Future Success May Not Fall On Industry ‘Old-Timers’

Nic Jooste, European Market

Originally printed in the August 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Some months ago, I was invited to participate in a round-table discussion with a group of fresh produce company directors. The topic was The Future of Food. As we each gave our vision on ‘the future,’ specifically the steps we need to take to ensure our businesses remain successful and relevant, I looked around the table and it struck me like a blow from a hammer: 90 percent of the hair around the table was gray (or graying). We definitely could talk about the past, but the future??

It was then I posed the question: “Whose future are we talking about? Realistically speaking our future is limited, purely on the basis of our ages. Shouldn’t we be talking to the youth about how they see the future developing? Wouldn’t that be adding real value to the topic?”

This question I posed was probably disrespectful. It was definitely confrontational. After the initial shocked silence, many reactions were forthcoming, and at the start I could not count on much support. Understandably so, because the people around the table had for many years established and managed successful business models. My response to the critical notes was based on a famous line in a Dutch advertisement for financial services: Past performance does not guarantee future success. Fortunately, as we continued talking, the acceptance level for my point of view increased.

As a group, we came to understand that new generations of consumers think differently about food. They buy and consume differently. Such consumers can change their consumption patterns at the swipe of the smartphone’s screen. Although veganism and vegetarianism are increasing, these young consumers do not visualize ingredients when thinking about food; they see dishes instead. Yes, changes in the food scene are happening at lightning speed without us even noticing it.

There are also bigger issues at stake. With health, vitality and longevity becoming top of mind, fruits and vegetables can play an important role in the health of the world’s population. On a broader level though, this is being threatened with exclusion by unhealthy alternatives.

So, what does the fresh industry need to do in order to remain relevant as new generations emerge, consumption patterns change and more and more blurring takes place between traditional channels and modern lifestyles? Should we look to our own experiences, or should we try a completely different route?

It is precisely within this context (based on my disrespectful question six months ago) that we have developed a collaborative fresh produce project that is almost too good to be true. If the outcome of this project matches the level of energy that us ‘oldies’ are putting into it, we will see sparks fly.

In October 2018, a number of partners, led by the Rotterdam Food Cluster (Municipality of Rotterdam), will host a two-day event with 200 of the most ambitious students in the Netherlands. Drawn from different fields of study at eight universities and colleges, they will be immersed in the following challenge: ‘How can the fresh produce industry ensure that its beautiful products – fruits and vegetables – remain relevant in the coming 10 years?’

Quite rightly, the Dutch fresh produce industry considers the input of young people to be of great importance for finding a solution to the challenges of the future. By allowing these consumers, entrepreneurs, employees and leaders of the future to reflect on the global challenges that will come to us in the coming decade, much-needed fresh thinking and innovation can be brought to the world of fruit and vegetables.

The two-day ‘Market Match’ event will take place in Rotterdam on Oct. 4 and 5 in the iconic Maas Silo in Rotterdam, where students will work in multidisciplinary teams. The ‘pressure cooker approach’ will immerse students for 48 hours in the challenge from early in the morning until late at night. Prior to the event, the students will have the opportunity to participate in inspiring field trips to various fresh produce companies. During the event they will be exposed to presentations by trend watchers and entrepreneurs who recently have set up game-changing, innovative companies. The students will have nonstop access to a broad range of specialists drawn from different segments of the fresh produce industry (retail/wholesale/processing/logistics). There also will be an inspiration corner with experimental installations and food innovations. Plenary and teamwork sessions will follow in rapid succession, with high-energy inspiration being key. All possible steps will be taken before and during the event to ensure students can fully exploit their creative insights.

The event will culminate in a trade show in which all 50 teams, comprised of four students each, will present their innovations and concepts. The top 10 will make their pitches to a specialist jury, drawn from banking, accountancy, business consultancy and (obviously) fresh produce companies. The winning team will be taken on a whirlwind international tour that will cover primary production, logistics, sustainability, retail, wholesale and advertising. It is also envisaged that the event will result in a number of fresh produce startups.

The program is not only based on the needs of the project partners (Rotterdam Food Cluster, Cool Fresh International, Koppert Cress, The Greenery, Bakker Barendrecht, 4Evergreen Growers, Rijk Zwaan, Hessing) but also on the study content of the participating educational universities and colleges such as Wageningen University, Delft Technical University, Erasmus University, Aeres University of Applied Sciences and HAS University of Applied Sciences.

The great Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.” Isn’t it time for the fresh produce industry to follow his advice?

Nic Jooste is the director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International, a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for fresh produce.