Leading with purpose

Leading with purpose

GIZ point man for agriculture in Thailand seeks out people who share his passion for sustainable development.

Matthias Bickel, Programme director and cluster coordinator for agriculture and food, GIZ-Thailand SUPPLIED
Matthias Bickel, Programme director and cluster coordinator for agriculture and food, GIZ-Thailand SUPPLIED

The longstanding relationship between Thailand and Germany has been marked by numerous cooperation efforts that have been fundamental to advancing the kingdom's economic development. The German government development agency GIZ has been among the driving forces behind this fruitful relationship.

Globally, GIZ works on behalf of public and private-sector clients both in Germany and host countries and operates in more than 130 countries with a total headcount of approximately 17,000.

Essentially, GIZ operates as a government-to-government consulting service agency, with the focus on various fields including economic development and employment promotion; governance and democracy; security, reconstruction, peace building and civil conflict transformation; food security, health and basic education; environmental protection, natural resources management and climate change.

In Thailand, the organisation focuses on poverty elimination and uplifting the livelihoods of the poor while ensuring that the parties involved are advancing sustainably, says Matthias Bickel, the programme director and cluster coordinator for agriculture and food at GIZ Thailand. A seasoned economist and trade lawyer, he has been with the organisation for 13 years.

"GIZ plays the role of project manager and implements the projects on the ground," he tells Asia Focus. "We advise government units on their political framework and how to shape legislation and certain guidelines and regulations."

The organisation also works alongside communities and farmers to ensure that the projects are in the interests of the people.

GIZ Thailand has helped to carry out more than 15 projects to support the initiatives of successive Thai governments, most prominently in the agricultural sector. It has three priority areas: climate, to help the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve its adaptation to climate change; triangular cooperation -- working with the Thai government in supporting projects and programmes in third countries on issues such as SME development and vocational training and transport; and agriculture, especially disaster risk reduction and optimisation of urban resource management.

Mr Bickel is a veteran in the field of international development, having worked in both the private and public sectors in many countries. He first joined Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) in 2007, four years before it was merged with its sister agency GIZ.

After experiencing a taste of development work with the former GTZ in Germany -- he also did some work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Ghana around the same time -- he relocated to Phnom Penh as an adviser for GIZ Cambodia, overseeing land-related projects.

As the director for agriculture and food with GIZ Thailand, his passion lies in coming up with ideas to improve the livelihoods of farmers in Southeast Asia. Distilling years of experience working at GIZ into one takeaway, he emphasises the importance of hiring passionate people whose goals align with those of the organisation.

For a leader, the goal is to ensure that his visions is translated into concrete action. In Mr Bickel's case, this involves recruiting people who are passionate about advancing sustainability. For the international team to run flawlessly, he says, the key is to attract individuals who have "sparks in their eyes".

"Having met so many people in your life, when you see the spark in someone's eyes, immediately you know that you can team up with them," he says.

Forming a strong alliance with people who have the same passions is fundamental to bringing a project to fruition. The task of the leader or manager, he says, is to ensure quality while giving people enough authority to operate on their own while sticking to the main principles of the project.

Without this trust in teams and a big pool of talents who can sustain themselves, GIZ would not have been able to come up with the successful global system it has developed. In a sense, says Mr Bickel, GIZ organisation operates a franchise model where good ideas sell and attract people.

"You have a good idea and you convince others to take on your franchise model and adapt it to their local context in their very specific geography and country," he explains.

A clear purpose and a strong idea are also a good way to ensure that an organisation can retain its talents. "Working with a purpose, such as bringing about change in rural communities, is a very persuasive argument for talents to stay with us and to onboard additional talent who would like to do something and implement a big idea," he says.

"The key to building a successful team lies in attracting a big pool of talented colleagues and people while focusing on the generation of additional ideas."

Once he has chosen the right people, Mr Bickel strives to manage them to be able to operate on their own. "I fully trust the team so I delegate a lot of tasks so that I can concentrate on generating additional ideas that will bring us forward."

He values open discussion and transparency and ensures that this principle is shared among his teammates. This makes delegation of tasks, a fundamental component of the GIZ culture, more easily possible.

As a manager, he believes his main task is to empower his talents and keep them motivated, as that is the key to better performance and attracting additional talents.

Gestures such as celebrating the success of each individual are also important. It could be something as simple as handing out some flowers, says Mr Bickel, but it is important for people to know that their leaders aren't the kind of people who make everything about themselves but acknowledge the success of others.

"In a workforce of talented people … it is important to put them at the forefront and let them shine and motivate them in their career advancement and their growth," he says.

