The Kingdom of the Netherlands, through its embassy and partners, has been a vital player and contributor to the development and stability of Iraq and has been supporting the growth of the private sector, agriculture in particular, and the Iraqi start-up ecosystem. Business LANDSCAPE, had the pleasure to meet his excellency, Mr. Michel Rentenaar, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Iraq, who discussed with us the projects of the Netherland in Iraq, the main areas of focus, the challenges, the potential of the Iraqi agriculture sector, the significant impact of the Orange Corners programme, and what potential he sees in the Iraqi youth.
Why is it important to the Kingdom of the Netherlands to contribute to building a stable prosperous Iraq?
Often people think Iraq is a country far away from the Netherlands, which we think is not true, we have many common interests and we feel that Iraq is a neighboring country to Europe. In fact, it is bordered by Turkey which is a NATO ally. Currently, the Iraqi economy is in a fragile state, the country depends heavily on oil and gas, which is problematic as these are very volatile sources of income, especially with the price constantly going up and down while the world is moving away from all these sources of fossil fuels and going into cleaner alternative sources of energy. Another issue is that the public sector is very bloated, yet, it is constantly growing, opposite to a very limited alternative in the private sector, together with a young and growing demographic. There is also a lack of investment in critical infrastructure and education. Moreover, corruption is still a major problem. What we focus on is mainly a reform agenda of the government, and we hope that the new government will move the agenda forward. This is constantly what we are pushing for since we feel that these reforms are essential to provide actual perspectives for young people.
However, we also think that Iraq has a positive side of the story in the sense that it offers so many opportunities. Iraq has considerable economic potential, abundant national resources, a very young population, and a big underdeveloped market. All of these challenges and difficulties that the Iraqi government experiences can be addressed with the reforms and the strong commitment of Iraqis to build a better, safer, and brighter future for the country.
What are the main pillars that the Netherlands focuses on strengthening in Iraq? And why those in particular?
A couple of certain themes are very important to both Iraq and the Netherlands. We have four main pillars of focus, first of all, is security, when it is safe for you, it is safe for us. The second is migration, if young people emigrate from Iraq, that would be very unfortunate for Iraq as it will lose its young potentials. Human rights also play a very big role and that is the third pillar that we focus on, when people feel safe, they tend to invest in their own country. And finally, the most important pillar is creating job opportunities. A country like Iraq has a young population with around 70% of the population below 30 years old. We need to provide the youth with hope, perspective, and employment opportunities for them to contribute to the prosperity of their country and feel secure enough to work and invest back in their homeland.
If we do not give some sort of hope and perspective to those young people, then they have only bad choices left, either they will migrate out of the country, or they might be a target for terrorist groups to recruit.
What are the projects and initiatives that the Netherlands has in Iraq? And how are you promoting the growth of the Iraqi private sector?
We do that through multiple approaches and projects, for example, “knowledge to knowledge”: promoting knowledge transfers in which the Netherlands shares its expertise with Iraq. For example, Iraqi universities trying to increase their knowledge about how to do actual agricultural business are then supported by Dutch experts on how to improve their teaching. Sometimes it is business to business.
Promoting the growth of the private sector is embedded in all the four pillars that we focus on; security, human rights, migration, and work & income. We always try to look through the lens of creating job opportunities regardless of the theme and sector of the project. For instance, if we are supplying aid to internally-displaced people (IDPs) somewhere, then we will try to execute that in a place where it also creates jobs. If we support demining activities, which is a security interest, we try to do it in a place where we will be able to have agricultural production in the same area. Supporting the development of the private sector is always in the back of our minds, integrated with all these activities and projects that we try to implement.
How is the Orange Corners programme contributing to the empowerment of the youth, entrepreneurs, and startups, and developing the entrepreneurial scene in Iraq?
Orange Corners is a six months incubation programme, where we support 20 young male and female entrepreneurs with training, business development, and masterclasses so they can start their own businesses. We also try to connect them to potential investors so they will have a chance to actually attract investment. We are very proud that it is an initiative from the Dutch Embassy, implemented by KAPITA Business Hub, with the support of Asiacell.
Every time I attend a new cohort whether just started or just graduated, I am so impressed with the amount of enthusiasm, seeing that the youths are fighting against the big challenges in all sorts of fields like agribusiness, food manufacturing, tech, e-commerce, or any other sector. The training sessions, business development support, the masterclasses, and the events that KAPITA organizes are all offering a positive and encouraging environment for people who do want to make a difference.
I think the Orange Corners has a great potential to work on reforms from the bottom up.
What are the most challenging obstacles that you face in promoting the participation of youth in the private sector?
There are many: for example, security is one of the large problems of Iraq not just in the terms of physical security, but also contract security. We are very aware of this challenge. Sometimes when I speak to the youth, they often say it is not what you know in Iraq, but it is who you know. Iraq is a network type of society. Which is difficult for us, as outside actors, to influence. But we feel strongly that if we provide the young people with the opportunities and the tools, such as with the Orange Corner programme, or with knowledge and technology transfer, that they will be able to overcome those obstacles.
