The summer of 2023 saw the tragic passing of Nana Janashia, whose life was cut short just weeks after she and her team celebrated the 25th anniversary of the environmental NGO she founded with her Swiss-born husband, Laurent G. Nicole. It is with a heavy heart and no shortage of emotion that Laurent has taken on the enormous responsibility. However, he remains confident that Nana’s legacy will continue with the support of the brilliant team they built up together.
Laurent is a Swiss chemical engineer and health and safety engineer by trade, with a strong professional background in environmental audit and natural resources management, waste management, DRR, water safety, humanitarian engineering and EIA around the globe, including Georgia.
He first arrived in Georgia in 1993, accompanied the first steps of CENN back in 1998, and since then, has been involved as an advisor on strategic organizational planning and management as well as the chairman of the governing board.
GEORGIA TODAY was invited to sit with Laurent and hear the story of CENN’s evolution in his own words.
We begin our interview by discussing CENN’s foundation, when he, with his engineering business and humanitarian work for the Swiss Government – a job which necessitated constant travel around the globe, needed someone to take care of his newly founded Georgian environmental engineering business ACTA, a sister to his Switzerland operation.
Our overall vision was, and still is, environmental protection and civil society development, in short: Changing the world
He was recommended Nana by a Georgian friend. She had just returned to Georgia from studying eco-tourism at the CEU in Budapest, and had set up an environmental project in the South Caucasus, supported by Friends of the Earth International, using “third-hand” computers and a friend’s office internet. Enamored by the project, Laurent took it under his wing, and their collaboration began, with ACTA in Georgia being run in parallel to what became the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network – CENN.
Their first projects were about communication on environmental issues, awareness raising, publishing multilingual magazines on environmental issues- some dealing with water systems, others with women’s empowerment, the latter something Laurent says Nana was particularly passionate about.
“The needs in the region in the late 1990s were enormous,” Laurent says. In the early 1990s, with Eastern Europe looking increasingly westwards, including Georgia, the countries needed ministries of environment. It was the right time for CENN to jump in.
It was at this time that Nana toured Europe and America with Laurent to see what they were doing and how.
I see the level of dedication to our activities today; we can believe that this generation will participate in the change
“The South Caucasus was at the edge of an enormous turn, especially in its understanding of the environment,” he says. “So, in the late 90s, we started picking up what projects were arriving from the EU, USA, from the Swiss Cooperation Agency. By using the duality of our NGO and engineering company, we were able to open a lot of doors. Our overall vision was environmental protection and civil society development, in short: Changing the world.”
Laurent is a modest but brilliant gentleman who describes his former role in CENN, which he calls “their first baby,” as Nana’s “shadow” – imparting advice as asked for or required, or making suggestions which best directed CENN toward their global vision of a better world. This was advice he was well experienced to offer, coming from over 40 years’ experience in the field of environmental engineering and civil development across the world in Africa, Asia and Europe.
“In my job, I’m too often leading. I’m comfortable to be in the second role,” he admits. “Nana was from a generation who saw the changes here in Georgia. She liked to be seen and be visible, to introduce me to millions of people I couldn’t remember. We worked together on strategy, human resources, preparedness, and I was and am still Head of the Board, but Nana was the face of it all as I travelled to manage various humanitarian projects and my engineering company and factory in Switzerland.”
Compared to Nana’s bright colors, dazzling smile and ability to make all who knew her fall in love with her and come to support her ideals, Laurent is quieter, more reserved, though he is an astute businessman with a clear and unwavering work ethic.
Describing the early days of CENN, he says they sought to be reliable and trustworthy from the very first.
“Thanks to our international partners, we have an extremely strict operation manual. They sent us people to help create it, they followed up, demanding to see documentation and accountability to the beneficiaries,” Laurent says. “And at each step of our development, we have happened to meet the right people to help us to be in the right place at the right time, and to get better and better at what we do. It gave Nana great satisfaction to see how we were improving in terms of quality, and how our strong and dedicated team, some of whom are brought from a young age to train and grow in CENN, were developing.”
The Saakashvili era, Laurent notes, is when CENN really took off, moving and growing on the wave of reforms introduced in the first term of the new government. From a tiny two-room flat in Vera in which the husband-and-wife team also lived while working with their small team of 6, the NGO moved to a new office on Chonkadze, and finally to their current home, an earthquake-proof, Swiss and Georgian designed house in the hills of the Old Town, one of three converted buildings accommodating CENN employees – environmental enthusiasts of various specialties.
I never needed to go into the details of the projects Nana and the team were running; now, I have to jump in and find my way, but I have no doubt that I will catch up. There’s a lot of work ahead
At 65, it is Laurent’s desire to keep CENN flowing strong and true that “forced” him to step into Nana’s very hard-to-fill boots as Executive Director of CENN, giving up his plan to retire within the next 5 years.
“I know CENN best in terms of the overall approach. In terms of management, I have proven and valuable experience. After she passed, I was elected interim CEO by the board, with no-one against, allowing the administrative mechanisms to go on. I never needed to go into the details of the projects Nana and the team were running; now, I have to jump in and find my way, but I have no doubt that I will catch up. There’s a lot of work ahead,” he admits.
In moving from an advisory to a leading role at CENN, Laurent tells us that he knows his team will guide him in developing strategies, and that he is always open to hearing their proposals.
“To the table, I bring my experience of CENN, my global experience of people around the world, and my environmental engineering side, coming from a combination of biology, geology, economics, and chemistry,” he notes.
Laurent is now treading his first steps into the finer details of the projects that Nana knew by heart, but which he only knew from a distance, and preparing to enter the bright social circle that Nana kept so enthralled – a challenging endeavor that Laurent fully comprehends, given the substantial responsibilities of fundraising, project expansion, policy changes, and the overarching direction of CENN, all in alignment with both his and Nana’s unwavering vision.
“I want to ensure that CENN does not have only one face, but many. We have many faces in our strong team, but until now, Nana was always the key,” he says.
On the work looking ahead, CENN has numerous projects on the go, and a lot to try to better in Georgia.
“We work at the grassroots and policy level, with communities, local and national governments, private sector and more importantly with the youth, raising awareness of the system they are in and their role in that system; how to instigate change and not to expect or wait for handouts like a cuckoo in the nest, as it is in many countries, if not worse. We enable people to be responsible,” he says. “Incivility is everywhere in the world. I fight it as much as I can wherever I go, encouraging people to respect the rules, pay their taxes, ensure their money is used properly to give their country a proper education system, proper healthcare, proper roads, proper waste management, electricity in the cables, water in the taps, and everything working smoothly. At CENN, we are waking up the civil spirit of the people.”
“Nana and I spent nearly 25 years working seven days a week, but that’s how we achieved what we did. Half our team were still in diapers when we started,” he admits. “But when I see the level of dedication to our activities today, I would say that we can believe that this generation will participate in the change. It’s extremely motivating. So many people believe in CENN, that we are changing the world,” he says. “This is what Nana wanted. Simply put, the show must go on. And it will.”