By Anita Fahrni, Swiss Program for Language Instruction and Teacher Training
Alfred Naef is a resident of Switzerland but spends much of his time in Mongolia. After finishing his studies in the field of logistics, he worked in England for a Swiss company which sold consumer goods in Mongolia. Since 1998, he has produced Chinggis Beer in Ulaanbaatar, now sold throughout the country and even brewed abroad under license. With many friends and business connections here, and as a keen observer, he is concerned about the developments in Mongolian society and about the deterioration of the environment in the place he calls his second home.
Your home is near Basel, Switzerland, but you have worked in Mongolia since 1998. What brought you to this country?
The Swiss company I worked for was doing business here, selling consumer goods much in demand but not yet readily available. Successful in that, the company looked for an investment opportunity. As a result, the Chinggis Beer Company, a Mongolian-Swiss joint venture, was founded in 1997. Production started in 1998, and this was when I first came to Mongolia. Next year we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chinggis Beer.
Why did you decide to produce beer in Mongolia?
With the exception of Khan Brau, no other brewery was producing quality beer on a regular basis. This, plus the fact that we all like to drink beer, gave us the idea of producing it here. Our success proves that the decision was a good one.
Doing business in Mongolia is not always easy, often frustrating.
In fact, doing business here is often very difficult. The mentality of Mongolians is very different from the mentality of Europeans, even more different from that of the Swiss. Of course, I had frustrating experiences in the beginning, and occasionally I still do have them. However, I have learned to adapt and to accept that many things here do not move as fast as was planned in meetings back in Europe, 6,000 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar.
I have also learned to invest time and patience in the training of our staff. I take pride in the fact that many managers and employees hired at the very beginning are still working for our company. Today I am very glad that I had the opportunity, at the age of fifty, to get to know a culture so completely different from my own and to take up this very special challenge.
You are also involved in various organizations here, including the Rotary Club. Is networking important for business or social reasons?
Over the years, I have made many good Mongolian friends. However, it is also important to keep in touch with the foreigners here, the “expats”, in order to exchange opinions and experiences, and also to obtain important information about new laws and regulations. Good contacts of all kinds make life interesting.
You are also on the board of Friends of the Takhi, Mongolia, working with the International Takhi Group (ITG). This Swiss organization has reintroduced the wild horse to the Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, in the southernmost parts of Gobi Altai and Khovd provinces. Have you been to Takhintal?
A very good friend of mine in Switzerland, Dr. Siegfried, was one of the founders of the Takhintal project. His reports aroused my interest in the reintroduction project. My Mongolian friend Sukhee, who was then a ranger at Khustaii National Park, explained to me the importance to Mongolia of the wild horse in its natural habitat here. I became fascinated by the history of this project and the excellent results obtained so far. In 2011, I had the opportunity to go to Takhintal with my daughter. That visit left a deep impression on both of us.
How is Takhintal different from Khustaii?
The two projects, Khustaii, which was started by the Dutch, and Takhintal, started by the Swiss, both began reintroducing the wild horse about 25 years ago. However, there is a huge difference between these two national parks. In Khustaii, the smaller park, the wild horses stay closer together, partially because there is always plenty of water and grass available to them. In Takhintal, the herds are spread over a much larger region. In Great Gobi B there is much less water and the vegetation is sparse. This means that the horses must cover greater distances to find what is necessary for their survival. Where there is water in the desert the animals sometimes meet. The breeding during these moments of contact are genetically important to increasing the Takhi population.
A major risk to the wild horse in Takhintal is the harsh winter, the dzud, when some horses could starve. In Khustaii a harsh winter is not much of a problem. Wolves are a danger in both parks, especially to the foals.
The wild horses flown to Mongolia and released here are carefully selected for their health and their genes, to insure the survival of the Takhi in their land of origin.
Friends of the Takhi would like more support from Mongolians. Is it difficult to find donors here?
This project does cost a lot of money. The ITG has financed the project so far. However, it is important to get support from the Mongolian side. Therefore, working with ITG, we have founded Friends of the Takhi, Mongolia, here in Ulaanbaatar and welcome members and supporters. Donations of any amount help guarantee the survival of the wild horse. We realize that many people have not heard about this project. Thus, we aim to inform Mongolians about the importance of the reintroduction and survival of their truly Mongolian animal. In April, there will be an exhibition of photographs of Takhintal, to show people the beauty of the region. And we are organizing a fundraising concert with the Mongolian rock band Hurd. Information can be
found on our website savethewildhorse.mn.
Originally a nomadic people, Mongolians are said to be close to nature, to respect the environment. In your opinion is this still true?
I enjoy traveling through this beautiful land. However, every time I am in the countryside I feel frustrated and disgusted when I see the amount of garbage, plastic bags, glass bottles, and other waste scattered over the steppes and along the roads. Herdsmen tell me that they lose livestock when the animals eat plastic bags. It irritates me to see people washing their cars in the rivers. I do hope that the awareness of the importance of a clean environment will increase in Mongolia.
The Swiss are known for keeping their country clean, for recycling paper, glass, metal, batteries, and other things. Could recycling work in Mongolia, too?
It should not be difficult to start a functional and efficient recycling system here. I can see the beginnings of an effort in that direction. However, it will take a long time for recycling to become a habit because the awareness of its importance simply does not yet exist.
Trees are being cut illegally in Mongolia, the forests are disappearing.
Yes, the illegal felling of trees, even of small trees, is a real problem. Wherever trees are cut, the area will sooner or later turn into desert, reducing grazing grounds for herds. I know that there are quite a few projects for reforestation, but I have also noticed that after the trees are
planted they are often abandoned. Without water and care, most of the trees die.
In Switzerland, for every tree which is cut many young ones must be planted. That way at least one will survive. The surface covered by forests is even growing.
Mongolia has many Strictly Protected Areas. Are these really protected?
No, most of them are not really protected. They are overrun by tourist camps, which destroy their beauty. Picnickers leave trash. Because sanitation facilities are lacking, many wonderful spots are turning into public toilets.
You have observed many changes over the past 18 years, some of them good, some bad.
Yes, not all of the changes are positive. The traffic is unbearable, consumer prices rise steadily, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, and the real estate market is totally overheated. On the other hand, the energy supply has improved and the collection of garbage seems to be working in parts of the city. The availability of consumer goods has reached Western standards. From Western food to luxury goods, you can find everything in Ulaanbaatar now. The variety of restaurants equals that in a Western country. However, the climate here is not investor-friendly. The flood of new rules and regulations makes life difficult.
Many foreign guests come to visit you here. What are their impressions of this country?
In the past 18 years, I have brought many guests and tourist groups to Mongolia. Every single one of them left this country impressed by its natural beauty and the very warm hospitality of the Mongolian people.
What do you tell young Mongolians who wish to succeed in business and also help improve the standard of life in their homeland?
My advice to young Mongolian people: don’t leave this country after your studies. Stay here and help build it up. Mongolia still has a long way to go. It has great potential but needs good people to meet the challenge of making it a blooming and prosperous nation.