This way ideas can resonate and make success attainable for the whole group.


As the head of the Agriculture and Food Cluster, Mr Bickel sees himself as a matchmaker between agencies whose tasks include coming up with the grand ideas that can be turned into practical development projects. His priority is to convince stakeholders to cooperate in bringing those ideas to life.

The fundamentals of idea formulation, he says, require open discussion about various directions and goals in life that people have, both professional and personal.

His approach to management is one hundred percent openness: "There's no time to play around and there's no time to hide." He believes persuasive arguments and open dialogue, coupled with the willingness to accept criticism, will shape the strength of your argument.

"You can strive for more if you surround yourself with critical voices because your arguments become much stronger when you take into account various views to process and make them watertight," he notes.

This way, once an idea is presented, the team can take the pitch further and get more people, institutions and partners onboard.

Mr Bickel says he derives joy from the implementation of projects that have been negotiated and fought over. The satisfaction derives from seeing projects come to fruition. In his case, that means seeing that the people a project aims to help are better off than they were before: "Farmers getting a higher price for their crops and being able to send their kids to school, and just enjoy a happier and healthier life."

He also appreciates the fact that the effort contributes to a more sustainable future for communities and the planet.

In Thailand, GIZ management is a cascading system in which Mr Bickel oversees 12 supervisors who in turn manage more junior staff. He manages people by adhering to the principle he dubs the three H's: Honest, Humble, Hungry. What keeps him alert is being surrounded by lots of talent.

In the quest for team success, Mr Bickel believes transparent communication is the main ingredient.

"Convincing others of your own idea and making the idea a joint and common idea produces a very powerful force," he says. "You spread the idea and it becomes bigger and bigger until you can start a movement that contributes toward a change for the better."


Agriculture occupies almost 40% of the overall workforce in Southeast Asia but the sector contributes only 15% to gross domestic product (GDP) in the region. Farmers' incomes remain meagre. Smallholder farmers are also exposed to fluctuating market prices, exploitation by middlemen and rising costs of farm inputs.

Climate change is expected to worsen the situation, according to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Prolonged droughts and unpredictable monsoon rain patterns will cost Thailand between US$300 million and $420 million a year and a loss of 15% in yields of major crops by 2050, it has forecast.

But with help in areas of technology, resources in terms of capital, skills and risk management, the untapped potential of the region's farmers can be brought out. They can also learn how to operate in a more resilient and sustainable way and add value to what they produce.

One main task of the cluster is to ensure a sustainable agricultural supply chain which involves economic competitiveness: value creation and fair distribution via sustainable supply chains, strengthening local communities and uplifting livelihoods, and environmental resilience with a focus on climate mitigation and adaptation actions. This systematic transformation will create a lasting impact on the livelihood of farmers, Mr Bickel explains.

Among various projects under the cluster, the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), initiated in 2011, is cited by Mr Bickel as his passion.

The SRP is a global multi-stakeholder alliance that promotes the world's first rice sustainability standard. Its goal is to contribute to increasing the global supply of affordable rice, improved livelihoods for farmers and reduced environmental impact of rice production.

The SRP addresses the "rice paradox", where rice is vital to food security yet simultaneously has the largest carbon footprint of all food crops. By 2050, rice production will need to almost double to meet population demand, which would require additional land equivalent to the size of Chile, and add 300 billion kilogrammes of CO2-equivalent emissions.

"Mobilising investments for small-scale rice farming communities to shift toward sustainable rice production is essential for our planet's survival and to preserve the backbone of the global food supply," Mr Bickel has said.

The SRP has over 100 institutional members led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), along with development groups including GIZ, state agriculture agencies, NGOs and major private companies such as the commodities group Olam International.

SRP projects have now reached 500,000 rice farmers across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, with results including a 10-20% increase in farmers' incomes, 20% savings in water use and 50% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to reach 1 million farmers by 2023.

The programme this year was shortlisted for a $100-million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The winner of the award is expected to be announced in the fourth quarter of this year.

The SRP standard comprises 41 criteria that determine how sustainably farmers cultivate rice. The entry-level score starts at 30 points with a maximum score of 100.

"The rice that passes the standard often enables farmers to derive higher income while at the same time enables them to grow rice more sustainably," he says, adding that the standard is being applied in more than 20 countries.

To Mr Bickel, the most challenging and rewarding part of his role is to get people to believe in progressive ideas.

"Ten years ago when I talked about sustainable rice or a sustainable rice platform, the response was, 'You're mad; it's too politicised'. But we believed that we were in a position to give it a try," he says.

"No beauty compares to implementing something you believe in and seeing that it works."

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