Becoming Oikocredit’s new Managing Director: interview with Mirjam ‘t Lam
Mirjam 't Lam
Mirjam ‘t Lam took up her new post as Managing Director of Oikocredit on 1 December. She had served as Interim Managing Director for several months after joining the cooperative in November 2020 as Director of Finance & Risk. We interviewed Mirjam about her professional background, her personal motivation, and her thoughts about Oikocredit, 2021 and the coming year.
You have been working at Oikocredit for just over a year now. How has the experience been and what have you discovered?
It has been a privilege for me to work for an organisation with such a unique and important mission. Knowing that about 100 million people have fallen into poverty around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic (according to the World Bank) makes investing responsibly to help low-income people improve their lives more important than ever. It’s not only Oikocredit’s mission that inspires me but also its cooperative nature and the way our investors, staff and partners are united in serving that mission. I joined the organisation during the coronavirus pandemic, and this has been a difficult time for so many people and organisations. Yet here at Oikocredit we showed that we could sustain our core activities and continue to provide financial and capacity building support to our partners. And although we made a loss in 2020 because of the pandemic’s effects, our members expressed tremendous confidence in the cooperative at our June 2021 Annual General Meeting (AGM), and we have returned to profit over the past year.
What have been some of the most inspiring moments?
On 2 December we held the first ever Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) in Oikocredit’s 46-year history. I found this occasion special, as our members demonstrated remarkable solidarity and willingness to collaborate and listen to each other as we develop our new future-proof capital-raising model. This showed our cooperative in practice. Another inspiring moment for me was publication of our Impact Report in September, highlighting the social impacts of our investing in partners in our focus areas of financial inclusion, agriculture and renewable energy and why our local presence is so important for selecting the right partners to work with and for providing capacity building support. The Impact Report is full of meaningful data and good insights about our work during the pandemic. I have also been inspired by the dedication of Oikocredit’s staff, who worked so hard to rebuild our development financing portfolio in 2021, delivering positive results, and have carried out the search for a new capital-raising model.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
It has been a challenge, both as a member of the Managing Board, and more recently as Interim Managing Director and now appointed Managing Director, to navigate our cooperative to where it is today during difficult times. Covid-19 has challenged us all. We have had to learn to live with the pandemic and to conduct our business despite it, and to find effective ways to interact with our partners, members and investors. Oikocredit also encountered changes at Supervisory Board and Managing Board level, which have both been a collective challenge and challenged me personally so that we all continue to do what is in the best interest of Oikocredit.
You were previously Oikocredit’s Director of Finance & Risk. What inspired you to want to move into this new role as Managing Director?
Becoming a managing director has been my long-held ambition, provided I could find an organisation whose purpose I was completely in tune with and where I would have the full support of staff and other stakeholders. I have found this at Oikocredit, where my personal beliefs about responsible investing are so well embedded in the core of the organisation.
How have your background and expertise prepared you for your new role as Managing Director?
Much of my professional development took place at the Rabobank Group, a cooperative bank where I had a series of advisory, commercial and other roles. I am a strong believer in the cooperative approach – based on collaboration, seeing the long term and working in solidarity – and in the importance of local presence. In my time with Rabobank I worked for more than a year in India and other parts of Asia on renewable energy, and subsequently in Rwanda on micro-hydro. And as Chief Financial Risk Officer at Rabo Development (now called Rabo Partnerships), the focus of my work on improving access to financial services was in many ways similar to Oikocredit’s approach. I am grateful that I have had good mentors and managers during my career who have helped me prepare for leadership roles.
Can you share anything yet about Oikocredit’s performance in 2021?
As we reported at the end of Q3 2021, this past year we have rebuilt the cooperative’s development financing portfolio after the contraction and loss of 2020. While the final results are not yet available, I expect we will have ended 2021 on a positive note in terms of portfolio size and quality, member capital, income and profitability. Our capacity building continues effectively, and the forthcoming publication of our first-ever Client Self-Perception Survey report will mark another key achievement and source of helpful insights for our future work. I am happy that we closed the year on a very good footing.
What do you foresee for 2022?
The coming year will be one of transition. The world will need to define how it does business, knowing that Covid-19 may always be present. For Oikocredit in this context, we need to consolidate our ‘business as usual’ and deliver even more impact for the people we serve. We will transition from our current strategy (2018-22), which has prioritised efficiency and complexity reduction, among other objectives, to our new 2022-26 purpose-driven strategy with its innovative approach to supporting clients’ self-empowerment by building resilience at community level. We expect to formally adopt our new capital-raising model in the first half of 2022, which we will then implement with our members, support associations and other stakeholders. And we will welcome new people on the Supervisory Board and Managing Board, filling the current vacancies.
Looking at the longer term, what role does Oikocredit have to play in the future?
Oikocredit has always pioneered and acted as a catalyst in impact investing. This will not change. With our new strategic attention to community approaches, we will aim to stay at the forefront of innovation in development financing and to respond with agility to new opportunities and challenges that arise. We will also strive to build a greater sense of community among our members and investors, strengthening Oikocredit as a movement, while continuing to enhance our digital communications and future-proof the organisation.
How much will the new strategy differ from the previous one?
The new strategy will extend and build on the current strategy rather than replace it entirely. Starting in 2022, we will aim to grow our impact in new investment areas and create an enabling environment for low-income people so that our partners’ clients and members have better long-term opportunities to achieve lives of dignity. To do this, we aim in the coming years to invest a fifth of Oikocredit’s funds in working for lasting improvements in our partners’ communities through support for projects focused on housing, education, healthcare, and water and sanitation. These are sectors where we have not been active in recent years but which our partners have identified as needing investment to foster community resilience. Together with our partners and others from our global network, we are now designing agile solutions in these areas. Four-fifths of the portfolio will continue to be invested in financial inclusion, agriculture and renewable energy, delivering impact in our 33 focus countries. Our mission of responsible investing in the sustainable self-empowerment of low-income people will remain the same.