18 September 2019

A healthy business mentality and work that matters

A strong-willed globetrotter with an unwavering belief in the power of cooperation, and the ability to see opportunities where others see obstacles. That’s Patricia Vermeulen in a nutshell. The director of Amref Flying Doctors in Leiden, Vermeulen was educated at Maastricht University using Problem-Based Learning. “That’s still the way I like to work.”


Vermeulen hit the reset button, quit her job and went to work for the Red Cross, where she could really make a difference. With her business background and management experience, she rose rapidly through the ranks of the international department of the Netherlands Red Cross, which at the time was primarily managed by ‘fieldworkers’. They excelled at field operations, but as Vermeulen says, “many of them couldn’t read a balance sheet and had never managed a team. So I was a good addition.”

Golden combination

Her business background and international aid work turned out to be “a golden combination”. NGOs benefit from a driven and professional manager who can balance the books and find the right partners. Since late 2015, when she became director of Amref Flying Doctors, the organisation’s budget has increased by a third. Vermeulen sees entrepreneurial ventures as an additional way to achieve their primary goal: improved access to healthcare for vulnerable populations in Africa. “Also, we in the Netherlands have become very good at raising funds through private donations. We’re currently exporting that expertise to other Amref offices in Europe and North America.”

These days she no longer needs to go looking for potential partners; they approach Amref. “We have a very strong African organisation that sets out lines of communication, which is unique. Our headquarters in Kenya has 1500 employees all over the continent. Only two of them are not from Africa. In other words, we know our way around; we know the local context, have an extensive network, excellent contacts with governments and a very solid reputation. Partners know this. Partners like Philips and Dunea, a large water firm that has acquired funds to establish a local water company within ten years. We’re helping them ensure people will also start paying for clean drinking water.”

Alumni as partners

Amref now also works with SHE Collaborates, which is headed by another UM graduate, Geraldine Beaujean [see pp. 27–29 of this issue]. The collaboration came about through the Amref International University in Kenya, which was looking for a partner for pedagogical support. In turn, SHE Collaborates was able to use the Amref team in South Sudan for an educational project. “Our presence in such a fragile country is exceptional, as we don’t provide emergency aid. But we managed to secure the funding, and together we’re stronger. Relationships are important for every form of cooperation. That Geraldine also studied at UM gives it an extra dimension. Sharing memories of our time as students in Maastricht makes it a lot more personal.”

By: Theo Tamis (text), Patricia Vermeulen (photography)