Can you tell us more about the Nuffic programme in Iraq, and what they are trying to do and achieve in Iraq?
Nuffic is a very big educational organization in the Netherlands. It is connected to many different universities in the Netherlands, and we link those universities to a string of universities in Iraq. In order to help them increase the quality of their programs, and share the knowledge about the kinds of educational programs that exist in the Netherlands. At the same time, we also have lots of exchange programs and we provide training opportunities to young Iraqis but also to professionals to increase their skills and knowledge. Our Nuffic programme was not very focused on particular areas in the beginning but now our scholarships and exchange programs are more focused on what we do best, which is agriculture and water management.
What are the main challenges you encounter when implementing projects in Iraq?
Iraq is still one of the lowest-ranked countries on the Ease of Doing Business Index. It is still very difficult to start a business, get credit, trade across borders, and enforce contracts. We have, together with KAPITA, published a report titled “The Roadmap to Start-up”, which signals all the red tape startups face when setting up a business and advises on how to deal with it. It will take many years to build a practical, viable private sector in Iraq. But in the meantime, it is important to work together and demonstrate that even in a difficult context, the young generation is able to set up and operate businesses and that the Iraqi private sector and the ecosystem are progressing gradually.
We also hope that the graduates of Orange Corners can lead by example, and show to their peers that it is possible to build the future in Iraq. There is a complicated past in Iraq. We are well aware of the challenges of today, but we also like to focus very much on the hopes and the potential of the future.
Why the agriculture sector and food manufacturing are the main fields of interest for the Netherlands in Iraq? What are the potentials of those fields?
The Netherlands is the second-largest agricultural exporter in the world. Therefore, agriculture is a sector that we are very involved in and we have excellent expertise to share with Iraq. We also think the agriculture sector provides major employment potential for Iraq, decreasing the food dependency, diversifying the economy, and moving away from the reliance on the traditional hydrocarbon sector. Historically, Iraq has a very rich agricultural sector, which needs to be revitalized. We have the knowledge, expertise, and investments to offer in sustainable agriculture, agribusiness, and food innovations. We do this by trying to focus on knowledge transfers, innovation projects, and business-to-business operations. We already have many projects in this respect in Iraq.
Our prime focus is mostly on the agricultural value chain, which will increase the competitiveness of Iraq’s agricultural production, boost rural employment and employment in sectors connected to agriculture, like transportation and food processing, and reduce the demand for food imports. We aim to achieve that through developing different parts of the agriculture value chain. For instance, Iraqi farmers can also make potato chips and fries and sell them in the Iraqi market instead of just producing potatoes, in turn generating more revenue and creating more employment opportunities. So it is basically from the field to the consumer and all of it is made in Iraq.
What are the latest developments achieved in these domains in Iraq through the efforts of the Netherlands?
We have a very broad and diverse portfolio where we are focusing on security, work and income, human rights protection, and inclusion of socioeconomic autonomy of refugees and internally-displaced people (IDPs). All of that is a portfolio within which we have a focus on the agriculture sector. We do this in many different fields, wherever the opportunities arise, where we can transfer knowledge and create job opportunities. For example, 99% of seed potatoes in Iraq come from the Netherlands, so we focus on that and also on importing cows and goats. We have a project to grow cherry tomatoes, and other projects to help build greenhouses for cultivating cucumbers or tomatoes, to increase the level of production.
Who do you think are the main actors that should be more involved in the development of agriculture?
I believe the development of agriculture in Iraq can take place through business to business, however, it is often difficult to convince Dutch agricultural businesses to work with Iraq due to the dangerous image they perceive of the country. There are security problems in the country but there are also huge potentials. The best thing that we can do as a foreign embassy is to give a little bit of a head start, to show people the way and the possibilities of businesses and corporations in the agricultural sector. Then after establishing the connection between Dutch and Iraqi businesses, it will bloom on its own due to the mutual interests. This has already happened quite a lot in the Kurdistan region where the security is better and local regulations foster investment opportunities. Certainly, my aim as an ambassador in Iraq is to roll out some of those activities to other parts of Iraq, and we have started doing that.
For instance, in Ninewa, where a big part of our programs is focused, we have started doing some community farming projects. We are implementing those community farming projects in the South as well, but different problems are experienced in that region, especially with climate change. Hence, we focus on climate-smart agriculture and try to teach farmers how to grow crops despite the high salinity levels of soil even if the salinity goes up very much, which is a problem in the south.
Do you think that businesses from the Netherlands started to think about going into the central and southern regions of Iraq? And what is the one thing that the private sector should do to attract more Dutch businesses?
