On Monday, you might find Jane Bech Larsen visiting Ukraine for an announcement ceremony celebrating the launch of a new €400 million agricultural lending scheme that NIRAS is helping to manage. By Wednesday she may be on a train to Frankfurt to visit a client for a meeting on a flagship German skills initiative in Africa. And on Friday she could be sitting on the couch at our Copenhagen office ready to talk about the complexity of development in the 21st century – making a joke or two at her own expense.
It’s a busy schedule, but as Jane puts it, “Of course I’m involved! I built my career on engaging with projects and finding experiences that inspire me. If you take initiative – and, yes, work hard – NIRAS really rewards you with opportunities.”
Seeking adventure… and finding the world of development
Growing up on what she describes as a “semi-working farm” in western Jutland, in Denmark, Jane always knew that she wanted “explore, travel, experience new things … and maybe save the world.” Figuring out how to do that wasn’t simple: she had a Greenpeace poster on her wall in high school, but there didn’t seem to be any clear path from a childhood spent bottle-feeding lambs on the farm into fighting for the environment, nor a clear path on the education or type of work she was seeking.
To get some perspective (and perhaps also to get away from the farm), she travelled and lived abroad for years in places like the United States, Southeast Asia, South America and the UK. She credits this experience – along with her subsequent Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in development studies and agricultural development – with giving some real-world perspective to supplement her youthful idealism. After graduation, Jane moved to Vietnam with her husband Calle and young children (Alba and Bertram; their third child Eskil came later), dipping her toe into the field of development on a professional basis with some small studies and projects for NGOs and Danida.
When asked how she first connected with NIRAS, Jane can’t help but laugh. Through a contact she had from her university days, she was asked by Claus Jorgensen (currently the International Market and Compliance Director) to attend an important meeting of AusAID partners in Cambodia to secure a partnership on NIRAS’ behalf.
“I had no idea what I was doing, and knew little about NIRAS, but knew a bit from my education and general life experience. So I walked in and got a deal, and that was when I learned how far you can go by making sure you ‘listen and then just do it’.”
Not long after, this led to long-term work as a tender and project manager once the family returned to Denmark in 2007.
I still have the urge to change things for the better, but I think what has been most useful to understand is that there’s no magic solution, and development aid is just a part of the answer. We have to keep believing that we can change things, but we have to be pragmatic and solution-oriented.
Pivoting from agribusiness to fund management
Jane was full steam ahead on tendering for and managing agriculture projects around the world in her first years at NIRAS. While historically, these types of projects were focussed on improving individual farmers’ abilities to feed families, newer ways of doing development had led to an emphasis on agriculture as a business. With her academic background in economics and agriculture in developing countries, this was right up Jane’s alley.
She got involved in teaching courses for the Danida Fellowship Centre on agribusiness and value chains, pushing herself to both learn more and find her own niche in the rapidly growing company. “I had a zig zag road to where I am now, but that’s entirely because I was offered the flexibility to prove myself,” she says. In addition, she spent several years away from NIRAS working in the NGO sector and conducting a major study for the World Bank on agribusinesses. While developing this expertise both in and outside the company, she realised that the biggest issue for agribusinesses was often a simple lack of capital required to improve their operations. Donors were realising this as well, building in more and more grant and ‘investment’ elements into agriculture programmes.
Returning to NIRAS in 2017, Jane was asked to form a Fund Management and Finance Unit to consolidate all the work the company had been doing in the field. The team has secured contracts to manage millions of euros in grant funds in Africa, Europe, and Asia over the past few years. But taking things for granted isn’t Jane’s style: she’s always looking to take initiative, work hard, and find the next opportunities in her field.
“I still have the urge to change things for the better, but I think what has been most useful to understand is that there’s no magic solution, and development aid is just a part of the answer. We have to keep believing that we can change things, but we have to be pragmatic and solution-oriented.”
For Jane, being pragmatic and solution-oriented is more than just a turn of phrase. After one of the training courses on agribusiness mentioned above, the CEO of a small Ugandan coffee producer approached her to talk about ideas for his business.
“I realised that you’ve got to walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk … so I invested. We started a business and put up some storage facilities, and now we’re working on getting import licenses in Denmark.” The company’s name, Alba Farm, comes from a common practise of naming after your first child.
We can safely say, after a taste test, that Alba coffee is a delight – and a testament to the importance of engaging and making a difference where you can.
* Update June 2020: Jane is now the Business Development Director for Economic Development at NIRAS International Consulting