Gaia Herbs will be celebrating its 10th anniversary soon. “The main idea was to sell only fresh herbs,” says Avinoam Zarfin. He joined this Israeli company about two years after it was founded, and is now its Marketing Manager. Until recently, this company was based solely in Israel. “Two years ago, Gaia B.V. was established in Poeldijk, the Netherlands.”
Gaia Herbs sends all its products via airfreight. They, therefore, work in the niche market. “This is a very fast market. It takes about four to eight hours from when you place an order, to when you receive it. You get it fresh from our growers all year round.” The company also has good relationships with the airlines. “We almost never have issues with finding space for our products.”
Avi shows off the basil.
“Gaia used to purchase 100% of its products from Israeli growers. Today, thanks to this Dutch branch, we purchase from all over.” They buy fresh herbs from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Uganda. “We also get supplied from European growers, but only in the summer. “These are for all exotics, not just herbs,” explains Avinoam.
“With the exotics as well, we mainly get Israel products. But we also get them from other countries if required. We, therefore, purchase our products from quite a wide range of countries.” Gaia Herbs supplies fresh these herbs and exotics all year-round. “But mainly, of course, the fresh herbs. This is still our major focus. This is still about 75 to 80% of our business.”
Mostly sell to Europe
“The majority of our sales, by far, are in Europe, but we have good clients in North America and the Far East too.” The company does, however, not deal with Eastern Europe at all. The Poeldijk branch supplies Europe, and its Israeli office provides the Far East and North America. “We send very little herbs to the Far East,” explains Zafrin. “They are more interested in special, exotic fruits like figs, pomegranates, and passionfruit.”
Gaia Herbs gets all their figs from Israel. Is there competition from Turkey? “No chance,” admits Avinoam. “They have excellent figs which they transport by trucks. We cannot compete with that. So when Turkey is on the market, we are out. We have organized things so we have two gaps. We do figs from May to August. Then, Turkey is in for two months, until early-October. We are then on the market again from October until January.” Brazil then comes onto the Far Eastern market. “Then we go west. It is impossible for us to compete with Turkey and very hard to compete with Brazil.”
According to Avinoam, Basil, chives, and mint are the best sellers among the herbs. “Coriander is quite big too. You have to have the less well-known varieties too, though. You must have the entire range of fresh herbs. You cannot have only basil, chives, and mint,” adds Avinoam. Gaia Herbs supplies organic products too. “We do it because there is a demand, but it is still a comparatively small part of our business.”
Grower Sharon showing the spinach leaves.
Even in the summer, when Europe has a lot of its own supply, some companies still get supplied by this Israel company. “In Israel, we have far less production in the summer. It is too hot. But we supply from East Africa to Europe. We also have European companies that are our clients in the winter, and then supply us in the summer.”
Avinoam explains that they are now just as busy in the summer as in the winter. He says they sell a lot of figs and chili pepper too. “We do pitaya and passionfruit. Then we do a few varieties of vegetables like yellow courgettes and beans,” says the Marketing Manager. Israeli crops are usually divided between two or three exporters. “Some of our growers grow 100% for us, but this is not the norm.
Gaia Herbs aims to have all its growers, regardless of which country they are in, keep the same standards. There are, however, different climates in the various regions of the world. “At the moment, the Israeli basil is of extremely high quality. It does, however, depend on the time of the year,” explains Avinoam. “We have an advantage in that we have clients who insist on having Israeli products. Others insist on having getting herbs from anywhere else, for whatever reason.”
Zarfin says some supermarkets only want herbs grown as close to their location as possible. Not all of Gaia’s growers have all the different kinds of certifications, either. “There are are so many different requirements for all our different clients.” The company tries to accommodate them all. “We can only do this because we have different sources and farmers. It is quite an art today to supply your clients with what they need. Everyone knows exactly what they like and want.”
Yellow zucchini in a high tunnel greenhouse.
Competition from Spain and Italy
“We thought our competition would come from Morocco and Egypt. They are competing, but we are ok with that. Our main issues are with Spain and Italy. They are increasing their capacity every year. You can see it in the market. They have (less expensive) transportation and get agricultural subsidies. We do not have these. Agricultural conditions are really tough in Israel.”
The Marketing Manager agrees that, before they start growing a product, they have to determine if there is a gap in the market. “Otherwise, we have no advantage.” Avinoam says agriculture, in general, is getting harder to do in Israel. “There is a limited supply of water, and no-else else pays what we do for it. Everything is more costly. You have to be extremely efficient to make a profit.”
“Growers and sellers do not dictate the market,” continues Avinoam. Product prices are the most important factor, he says. “There are Israeli growers everywhere. There are two in Kenya and two in Ethiopia, and they are doing an excellent job. We get products from them too.”
"You must be flexible"
Every year is different, according to him. “The challenge is to be flexible and to be fast. You must be able to adapt to what is happening on the market. You have to understand what is happening immediately. We are doing well, only because we react quickly.
We also have very good relationships with our clients. Some of them have been with us from the start. These clients give us excellent information. We have clients in Germany, France, and Switzerland who supply us in winter and are clients in summer. This creates a special relationship.”
Zafrin says the strength of their company lies in its small size. “There are only four people who need to make decisions. It takes one phone call. We try to keep everything moving fast and uncomplicated.”