Filip Fontaine and Nele Van Avermaet, Belgium's VLAM

“The corona crisis pushed us all out of our comfort zones”

“The year 2020 took a very different course than we initially anticipated," says Filip Fontaine. He's the Flemish Agricultural and Fisheries Marketing Centre's (VLAM) Managing Director (MD). "COVID-19 means we soon found ourselves in a lockdown. The closure of all non-essential shops was a major challenge. Our planned campaigns were focused on eating together. So, we had to change that drastically."

"Our team had to move very quickly. The foreign campaigns fell away, but we organized new local ones. The 'Lekker' website received 1.5 million visitors a month, which was phenomenal. What's striking was that Belgians wanted to cook for themselves. And they were specifically looking for comfort food."

Filip Fontaine

Everything that came from farmers, i.e., the Short Chain, also exploded. "We put a lot of effort into this as well. We were not just focusing attention on farmers or growers. But also the local chips shops, stores, and neighborhood supermarkets. Along with our partners, we ensured that the Flemish food industry was generally at the fore of Belgians' minds," Filip explains.

"The crisis has moved not only VLAM but also other companies out of their comfort zones. And I'm enormously proud that we managed to do so, so quickly and well. It's, of course, a pity we had to postpone all the foreign programs, but there was no alternative."

Flemish Food Charter
“In between the two lockdowns, we and 28 federations met. We created a Flemish food charter that highlights local products. Our goal is to bring Flanders back into the general Belgian population's focus. They must see it's a safe, high-quality, tasty food-producing area", says Filip. "This year, we'll turn another page. The Belgian government has instructed us to make a go of relaunching products, especially considering Brexit. They've also given us related resources for this. We'll be setting up subsidy programs for export companies too."

Brexit advisor
VLAM has appointed a Brexit advisor. This is to guide and advise companies as well as possible. "This consultant has a great deal of international retail experience. They'll be available free of charge to businesses. We're also going to promote Flemish products abroad to get our exports back on track."

"Apart from our usual role, we have to support the sector too. That's one of 2021's biggest challenges. But, we can look back on a fruitful year. A year in which we were forced to reinvent ourselves. Winston Churchill said, 'Never let a good crisis go to waste'. We faced the crisis, keeping that in mind. So, we tried our best to make the best of it," says Fontaine.


“We hope to be able to start tastings in China soon. We were recently told we'd get a European subsidy for three more years," says Nele Van Avermaet of VLAM. "We've been doing tastings for three years. This has partly contributed to our exports to China increasing every year. That shows that Chinese consumers like eating Belgian Conference pears."

"Another great project is the Conference file we've drawn up with the Dutch Fruit growers Organization. Together, we want to bring attention to this pear variety in Austria and Switzerland. Unfortunately, that project was suspended last year due to the global pandemic. We hope we'll be able to continue those activities at the next harvest."

Nele Van Avermaet

Trade shows
COVID-19 also meant organizers canceled many international trade shows. "That's very unfortunate because trade fairs are a great way to draw attention to a country and its products. Various online trade fairs were organized. Those were good trial runs since it was the first for everyone. The overall feedback was that an online fair could never replace a real one."

"That's despite all the efforts organizers put into these digital alternatives," says Nele. To bring Belgian companies in contact with companies from Singapore, VLAM organized a virtual contact day. "This went very well. We've had to be creative to stay in the spotlight. And in this case, we were very successful."

Filip has been VLAM's MD for 18 months. He deals with the meat, fish, and dairy sectors too. So, Filip now has a new perspective on the fruit and vegetable sector. "The sectors are similar, but all have different emphases. What's remarkable is that they're all very creative. The fruit and vegetable sector health claim is a huge advantage."

"I'm only now realizing that health is a great marketing tool health. Fruit and vegetables are incredibly healthy. That's an asset we can focus on more. Looking back on my career, I should've made more use of that. I hope everyone in the sector realizes with which great products they work. I'm proud that we can support these wonderful companies," Filip concludes.

For more information:
Filip Fontaine
Nele Van Avermaet
Bus. 50, 35 Koning Albert II-laan
B-1030, Brussels, Belgium
Tel: + 32 (0) 255 28 011

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