The flexibility of African herb imports

Import company Xpol started importing fresh herbs to the Netherlands near Schiphol, Amsterdam, four years ago. The mint, basil and chives spread across the rest of Europe from there.

The African country of Kenya is central when it comes to the import of fresh herbs by Xpol from Rijsenhout. Founder and manager Tom Vermeer chose the country in East Africa for a reason. “The Kenyan climate is very favourable,” he says. “It’s also possible to grow fresh herbs in Europe, but the chance that fungi affect the plants is larger than in Africa. Besides, African herbs are more intense in flavour in part thanks to sun exposure near the equator. European consumers respond positively to that. In addition to Kenya, our products sometimes come from Zimbabwe, Egypt and Rwanda as well.”

Combined air freight
Seven days per week Xpol has multiple flights leave for Schiphol with fresh herbs on board per day. Together with other products of the company, they import the goods to the Netherlands. “At the time we started importing flowers,” Tom continues. “Later herbs, but also vegetables, were imported. Per week, we transport between seven and twelve tonnes of herbs, which are loaded onto the planes on mixed pallets. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, the cargo is picked up from Schiphol, and the lorry is in Rijsenhout within ten minutes. There, the plane trays are slid inside and stored until the products can continue on their way.”

Appropriate amount
Tom indicates that Xpol works slightly differently than similar companies in the sector. As a service provider, Xpol brings only the amount to the Netherlands that customers want to buy. Xpol therefore doesn’t buy bulk to sell it to a party that wants it in the Netherlands. “We think that’s a difficult and old-fashioned way of doing business,” he says. “Xpol is not a trading firm but a service provider, and we work based on cooperation between customers and growers, instead of purchase-sales. Our Inclusive Business model is that we don’t work with daily or weekly prices, but with a transparent permanent price, which we agree on with our growers. Our customers are retailers, wholesales and food service. They buy from the grower what they need. All products we import, already have a destination.”

Spreading risks
The Dutch company imports throughout the year. This year, the company noticed that some herbs are more difficult to acquire than normally. By means of spreading the risks, Xpol ensures that customers can still receive the amount of herbs they need. “Because of climate change we have noticed that the growing stage changed somewhat,” Tom says. “In Kenya, we experienced some cold nights this year, causing basil scarcity. Because we work with the best growers in various regions and countries, we always manage to get our products.”

The Netherlands loves mint
When various herbs have been harvested and stored in Xpol’s storage warehouse, they’re almost immediately sent to various destinations in Europe. “We have customers from the Netherlands to the Czech Republic and from Austria to France. We’ve noticed mint in particular is popular in the Netherlands, but not in the neighbouring countries. They think it’s weird the Dutch use it to make tea or cocktails. Whether it’s mint or basil, our company has grown more in herbs than in flowers or vegetables in recent years. Every year, it concerns a percentage between 25 and 35 per cent. Besides private label, Xpol also has its own tea brand: Sunny Tea.”

Pack up and go
Xpol expects to grow every year when it comes to importing fresh herbs. The company has room to expand. For a limited amount of storage, the import company uses the warehouse in Rijsenhout. “We pack our products at the source, so we don’t have to do that in the Netherlands,” Tom says. “Packed in a box or in bags, if necessary with a label and barcode, various herbs arrive at our company in the Netherlands. Because we buy the products on order, people are sometimes surprised by the little amount of storage we have in our warehouse. An important additional advantage is that our approach is much more sustainable: less repacking and packing material is needed, but it also prevents unneeded transportation, energy usage and the spoiling or turning of fresh products. This is our way of contributing to global waste reduction.”

Within a few days, the fresh herbs from an African country such as Kenya can be in supermarkets. “When we harvest the herbs in the morning, the products can be packed in the afternoon,” Tom continues. “They can be flown the next day, and a few days after that, the products can be in the shops. Within a week the product goes from source to consumer.”

More information:
Tom Vermeer

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