An odd couple on an unlikely rescue mission


Carsten Terp Beck-Nilsson


Three years ago, two Danes hatched an ambitious plan to make the world a better place. The world’s largest investors must enter the game if the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be achieved, according to Morten and Stefan. And they believe they’ve found a way. But now they themselves have run out of money.

One of them spent his childhood in Africa, surrounded by servants. The other grew up in a home with working-class values in Søborg, Denmark.

Two Danes with global ambitions: Stefan Maard (left) and Morten Møller Holst. Photo credit: Rasmus Flindt Pedersen.

From their individual starting points they became aware of inequality at an early age and decided to try to reduce it.

Today they are united on a mission with the lofty ambition of making the world a better place.

‘We want to mobilise large corporations and institutional investors by making it attractive for them to work towards a more sustainable world,’ says Stefan Maard.

For three years he and his brother-in-arms Morten Møller Holst have been working on developing a solution that will make it attractive for the world’s largest investors to allocate funds into more sustainable solutions.

Yet, when Altinget sat down to meet with them, the two men were on the verge of giving up.

‘A rocket going to the Moon needs a certain escape velocity to leave the atmosphere. If it doesn’t have that, it just falls to the ground again. And we’re heading downwards’, says Morten.

We are sitting in Stefan’s apartment in Copenhagen’s Holmen neighbourhood. The white walls are decorated with African art. Hanging in one corner of the room is a swarm of colourful butterflies. A dark wooden mask gazes threateningly at entering visitors, and a two-metre tall totem pole stands guard over the exit to the balcony.

‘You should have seen the room he lived in when he was single. It was completely stuffed with books and exotic art. A total anthropologist’s den’, says Morten. The artefacts adorning Stefan’s home are mostly on loan from his parents, who have lived in a variety of developing countries including Togo, Cameroon and Sri Lanka, purchasing enough art through the years to turn a Danish villa into a museum.

There will never be enough aid money
The bright Scandinavian architecture and collection of exotic artefacts creates an appropriate backdrop for the story of Stefan and Morten; two highly educated, highly talented Danes who could be working in well-paid jobs, but who instead embarked on a mission to save the world.

Morten and Stefan want to build a bridge that makes it attractive for big financial players such as pension funds and private equity funds to invest in companies that provide sustainable solutions in developing countries – and in so doing, mobilise enough money to make the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a reality.

Their premise is that aid funding alone will never be enough to ensure that the goals are met, and that if we solely rely on that, the SDGs will remain nothing more than declarations of intent.

‘A lot of development work has moved from handing out fish to teaching people how to fish, and that’s fine. But once you’ve done that, where will the next 100 million fish come from? Where’s the scalability?’, asks Stefan. ‘Even with development aid that works, we won’t achieve the SDGs unless we multiply aid funding more than a hundred-fold, and there’s no scenario in which that will happen. Not even if the Red-Green Alliance [Denmark’s most left-wing political parties, ed.] holds every seat in parliament.’

We need to mobilise big capital
That is why Morten and Stefan have put together their own plan: Get the big companies involved and pave the way for some of society’s biggest financial players, the institutional investors, to place their money in sustainable investments. That’s when things will truly start to change.

‘Global corporations are some of the most powerful entities on the planet. It’s about getting them to take responsibility to combat rising inequality and improve our society. And if we can get the really big investors on board, then we’ll have reached a point where we can talk about 10 percent of the world’s investable capital being able to help solve problems’, says Morten.

The incentive is money.

Morten and Stefan believe that if you can reduce the risk of investing in new, foreign, perhaps even fragile markets, then that would open the possibility of getting multinational corporations and big financial players on board. Because risk is a major showstopper in business.

‘It’s much easier for big corporations to allocate huge amounts of capital to something that is low-risk than to allocate very limited amounts of money to something that’s high-risk’, says Morten.

That is why they founded the NGO DIVA, which is intended to bear part of the risk that comes with breaking new ground. The idea is that DIVA, together with multinational corporations, will build new, sustainable companies in developing countries, help these start-ups grow, and then pull out once they are big enough to be interesting targets for major investors. In other words, Morten and Stefan want to use market forces to create a more sustainable world.

Santa Claus from Togo
All of this may sound like unusually grand ambitions for two people from a small country like Denmark. But Morten and Stefan are something out of the ordinary, both individually and as a team. Stefan was born just outside of Surrey in the United Kingdom, but at the age of six, he and his family moved to Togo in West Africa, where his father had been posted to build up a business for Maersk. It was here that Stefan first came to realise that the world’s resources are unevenly distributed.

The family lived in a large villa with a driver and servants, but Stefan also played with the local children. One Christmas he asked his friends what presents they had been given from Santa Claus.

The answer was, to his astonishment, that they hadn’t been given anything at all.

‘So I went home and ordered our houseboy to gather all my toys in a sack, and then I went around passing them out to all the children on the street. The only toys I kept were my Legos and two stuffed animals I was really fond of’, he says. Later he got an even more close-up experience with inequality. In Senegal, his family lived in a large house surrounded by walls with broken glass on top. But when Stefan climbed up on the roof, he had a direct view to a large slum district.

