State visits, trade missions, international contacts. Chairman of the Executive Board Aalt Dijkhuizen is often on the road peddling research. What is it really like? About big palaces, trifles and his finest moment.
text: Nicolette Meerstadt and Linda van der Nat
Aalt Dijkhuizen is the man who represents Wageningen to the wider world and has to sell its research. He is abroad for a good month every year. The past year and a half saw him making 18 journeys to 10 different countries. In May, he made one trip to America and two to China. 'Last week, I had to go to Turkey unexpectedly for a day, although it was really inconvenient as my schedule was already chock-full. Without me, things would still go on, but our people managed to convince me that it was really important. I was to speak to a big group of potential customers and show our commitment. So, off I went again.'
Prime Minister Rutte has now also invited you to go with him to Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Are you going?
''The invitation certainly looks very attractive; Rutte is going with a special delegation and we can make a concerted effort. But I never go just for the sake of shaking hands and attending receptions. The costs of a trip have to be recouped. That's why I ask our staff if they see any opportunities there, or if there is any possibility of funding. I don't do this work alone; you mustn't write about it in that way. Often, I also have a symbolic role. I show others that there is commitment and that we are serious about the matter. But if we don't expect results, then I don't go. Doing it just for show...not me.'
In January, you went along on the last state visit of Queen Beatrix. What happens during a trip like that?
'It begins in the plane with the delegation, with staff from the Royal House and from the Foreign Affairs ministry. I talk to everyone and make sure that all of them have heard something about Wageningen UR before we arrive. And during the journey, if the speeches of the ministers need to have the i's dotted and the t's crossed, I like to help out and try to throw in some ideas. These may be just trifles but I'm sure that it's important to be known and get mentioned as an organization in these circles.'
Which experience has made the most impression on you?
'A very special occasion was the visit to the Sultan of Brunei. He earns a net salary of a billion euros a year from oil extraction and has built an enormous palace. The biggest palace in the world. Unbelievable. You step into an entrance full of fountains, really enormous, as big as half the campus. You then go up an escalator, you walk a bit further, and only then do you get to the front door. The front door of a palace with 1788 rooms. The vacuuming team alone is a labour-intensive project. He has about 700 Rolls Royces, lined up according to colour in the garage. It's beyond your imagination.'
You go away regularly for a few days with the new king and queen. How do you get on?
'Máxima phones me sometimes; she is an exceptionally good business developer. She had also spoken before to the Sultan of Brunei. She told me this earlier: "We have to go there, there're opportunities there." When the signing was over in Brunei, we exchanged looks and she said: "See, I knew it." Willem-Alexander and Máxima are real ambassadors and they enjoy doing this too; they don't want to just do the ribbon-cutting. We talk a lot about substantial matters, especially when the visits are short. But in the evening during a reception, we sometimes do talk about the children and about school.'
Are there any gains from such a state visit?
'These are the moments when we can give a boost to the cooperation with another country. The Netherlands can make a good impression abroad with its food and agricultural sector. Do you think that we would have been invited along if people in other countries were saying: "Oh, not Wageningen again. Please leave him behind in the hotel.' In Singapore, I was able to give a short talk to 30 important people - ministers, businesses, royalty. Well, that was my finest moment. Wonderful. I don't know what they would remember afterwards, but at least I had the chance to say my thing. I always keep it short, mentioning just a few things that make them think: "Oh, that is interesting; I had never seen it like that before."'
What is it that they find remarkable?
'The Netherlands being the second largest exporter of foodstuffs in the world; almost nobody can believe this and it makes a big impression. That Wageningen UR has the biggest banana expert although we don't grow bananas at all in the Netherlands. And of course I tell them that we collaborate with many countries, that we have both basic and applied research and that we have students from more than one hundred countries.'
And that number is increasing. How international will we be twenty years from now?
'Students will surely continue to come to Wageningen. I think there will be more places in the world where they can do most of their degree. They would come to Wageningen only for part of it, such as specialist courses, lab work or parts of their final year research. We are working on a programme in nutrition technology in Singapore, and I expect that eventually something like this will also be set up in China. Chile wants this as well.'
Is there also a limit to internationalization?
'I find that it is very important to maintain strong roots in the Netherlands; these roots form a major part of our export product. We have to keep on developing by staying in the forefront. The worst thing we can do is to say: "We know everything already and we just need to export our current know-how and technology." Then we won't be an interesting option anymore ten years down the road.'
Wageningen UR is successful in many countries. Is there a country in which it is not?
'Argentina. We have spent a lot of time there but without much result. Because of bureaucracy or a change of personnel, or because of a lack of money. We have placed our efforts there on hold for a while. Their minister of agriculture was here recently. I told him frankly that we have tried so often but could not really get the cooperation off the ground. He says this time it will work. Well, who knows. But we have become more sceptical. Argentina isn't a priority country for us anymore. These days, we can afford the luxury of not having to go after every lead.'
‘The city I come from in Mexico has an agricultural university. My uncle lectures there and on my last trip home he gave me some pamphlets issued by the Wageningen University in the 70s meant to attract international students. I find it striking that only a couple decades ago WUR had barely any “ambassadors” promoting it abroad. Advertising technologies have come a long way, yet nothing compares to the publicity international students make for WUR. It is altogether a PR strategy of its own.’