Foto: Yvonne Compier


Rianne Lindhout9 March 2017

What do old newspapers, climate-neutral eggs and solar-powered lights in Africa have to do with one another? Together with many, many other projects, political scientist Maurits Groen has been their passionate advocate. He is successfully making the world a better place. In WakaWaka’s office in Haarlem, he explains what he does – and why he does it.

What is it you do, exactly? “I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing for 40 years. I’m constantly working on bringing together extremely unlikely partners in such a way that they all benefit. Together we make one plus one equal not just three, but five! I’ve worked not only with refugee organisations, Marco Borsato and ape protection, but also with poultry farmers, Lidl and the ASN Bank.

“People who know me know that I don’t do it in order to finance a second home in France. I never would have thought that I would become the producer of so many things, like WakaWaka [solar-powered lamps that you can also use to charge your telephone. With the proceeds from the company, the eponymous foundation distributes the lamps in disaster areas and developing countries, where they help save lives, ed.] In my work, I’m completely dependent on a group of people who are better than me at electronics, customer care, social media, etc. That allows me to think, to read, to talk to people, build sustainable coalitions, set up companies and execute our plans.

‘I never would have thought that I would become the producer of so many things’

“At the moment, I’m working on Kipster, the best chicken barn in the world. Laying hens have a good life in the barn, and the air comes out cleaner than it went in. The 1,096 solar panels on the roof ensure that the barn produces more energy than it consumes. The feed is grown locally, so no old-growth forests have to be cut down to make room for cultivating soy beans. The egg packaging is 10 times as efficient as the recycled cardboard used in normal egg cartons, which is already quite sustainable. The rooster chicks aren’t gassed, but rather fed and sold as broilers. Through my personal contacts at Lidl, we’ve agreed on a five-year price guarantee that fluctuates along with the cost of feed. That way, the farmer doesn’t get squeezed in the middle.”

Why are you so committed to sustainability? “To me, it doesn’t seem like a choice. If I knew for certain that the world would end tomorrow, then I would still plant an apple tree today; in that aspect, I completely agree with Martin Luther. Doing nothing is the best way to make everything turn out wrong.”

People sometimes argue that there’s no point, because other people just keep on polluting anyway… “That argument makes me so angry. If someone beats their wife, should you start doing that too? No of course not, you keep doing what’s right! Fortunately, more and more people understand that a transition to sustainability can also be economically profitable, increase jobs and produce more satisfied customers and employees.”

What were you like as a child? “I’ve loved the newspaper since I learned how to read. I read the Helmonds Dagblad, which was an influential institution at the time, from front to back every day, and I won the youth column essay contest a couple of times. I still think it’s one of the wonders of the world that for only two Euros per day, you can have 200 journalists collect news for you and then deliver it to your doorstep. One day, I read that you could recycle old newspapers. I was eight years old, and I thought that was fascinating. I was used to just throwing all sorts of rubbish into one of those old tin waste bins. Where did the letters and creases go when you used old newspapers to make new ones? So I collected hundreds of thousands of kilos of old newspapers. I’ve never been interested in owning material objects. I donated the proceeds, around 1 cent per kilo, to good causes that I had read about: starvation in India, leprosy. When a doctor in Wassenaar was found guilty of fraud with leprosy donations, my father was furious… All those kilos of paper I’d collected for them!”

Was studying political science an easy choice for you? “That was purely coincidental. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I had broad interests. So I thought; just study law. But one Saturday in the spring of 1972, I went to an information day and during the break I found myself in the room for political science, where the speaker’s notes and some books were still lying on the rostrum. That’s when I thought: this is for me.

‘During the first week, I camped in the rain gutter on the 15th floor of the main building of the VU’

“That was a great time. Early in the last century, affluent Calvinists had donated some town houses to the VU, and that’s where we had our lectures; surrounded by paintings, with a view of the Vondel Park. The main building had just been completed. I couldn’t find a room at first, so during the first week I camped in the wide rain gutter on top of the VU, 15 stories up. It was broad enough that you couldn’t fall off it. In the middle of the night, I woke up freezing and went inside to look for a door that wasn’t locked. The Indonesia expert Professor Verkuyl had a soft, comfortable philosophy chair, so I went to sleep on that.”

Were you a diligent student? “I earned my credits on time, but I did a lot of other things on the side. It was a fascinating time, politically speaking, and there was a lot going on at the VU. One of my good friends from political science set up the Dutch branch of Amnesty International. We folded the newsletters in Kriterion. I was a volunteer for Brazil, where politically active people ‘disappeared’, including Dilma Roussef, the Brazilian president who was deposed last year. She was subjected to horrible torture back then, as was a Brazilian boy I worked with.

‘The central idea in everything I do is that development and sustainability have to be dealt with together’

“When Brazil, a heavily indebted military dictatorship, signed a huge atomic energy contract with Germany, I started to read more about atomic energy. On 20 March 1978, our Brazil committee acted as a co-organiser for a demonstration in Almelo, where 40,000 people came out on their free Saturday to protest the expansion of the Netherlands Ultra Centrifuge, which potentially could supply Brazil with enriched uranium. That’s how I came into contact with Milieudefensie, which was looking for an Editor-in-Chief for their magazine. I got the job, which involved working 80 hours per week. As a result, I didn’t graduate until 4 October 1989, the very last day that I was still eligible.”

How do you pick something to focus on, with all of the injustice in the world? “Circumstances play a big part. If people you like ask you to help, then you help them. And as far as focus is concerned, development cooperation and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. The Club of Rome recognised that in 1972, and it’s still true today. It’s both ethical and practical to deal with both of them at the same time. That’s the idea that’s central to everything I’ve done in my career. Extreme inequality leads to conflicts, and if you’re struggling to survive, then sustainability isn’t your highest priority. If you’re cold, then you’re going to chop down a tree, no matter what the consequences. It’s amazing how our WakaWaka, a device that weighs around 200 grams, can make such a big difference. Every extra child who receives an education makes a big difference. For example, a while ago we took 500 WakaWakas to a little school in Rwanda, and now it’s become the best school in the area. That’s only logical, because suddenly the children are able to do their homework in the evenings. That’s how you unleash the power of a continent.”

CV Maurits Groen

1953 Born in Apeldoorn | 1966 Eindhovens Protestants Lyceum | 1972 Commenced Political Science studies at the VU | 1978 Editor-in-Chief at Milieudefensie | 1982 Founded environmental communications consulting bureau MauritsGroen*mgmc and worked for radio and TV, in the following years advising activist groups, research institutions, non-profit organisations, governments and businesses. Worked as a speaker, guest of honour and writer. Together with his permanent staff, he built ad hoc coalitions for countless sustainability projects, was a member of various boards and platforms| 2006 Brought Al Gore to the Netherlands for the first of five visits | 2010 Presented with the National Sustainability Medal by the Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment | 2011 Co-founder of three sustainability companies: Do The Bright ThingGreenem and WakaWaka |2015 Number 1 in the Sustainable 100 rankings by the daily Trouw | 2016 Co-founder of Energetika, which helps companies and organisations be more sustainable through innovative energy management, and sustainable poultry farm Kipster.