Dakar, Senegal. On this occasion, an interview Julie Goudet, Consultant at the Education, Skills & Employment department and one of the organisers of the event in Dakar, addressed the event’s highlights in an interview.
Your GFA anniversary event in Senegal focused on the options for activities adapted to the needs of the population of West Africa. Which opportunities and challenges did you discuss as specifically relevant to Senegal?
The discussions mainly focused on the future perspectives in four sectors that all play a crucial role in Senegal’s development nowadays. In the sector of technical and vocational education and trainings (TVET) and employment promotion, we especially addressed the issue of professional integration, the different existing schemes and the notion of efficiency in vocational education. We also discussed the need to strengthen training capacities in growing and sustainable sectors to accompany Senegal’s digital and green transition. This led to talks about the energy sector with academic specialists and technical experts. The recent discovery of oil and gas deposits in Senegal triggered a debate on current supply, available resources and future needs. But Senegal’s huge potential in renewable energies the sustainable objective of energy transition needs to be kept in mind as well. We then addressed land access and ownership with a focus on women’s rights, a less known topic that dramatically affects the lives of many Senegalese people. The panel explained current challenges and obstacles to women’s access to land, the effects of gender inequalities on this matter, and some of the steps that can be taken to improve the situation. Finally, we ended the dialog with a highly relevant and quite diverse topic: private sector development. We reviewed current trends and changes before giving the floor two successful female entrepreneurs shared their vision and experience. They provided insights in very concrete challenges they face in their activities, proposed some solutions, and advocated better support for innovative ideas of new businesses in Senegal.
Which sectors and stakeholders do you see as most relevant in this respect as far as GFA is concerned?
GFA is already active in all of the mentioned sectors, in Senegal and globally. Currently, GFA has ten projects in Senegal covering the topics that we addressed. We relied on our project teams during the preparation of the event to identify panellists and important issues to discuss. Therefore, the debates and interventions provided “food for thought” for our own teams, of course, but also for our donors and partners who participated in the event. We used our anniversary as an occasion to call for more dialog. We invited panellists and participants of different backgrounds because we are convinced that cooperation between a wide range of stakeholders is essential to effectively and sustainably help people improve their living conditions. Each of the sectors addressed during the event is a vital component of Senegal’s sustainable development and inevitably interacts with the other sectors. Therefore, we believe in a holistic approach and the involvement of actors from the public and the private sector, civil society, associations and individuals who benefit from technical and financial support of international partners.
What would you say was the highlight of your event?
The event was very rich in highlights, and the participants have appreciated diverse aspects of the program - which makes it quite difficult to isolate a specific moment. In the context of the GFA anniversary, we were especially proud to be able to present and celebrate some of the achievements that arose from the hard work and dedication of our teams in Senegal. The short film “Creating perspectives in Senegal – Opportunities for the labor market and vocational training” was launched during the event, and that was definitely a highlight.
At the same time, we were thrilled by the four discussion rounds that initiated vital reflections to be pursued with our Senegalese and international partners. To name just one intervention, the testimony of Seynabou Ndiaye, a female local leader of the town Keur Mbouki, was particularly impressive. This political activist, who is a beneficiary of our Seen Suuf (My Earth) project, fights for women's access and ownership of land so that women are economically empowered can take their share in agricultural production. Ms Ndiaye embodied the very objective of GFA’s aim to contribute to activities that are adapted to the real needs of the people in Senegal through a participatory approach. She shared her individual experience with a remarkable lucidity about the many obstacles she had to overcome, but also an unshakeable faith in her and other’s capacity to be a factor of change towards equality. Her sensitive intervention closed the event’s discussions with a perfect mix of realism and hope.
Short summary video of the event ( 7 minutes, French version)
Congratulations from our Project teams around the world
Enjoy our "Happy Birthday" video from our world-wide projects. The video is about 18 minutes long - but it is a lot of fun. Thanks to all colleagues for the wonderful videos, songs, cakes, posters etc.