From his ornamental plant cultivation background, he already knew a lot of East African growers, but for about 15 years now, Willem Kea of Greenfresh hasn’t really talked about flowers with these growers; they mostly talk about herbs now. So many varieties of herbs are still unknown, and as a result, a lot more can be discovered and the company located in Rijnsburg, the Netherlands, knows that all too well. The herb market is on the rise, and volumes from Africa and from closer to home are increasing as a result.
Willem Kea with two supervisors in the mint field in Africa
“We often know what customers want before they do,” Willem says, smiling. They have to, because herbs often have a short shelf life, and it’s therefore important to keep lines short. Greenfresh does that by supplying customers directly from the source, or the grower. It’s not always the cheapest option, according to Willem, but it’s the best option for fresh herbs. “Daily, we receive three to four shipments from various supply countries, so that our customers can generally always be distinctive on the market with a ‘great product’ and an assortment as broad and deep as possible. We see the return of that as well. Meanwhile, we’re constantly checking our stocks and that creates so much data, we can now predict the market quite well.” Moreover, Greenfresh also produces based on contracts when customers ask for that. “As a result, we’re even more certain of delivery, and we can offer the growers we’ve worked with for 15 years a good, year-round production programme as well.”
Thyme ready to harvest in Kenya
Early in June, the volumes are a bit behind. That’s because of the relatively cold weather, as a result of which not everything is going as well as last year. Herbs love warm weather, but despite the cold, Greenfresh still has more than enough supply. That’s due to the spreading of the production. “To supply herbs year-round, you need to grow in locations where the climate allows year-round production. That’s the case in East Africa, where we maintain good contacts with about a dozen major growers. These are professional growers with all necessary certifications. If necessary, we’ll guide them in their productions and make recommendations, but it’s mostly that we’re the eyes and ears in Europe for those growers. That cooperation is going excellently.”
Basil in the greenhouse in Kenya
Closer to home not necessarily more sustainable
According to Willem, it’s mostly important to be a good partner to the growers year-round. Not just in Africa, but also in Europe. “When possible, we look at the production of fresh herbs in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Northern France and Southern Europe. But try as I might in winter, it won’t be possible to offer a complete range of herbs at a constant quality and volume. Moreover, closer to home isn’t necessarily more sustainable. For example, there’s a lot of supply from Spain, but you can also see that when you receive three kilos, 12 to 15 per cent of that is cutting waste, because those herbs are often longer or contain a lot of stems. That’s a waste, and it changes the calculation both regarding cost price, quality and sustainability. Besides, our customers mostly want good herbs. Some of our customers even prefers local herbs, but about 80 per cent don’t really care about origin and mostly just prefer the highest quality. Due to our fast logistics and good service, we can ensure that. We can deliver directly from the source throughout the world.”
Fresh open groud basil in the greenhouse
In recent years, Greenfresh has increasingly focused on more special herb varieties. “This summer, for example, we have about 40 to 50 special varieties in our range. That doesn’t mean 40 varieties of mint, but it’s a lot of variation, from southernwood to sweetleaf and from edible flowers to lemon verbena.” A lot of these newer varieties are tested by Greenfresh before being sold to customers. After that, it’s important to harvest feedback. “That’s a lot of fun, and there’s always something new to tell. People especially like these innovations, although in the end, customers or consumers have to decide for themselves whether they want to use the herbs or not. After all, I’m no chef,” Willem is quick to say.
Shelf life makes supplying new varieties challenging. For some varieties, shelf life is so short, it could be an enormous challenge to get it to the customer in a good condition at all. Willem mentions lemon verbena as an example. “That’s a fantastic herb with a lovely lemon aroma. Unfortunately, the herb is not that good at withstanding light, cold and heat, making transport more difficult. By keeping the lines short, however, we’re capable of offering the product from East Africa in winter and from closer to home in summer. And not dried, as is sometimes the case. We don’t supply dried herbs. We’re completely dedicated to fresh herbs.”
High care packing room
Organic growth on the market
These fresh herbs, and not just the basic ones, are more and more widely available nowadays, even from retailers. Greenfresh doesn’t supply retail (yet). “Up till now, retail was out of our reach, but I predict this’ll change.” Fresh garden herbs from Greenfresh, under the Greenfresh brand, but increasingly under private label, are delivered to catering, retail trade, wholesalers, exporters and repackers and Greenfresh can even count drilling rigs among their customers. “People know how to use herbs more and more. The market’s clearly growing organically.” Recently, this also started happening in Scandinavia and the former Eastern bloc. “Demand is increasing there considerably, which is also the case for other fresh products that are being discovered over there. Herbs are used more often as a healthy alternative to salt there as well.”