Yes, it started happening with a small group of Europeans and some Dutch businesses that are willing to take bigger risks than others. It is clearly much easier for a Dutch farmer to do business with Luxembourg, Belgium, or Germany. Therefore, we need to attract them to Iraq by explaining the huge opportunities in the country, where there is a young population, enormous landmass, agriculture suitable weather, and many possibilities. Then we try to help them in steering through the challenges that we mentioned earlier. I tried to do that with my staff by identifying where there is a possibility to deal with groups of farmers, and how to stay away from the more unreliable corrupt companies, to show Dutch farmers that it is possible to actually go into many areas of Iraq. Certainly, there are particular areas in Iraq where there are more instability and security issues. But we are trying to change the bad image of the country.
The private sector should be willing to do business with foreigners, help them navigate their way in Iraq and how to overcome its challenges, connect them to the right people, and help them build relations with the true movers in Iraq who are not a part of the corrupt structure.
How is the Netherlands supporting the rehabilitation of Ninewa and the other recovering conflict areas?
Ninewa has attracted the focus of many foreign donors and many funds especially in areas that were affected severely by the conflict and violence. Many of those funds are focused on the past, such as humanitarian and development funds going into IDP camps, in terms of education, health, and basic services. What we are trying to do is to move away from the form of emergency aid that it was a couple of years ago into job creation. One example is the project with ECO Consult, where we have started four community farming projects in the region. We try to be inclusive and have those projects touch on different segments of society. Moreover, we fund demining projects, refocusing them in areas where they create agricultural possibilities. But sometimes the politics are difficult, there is still an unsolved political situation in some areas and people are not coming back partly because of the politics but also due to the lack of jobs. It is like a chicken and an egg question, do we start with fixing the politics which we cannot as outsiders as it requires an internal-based Iraqi solution, or do we create jobs that will improve the conditions for return. It is a complicated situation where I believe there should be work on both ends of the dilemma.
Are there any projects or interests from the Embassy of the Netherlands in supporting Iraqi women and women entrepreneurs in particular?
Yes, absolutely. Female labor participation in Iraq is, unfortunately, very low, accounting for approximately 12%, which is the third-lowest in the world. The structural constraints are very acute. Thus, we tried to shift the private sector, focus on education, skill development, and strengthening specific female labor force participation. We think women’s employment is a key factor in all of our programs. We also tried to set clear targets for women’s participation in our programs. KAPITA, for instance, has a strong focus on women’s participation in Orange Corners. In addition, we feel that gender equality can be increased through achieving socio-economic equalities. It is important to ensure that women are supported and included, and we are committed to doing that.
We would like to know about your personal experience in Iraq? How do you perceive the situation in general?
I came to Iraq a year and a half ago. Many people from the Netherlands, when I was sent out to Iraq, thought that I got into a very difficult situation. In fact, I did not feel like that at all. Nevertheless, I am very familiar and aware of all the challenges that exist, but I am a person who wants to focus on the full half of the glass while acknowledging the existence of the empty half. One of the things that gives me a lot of energy is always dealing with young people. When I talk to the youth, I see an enormous thirst for creating a different kind of Iraq in all different aspects whether economic, political, or social. The young people are fed up with the system, they want to build a new place, a new reality. I think Iraq has enormous potential economically and politically. It is the cradle of the first civilization on earth. This gives me the motivation every day to continue to work on this. As I arrived, I felt like I was a fish in the water, as they say, I am in the right place to try to make a difference.
What is the most interesting thing you have witnessed during your time in Iraq?
It is the drive and perseverance of the young people struggling against the current and not willing to just give up. As a small anecdotal example, at one point, I was in an IDP camp, and I was talking to a 16 years old girl there. She basically told me, in pretty good English “Well, I do not know about you, grownups, whenever you are going to figure out this whole return issue, but my future starts right now.” That kind of energy is exactly what makes me wake up every morning, what makes me want to work in a country like Iraq, against all the challenges, and to try to make a positive impact.
The Netherlands Embassy has successfully established a great connection with the Iraqi community through social media and other channels. How did you find that reflects on the ease of your work in Iraq and building strong influence or impact on the society and businesses in Iraq?
Social Media is a tricky thing. Certainly, as a foreign diplomat, you have to be careful what you write on Twitter or Facebook. You cannot please everyone, that is clear. But we try to show, as much as possible, what we have to offer and constantly reinvigorate and reconfirm the image that we are neighbors. When you treat your neighbors well, the relationship is better for both. We are a trading country, therefore, we support all those business-to-business contexts. We feel that there is a big chance for Dutch and Iraqi companies to work and make a profit together and that there is a better future, away from the present challenges that we have discussed. Together with that strong trade portfolio, where we focus on the agriculture or energy sector, we try to look for the economic potential where both neighbors work well.
In the end, we would love to know if you have any favorite Iraqi dishes?
I quite love the Iraqi food. I am a Dutchman, I come from a fishing nation, so Masgouf is one of my favorite dishes but Dolma is fantastic as well. The bread is also amazing here, even though I am from a bread country.