Originally printed in the December 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Sustainability comes in many shapes, sizes, colors, dimensions and impact zones. For me, the secret of starting a new sustainability project always depends on three things: inspiration, commitment and collaboration. Here is how these three factors recently came together in a life-changing sustainability project.
In June 2021, after working in the global fresh produce industry for almost 30 years as a marketing and sustainability executive, of which 20 years were invested in founding social projects in South Africa’s most disadvantaged areas, I set out on an adventure that would change everything. While on one of my fresh produce projects in South Africa — the country of my birth — I touched down in the Kruger Park (or ‘Kruger’ as it is affectionately known) for the first time. This vast wildlife park spans three countries, and covers more than 2 million hectares (nearly 5 million acres) of unspoiled African bush. I was in awe.
The incredible, outstretched, untouched savannah, the awe-inspiring sunrises and sunsets giving way to a stunning Milky Way in the crystal-clear night sky, the explosion of scents of wild fruit, spices and herbs, and the sounds of the untamed bush all combined to create a connection I had never felt before. Something awakened deep within. I was home.
But first, some facts. The Kruger Park in the northernmost provinces of South Africa is home to over 147 species of mammals and 508 species of birds. It has the greatest number of wild African rhinos in the world, as well as lion, cheetah, hippopotamus, zebra, giraffe, wild dog, hyena and many different types of antelope. It absolutely abounds with wild fruit, herbs and spices, making it pure paradise for lovers of the outdoors. But there is a downside. The park is under threat from illegal poaching, with a catastrophic outlook on the survival of endangered species such as the rhinoceros. During my maiden visit to Kruger, I was also confronted with the dark side of conservation. While tourists were happily spending time in luxury lodges, countless protected animals were killed by poachers. I decided to take action.
I already had the inspiration, and then my passion (fresh produce) kicked in. I did something I had never done before: combine an environmental focus with my two big loves, fresh produce and sustainability. I set out to create a consumer food brand inspired by the fruits, flora, spices and herbs of the Kruger Park, and form a conservation alliance with the park’s game rangers to fight back against the illegal poaching and killing of wild animals.
Fact: Collaborations drive sustainability to greater heights. Back in the Netherlands, I engaged with other fruit specialists to form partnerships with like-minded individuals and companies. Soon after, I returned to Kruger with an energetic team of food and beverage professionals. What I showed them was a sensory smorgasbord ripe for the picking. The Kruger Park and its people presented a perfect symphony of aromas, colors, flavors and the unmistakable essence of South Africa’s shared zest for life. We call this Ubuntu — “I am because we are.”
The people, food, nature and senses of Kruger inspired my team and me to start working on creating a fruit-based, non-alcoholic beverage. And in return for the African bush providing this precious gift to us, we made a commitment to support the Kruger Park and its rangers financially to preserve this magnificent heritage for future generations.
I did something I had never done before: combine an environmental focus with my two loves, fresh produce and sustainability.
Working with local tastemasters and distillers, we developed Selati, a range of non-alcoholic distilled spirits that capture the flavors and tastes of the Kruger Park and South Africa. Mixing many different types of citrus with indigenous fruit (marula), herbs (rooibos), flowers (hibiscus) and spices (African pepper), we were able to create amazing flavors and tastes that fit perfectly with the global trend of less alcohol, more flavor, maximum health.
But we took our fruit-inspired sustainability project further. We started reaching out to local communities around Kruger to see how we could make a contribution to their well-being. I recently traveled to the northernmost border of South Africa to install 10 little libraries in rural schools that are deep, deep in the African bush. What a humbling, yet inspiring, trip this was!
Together, with fresh produce industry stalwart Kees Rijnhout of Jaguar The Fresh Company, I also established the Kruger Park Wildlife Foundation. We created a network of business leaders who are passionate about sustainability. Our most unique activity is the annual ‘Kruger Bush Camp Experience.’ With the rangers, we take a maximum of 20 selected guests on a conservation-focused, adrenalin-filled adventure unlike anything they have experienced, spending four nights and five adventure-filled days in a unique bush camp in a remote area of the Kruger Park. Literally nothing separates us from the wild animals. During this trip, new friendships are formed and sustainability concepts created.
If you had asked me five years ago if my involvement in fresh produce would cause me to become involved in saving wildlife, I would have laughed. Today, I am also laughing, but for a different reason — happiness in knowing that my fruit-based product is making a difference in the world.