Celebrating 30 years of a unique idea | Globalization | DW | 04.02.2013
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Celebrating 30 years of a unique idea

Germany's Senior Experten Service is celebrating its 30th birthday. The organization sends retired, volunteer experts to schools and companies in Germany and worldwide to pass on their knowledge.

Five years ago Siegfried Müller had no idea where Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, was even located. That all changed when his wife signed him up with the Senior Experten Service, known in Germany as the SES. The foundation gives retirees the chance to pass on their professional knowledge to new businesses and students, in Germany and abroad.

Siegfried Müller, who used to work as a butcher, was sent to Kigali for his first SES project. The owner of a supermarket there wanted to sell sausages in his shop, and needed someone to show his employees how to prepare the food. At first, Siegfried Müller could not imagine going to Rwanda. "When I first got the news, I was shocked," the 65 year old recalls.

Senior Expert Siegfried Siegfried Müller shows butchers in Africa how to prepare sausages (Photo: Copyright SES)

Siegfried Müller with trainee butchers in Africa

"In Germany, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Rwanda is the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis," Müller explains. "After that happened, there was not much reporting about Rwanda."

Müller got travel information about the situation in the country from the German Foreign Office, and finally decided to go on the SES trip. In January 2009, he flew for the first time in his life to Africa, and ended up staying almost five months in Kigali. Since then, he's been back several times. He's also travelled to Ethiopia and Zambia too to share his knowledge.   

 Projects in more than 160 countries

The SES was set up in 1983 in Bonn, initially as a pilot project, by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"The SES was created to ensure that valuable knowledge of German experts was not lost when they retired," says Ute Sonnen, from SES, in interview with DW. The pilot project was a major success. Since then, in the 30 years that followed, more than 25,000 projects have been completed in 160 countries. 

SES does not come up with its own project concepts, but tries to act when requests come in. As soon as volunteers have been found, who fit the demand of a particular request, he or she is sent abroad. The organization in the country of the project where the so-called 'knowledge transfer' takes place pays for food and accommodation.

There are no concerns that experts are mistaking the work trip for a free holiday, says SES Africa co-ordinator, Anja Tenambergen. "Our partners tell us that the senior experts are so motivated they often even work on weekends, if that's required."

Success in Germany as well

Monika Kuppler shows a trader in Egypt the finer side of fabric production (Photo: Copyright SES)

Monika Kuppler shows a trader in Egypt the finer side of fabric production

Even though the services of the senior experts were originally envisioned to be used abroad, German companies too can now get tips from SES participants. Students who want to improve their grades at school can also get a senior expert as a mentor who helps them to prepare for exams.

In addition, SES experts sometimes offer their help to entire schools. A Bonn school for instance that decided to grow vegetables got valuable insights from an expert who used to work in agriculture. "It was an interesting experience for the students. From picking the right seeds to designing the packaging and selling the produce, they were able to do everything themselves," says Ute Sonnen from SES.

For Siegfried Müller, too, the Senior Experten Service has been a rewarding experience too. He says he would like to go back to Africa soon to help out in other projects. The 65 year old, who hails originally from the Rhine river region in Germany, says he likes the approach to life in Africa.

"In Cologne, we say 'et kütt wie et kütt', which means let's take things as they come. Africans say 'hakuna matata'. That's pretty much the same thing."

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