How CFO Jurgen Paulis found his African rhythm

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Although Jurgen Paulis has worked all over the world, he has found a passion for Africa and for the work that AIF does. And looking back at his career, he is also most proud of the work that he is doing at AIF.

Jurgen Paulis has lived and worked in four continents, is now based in Kigali, Rwanda, and has held positions in health, nutrition, materials, and food-producing industries.

Jurgen joined African Improved Foods (AIF), a start-up venture of DSM in Africa, as its CFO in 2017. AIF produces affordable, high-quality, locally produced products to address malnutrition in Africa.

Although he has worked all over the world, he has found a passion for Africa and for the work that AIF does. And looking back at his career, he is also most proud of the work that he is doing at AIF.

“I am proud of my contribution in making the Rwandan plant successful. It is a balancing act to provide impact and being financially sustainable. So many companies fail in Africa, and we have proven we can be sustainable. We are the preferred supplier for the World Food Programme, and we are rated higher than our European competitors. So I think it is a major achievement.”

Jurgen believes that there are many opportunities in Africa, even though it is not always an easy continent to work in. “If you look at Ethiopia, many international companies have failed there, but the market is there with more than 120 million people. There is a huge need for investments, and to really bring good quality, safe foods at an affordable price. There are big challenges in Africa, though, as there are not always capable governments, in some cases mismanagement of funds, and climate change is also not helping. But on the other hand, challenges are also opportunities if you can solve them. And if you can crack the nut, as we basically did in Rwanda.”

A foreign CFO
Jurgen was born in the Netherlands, which is a far cry from Rwanda, and he has been working for more than 25 years in foreign countries.

“I come from the western part of the Netherlands, close to the Hague. My father worked for Shell all his life and had to travel a lot. I also couldn’t wait to see the world and wanted to get out of the country as soon as possible after my studies.

“I studied in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and reckoned the fastest way to go overseas was to work at a multinational company. So, I joined AkzoNobel and basically, my first expatriation was in a remote part of the Netherlands. I worked there for a year before moving to headquarters.

“I later joined DSM, which is another Dutch multinational, and my first overseas expatriation was in the nineties to the midwest in the US. They call it the Bible Belt, the Corn Belt and the Plastic Belt, and it is very different to what we were used to. My two eldest daughters were born there and after a few years we went back to the Netherlands for another role at DSM.

“In early 2002, we moved to Singapore, to set up business in Asia, which was developing fast in those days. I was there for about seven years and our three girls grew up there. The youngest was a baby when we arrived in Singapore. After Singapore, we moved to Shanghai and in total I worked for close to 10 years in Asia.

“We then moved to the New York City area, where I was the CFO of North America for DSM. We lived there for six years, and all three girls finished high school there.”

After working for so long in big cities, Jurgen wanted something completely different. And that is how he ended up in a different industry, country, and continent.

It’s all about the impact
AIF is a public-private partnership involving DSM, the government of Rwanda, IFC, CDC Group and FMO. AIF provides a scalable and sustainable solution to malnutrition via local production of highly nutritious food. About $100 million has been invested in Rwanda since 2015. The business is more than just providing food, though, it is also about a strategy to reduce poverty, create jobs and address stunting. Food are currently being produced for more than one million children daily.

The adjustment to the African environment was not easy, admits Jurgen.

“I have seen almost all parts of the world, apart from Africa, and Africa was a huge learning curve and surprise. I was shocked to find that about a third of East African children under five suffer from stunting. So, we take our job here very seriously.

“AIF has an impact mission, and you want to achieve as much impact as possible, but you also need to be financially sustainable at the end of the day. It is a balancing act, but we have been pretty successful here. We have seen a substantial reduction in stunting in Rwanda and the government here has an active programme to reduce stunting, in which AIF plays a pivotal role. We also supply the World Food Programme, and they have the highest quality standards.”

Jurgen says that the industry and Africa has been a huge learning curve in more ways than one, but is it also rewarding.

“One of our successes is regarding aflatoxin. I had never heard about it before I arrived in Africa. Aflatoxin is basically a fungus which grows in maize, peanuts and chickpeas, which causes liver cancer. The maize quality is a really big issue in East Africa and the area has the highest liver cancer rates in the world. We saw how small farms dried the maize and we realised that we needed to change the whole value chain.

“We rejected 90 percent of the maize in our first year due to the high aflatoxin levels. Aflatoxin levels for the World Food Programme and for all our products, is five parts per billion. The EU has a standard of 10 parts per billion and the US even 20 parts per billion.”

“We now move in, get the maize as soon as possible out of the hands of the farmers, and we bring it to central places for shelling, drying, and storage. Last year we rejected less than 5 percent. I think that’s quite a success story – to get rid of aflatoxin in the food chain. All our products are fortified with 12 different minerals and vitamins, and we also make relief products.”

Since the Rwandan plant is so successful, they now have their eye on the rest of Africa, starting with Ethiopia. “We are quite far in developing the project. We already have a commercial site, and we have a deal with Unilever, and they already have a distribution network in Ethiopia. We have an aggressive growth mission ahead of us. And we want to reach as many people as possible with healthy and high-quality foods.”

Rwandan president Paul Kagame is as proud of the plant as they are, says Jurgen, and he often visits it with other state presidents. “This plant could have been in Switzerland as we have the highest safety, environmental and hygiene standards,” says Jurgen.

Finance, family and Formula One
Finance has always interested him, but not so much the accounting side, he says. Jurgen has never worked in an accounting department, as he has always been more involved with strategy and steering and controlling the business. He is also the MD of the operating company in Rwanda.
All of his travels have equipped him with a better understanding of different cultures and peoples, he says.

“In Asia, Japan is quite different to China and China is quite different to Singapore. You really need to understand where the other cultures are coming from, and it has been a huge privilege to learn little bits of other cultures. I also learnt how important it is to adapt.

“I was brought up in the Netherlands and am by nature extremely direct, which does not work in every environment. It is important to read a situation and to adjust to it. I think that has been my biggest learning – to adjust in an effective way.”

Jurgen admits that he is to some extent a workaholic and he is very thankful for a wife who shares his passion to see the world. “I think our kids have been raised thanks to my wife. When I worked in Asia, I spent a lot of time on planes, and she was the one raising the kids. She accepted where I went for my career and moved with me around the world. We also travelled a lot with the kids.”

At home, he loves watching motorsports and specially F1. “I am a Red Bull fan, and I think our Dutch driver Max Verstappen is a unique talent, but I have been watching the sport before he was even born! I have been lucky to attend many live races, from Singapore, Shanghai to Montreal. It is very exciting, not only the race itself, but everything around it. The cities come alive during that time. I don’t think Montreal is exciting 365 days of the year, but it is a very exciting city during F1. I have been there five times to see the races in Montreal.”

While Jurgen and his wife are now living in Rwanda, their three daughters are in the Netherlands.

“Even though our daughters’ first language is English as they attended international schools and they never lived in the Netherlands for long, all three decided to study there. Two are currently studying medicine and the oldest daughter studied business and marketing. She now works at an international cosmetic company as brand manager.”

What will his next stop be? Jurgen is unsure, but he knows that he still has work to do in Africa and loves seeing the very real impact that AIF makes.

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