‘The conditions were just miserable’, he recalls.

Impact through business
His family socialised with other expats, but aid work and UN projects were not something that Stefan’s father was particularly impressed by. His attitude was that they were overpaid to mass-produce white elephants that would never benefit anyone. Instead, he believed that what really worked was businesses opening factories or building ports and creating jobs.

‘His view at the time was somewhat simplistic, but it had a huge influence on me. I was raised with the notion that we had to do something, and that the solution was business and enterprise’, Stefan says.

When they weren’t working, Stefan’s parents worked privately on initiatives to help the local community. Stefan’s mother volunteered as a nurse helping orphaned children, and they hired women infected with HIV/AIDS to give them access to pensions and healthcare.

‘They hired women who were so ill that they died during the time they worked for us. Many employers wouldn’t consider touching those people, much less give them a job. My parents did a lot to help – perhaps a little more than was actually permitted’, says Stefan. ‘My father was always building some sort of business that benefited the local community, my mother was always volunteering, and we children were always along for the ride.’

Morten’s father was a man of convictions
Morten grew up in Søborg under completely different circumstances. His father was a physician and HIV-researcher at the Danish research institute Statens Seruminstitut, but spent his free time helping people from vulnerable groups at Kofoeds School.

‘We had a relatively modest lifestyle compared to my friends and classmates’, recalls Morten. ‘My parents didn’t have a car, we never travelled abroad and we drove around on second-hand bicycles.’

From time to time, his father would receive lucrative employment offers from pharmaceutical companies, but those never enticed the left-leaning researcher.

‘He declined the offers because he was passionate about a cause. It made a big impression on me’, Morten explains. Morten often spent holidays with his mother’s family in Jutland, where he and his brother would be put to work.

’20 minutes after getting off the train, we’d be standing in overalls and rubber boots, helping build a fence around a field’, he says. ‘My mother’s family taught me how to work and to keep going until I was finished.’

Morten lost everything
Back when he was still a young computer science student, Morten fell ill. His lungs had taken permanent damage from a mould infestation, and he developed asthma and became extremely allergic to certain chemicals and fragrances.

He had to start wearing a mask, and eventually he lost his student job and many of his friends.

‘At the time it felt like the carpet was being pulled out from under me, and that shook me. It got so bad that at one point I was afraid of becoming homeless’, he says.

As time went on, however, Morten’s health improved.

‘But I had to make some extreme choices for a few years’, he says. ‘I put my studies on hold and spent nearly all my energy on holding down a job. I also had to move to Oslo for a few years because it was better for my health’.

His experiences from that time have left a deep mark. ‘I have experienced losing everything and getting it all back again. That may be why I’m less cautious about starting something new and putting some of my savings at risk’, he explains. It also made him realise what really matters to him.

‘Both as a child and while I was sick, I came to appreciate the value of having the right people around me, something which has become a guiding principle for me. And I know I can rely 100 percent on Stefan.’

The fading DIVA
In the summer of 2014, Morten and Stefan’s rescue boat was put out to sea. It all started with a conversation they had at a birthday party for a mutual friend in Frederiksberg Gardens. Stefan had developed the analysis. Morten was not particularly engaged in development or aid work, but when he realised that it was about creating new businesses, he was hooked.

‘I thought to myself: ‘Wow, here’s a chance to use my core skills to really make a difference. Opportunities like that don’t grow on trees’, he says. And the skills that Morten had acquired from his job as a management consultant were exactly what Stefan needed. ‘I quickly realised that if I was to make any progress on this, I should be working with Morten’, says Stefan.

A few months after the party in Frederiksberg Gardens, Morten had resigned his partnership at the consulting firm and begun to put his savings to use. Together, Morten and Stefan then embarked on an intense journey which has thus far lasted three years.

Along the way they have worked on sustainable business ventures together with major corporations from Denmark, the Netherlands and Pakistan.

In the process, they have achieved a sort of rising star status in European philanthropic circles.

However, DIVA is in decline. Despite enormous interest in their initiative, Morten and Stefan have not managed to secure the funding that they need from foundations for DIVA to succeed. The foundations’ big words about being willing to make risky investments for global impact have not been backed by appropriate action, according to Morten and Stefan.

‘There’s a lot of talk among foundations about wanting to invest long-term and take risks, but, in reality, there seems to be a discrepancy between what they write and what they actually do’, says Stefan.

‘It’s not words that are lacking’, adds Morten. ‘It’s money.’

However, the two entrepreneurs are still hoping for a miracle.

‘It’s hard to keep it alive, but whenever we talk about the possibilities, there’s still a lot of good energy there. So, if someone with enough money and the right mandate comes along, I’m ready to keep going’, says Morten.

Carsten Terp Beck-Nilsson is Editor of Altinget: Civil Society.

This article originally appeared on the Altinget website. The original article can be found here.

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