“Together, we are a movement.’’ Thos Gieskes’ first months at Oikocredit [interview]
We caught up with Oikocredit’s managing director, Thos Gieskes, to hear about his first months at the global cooperative. In the interview, he talks about some of Oikocredit’s strengths and challenges along with insights from his journey in getting to know the ins and outs of the organisation.
Can you tell us about your first months at Oikocredit?
I have seen quite a lot in the past year and it’s been a fantastic experience. Every single day I am eager to come into the office and see where I can contribute and how I can add value. In a way, I have found my home here. This is where I want to be, and I will do my best to carry out what is expected of me. I have spent most of the past months getting to know not only the different parts of the organisation, but also our peers and the sector. I’m still on a learning curve but I also feel that the curve is gradually flattening and I am able to focus more on contributing and guiding.
What are some moments that really stood out to you?
There have already been several inspiring moments, both when meeting with investors and our colleagues and partners around the world. For example, I was astonished that so many investors would show up on a Saturday – like at the annual general meeting of our support association in Southwest Germany – eager to participate in conversations around Oikocredit. Our members and investors have a strong desire for Oikocredit to carry out its vision and mission, and I thought it was amazing to see how much people care about and are committed to the organisation.
I have also travelled to several countries where we finance partner organisations. One of the partners I met in Costa Rica, a coffee cooperative, really stood out to me. This ‘coffee cooperative’ actually supported coffee farmers with everything but coffee. Once coffee farming became well established, they realised that the best way to support the farmers was to help them grow alternative crops so they were not solely dependent on coffee. They also focus on organising trainings, providing schooling for the farmers’ children, and more. It encouraged me to see how this cooperative assessed their clients’ current needs and found various methods to support them in the best ways possible.
Oikocredit is currently working on updating its strategy, can you give us some insight into this?
We are not completely redoing our strategy, but want to look at where we can focus more in our current strategy and see where we can improve our social and environmental impact while safeguarding financial sustainability. In order to focus, we needed experts who can give us insight and perspective from the outside, which is why we have hired a strategy consultancy firm with experience in the impact investing sector. They have gathered extensive research and external information that can help us to proceed in the right direction.
What are some of the challenges that you have seen?
As with any organisation, there are always internal issues that can be improved, but some of the main challenges we currently face are actually due to external factors. One of them is the low interest rate environment which is not beneficial for an organisation like ours, that receives its income mainly from interest rates. Another challenge is the weakening US dollar. A lot of our loans and income are in US dollars whereas our funding and our dividends are in euro. Sometimes exchange rates work in our favour but at the moment we see that they are negatively impacting our bottom line. As a result of these challenges it looks very unlikely that we will have a financial result for 2017 which will be sufficient to sustain the 2% dividend that our investors are accustomed to.
There are of course factors we can influence. We are, for example, looking at focusing more and creating efficiencies. I believe that if you focus on a few niches and are a leader in that area, it will pay itself back in terms of impact and financial results.
What are some of Oikocredit’s strengths that it can build on moving forward?
The people that make Oikocredit are extremely strong. Not only our staff, but also the people behind the organisation. There are more than 50,000 individuals that, either through investments or volunteering, help steer Oikocredit. Together, we are a movement, and this makes us a unique organisation and an extremely strong and reliable partner for the organisations we work with. It’s not the financial markets that determine us, but the commitment and ideals of the people behind Oikocredit. Another strength is the fact that we have over 40 years of successful operations in many countries. Countries where we have deep relationships with the people we work with. The fact that we have been supporting our partners for a long time, and will continue to do so, gives people confidence.