FVC International is helping to safeguard South Africa’s fruit and veg industry by balancing risk and developing long-term, sustainable partnerships with growers around the country.
GROWING AS ONE
In an ever-connected, globalised world, consumers have more choice than ever over what food and drink they decide to buy.
Seasonality is no longer an issue as fresh produce is grown all over the world and transported en masse all year round.
This is particularly true of fruit and vegetables – products which are subject to intense aesthetic scrutiny by retailers eager to present perfectly-formed options to their customers.
Competition among growers and their exporting partners is therefore intense, and South Africa is just one of many prolific fruit and veg producing countries that is having to compete on a global stage.
Enter Fruit & Veg (FVC) International. Established in 2004 by Jaco van Tubbergh, the company is wholly owned by retailer Food Lover’s Market and handles all imports and exports within the group, its major export product lines including apples, pears, citrus, grapes and plums.
Exporting to the likes of North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as other African nations, FVC is a hands-on one-stop shop priding itself on quality processes, from growing and picking to packing and distribution.
“In order to navigate industry challenges, we have had to work smarter and with more energy,” says Ryno Palm, FVC International’s Head of Marketing.
“This is vital given the level of competition around the world, and we must go the extra mile to secure the right orders not only for us, but for our producers. That few extra rand can make all the difference.”
Palm is no stranger to the importance of margins for farmers.
“I grew up in a farming community,” he continues. “My great grandfather was a farmer in the Western Cape and my parents are still farming on the same farm in the Hex River Valley to this day. I have always been inspired and proud of what we produced and, as I got older, I learned about the industry and dealing with farmers, and the various challenges and opportunities they are presented with.
“After studying winemaking, I got involved in the export business, something which I have been doing since 2001. The opportunity to work for FVC International came a couple of years ago and presented a new challenge in many ways, including different products like citrus and the import element of the business, as well as the link to our parent retailer company.”
Passionate South African farming advocates, Palm and FVC are also grounded.
While operating as one of the country’s fastest-growing fruit and veg exporters and already its largest importer, the company is not aiming to conquer the global market. Rather, its formula which has proven successful to date is to balance risk and opportunity across its network of clients.
To ensure a year-round, reliable supply of produce, FVC has longstanding partnerships spread right across South Africa, helping to mitigate seasonal challenges associated with climate.
“Over the years we have structured a system which has proven to be sustainable,” says Palm.
“For example, with citrus there are three major growing areas in South Africa – the Northern Province, Eastern Cape and Western Cape. Within these areas we have at least two or three dedicated suppliers that form the backbone of our citrus business, suppliers who have been on board with us since the start.
“The same applies to our grape growers – we are focussed on maximising our business with two or three producers in different regions.”
Such partnerships ensure both FVC and its community of growers develop as one, what Palm describes as a family approach to navigating various market nuances.
“Working with growers is my major passion, and we are all working together to ensure we are farming again next year,” he adds. “The success of our business is in no small part down to the fact we have an incredibly loyal group of suppliers.
“In some cases, we have seen partner producers triple their volumes since being with us, and we also have a similar approach with clients in that we have long-term, loyal customers in regions around the world.”
Built up over the past 15 years, the FVC network has become a champion of responsibility and standard setting.
In terms of environmental sustainability, parent company Food Lover’s Market has placed a large focus on recycling, reusing and reducing the amount of packaging involved in its operations, a scheme which has the full backing of FVC’s growers.
For instance, its grape packets are made from recycled plastic, and the firm is always looking to explore new ideas through a dedicated unit named Earth Lovers, a division which studies the entire environmental footprint of the business.
“Advocating good agricultural practice is also very high on the agenda for us,” Palm says. “We service retailers which demand high standards, and we ensure all the necessary due diligence is in place to meet these expectations.
“The growers bought into this many years ago and we have a dedicated team to look after the accreditations of our farmers, making sure they comply with rules in areas like chemical use. We also check shipments before they are sent out to customers.
“This scrutiny applies to safety and ethical standards too, and we audit at farm level to make sure we are working with the right suppliers. It is hugely important to us and our producers.”
Further, in the communities surrounding its network of partners, FVC apportions funds to charitable projects which include supporting institutions like nursing homes and special fundraising events.
This sustainable, balanced and responsible modus operandi has facilitated 15 years of development since van Tubbergh went into business in 2004, and for Palm the onus is very much on consolidating this progress.
“We came out of a challenging 2018 in terms of the South African citrus and grape industries,” he explains.
“Our focus is on the customer and supporting our growers, strengthening our relationships and making sure we continue to distribute high quality goods. This will stand us in good stead for the next five years.
“We need to analyse global supply and demand trends to the deepest detail and position ourselves to be a sustainable business.”
Indeed, Palm points to a recently-secured agreement with a Middle Eastern retailer which involves an expansion into dried fruits, the new client seeking supplies of raisins and fresh juices to serve its customer base.
FVC has also undergone a rebranding exercise on its packaging, a key priority for the year ahead being to ensure product quality underpins this refreshed company image.
These developments leave Palm bullish about the rest of 2019 and beyond, both for FVC and South Africa as a fruit and veg exporter.
He concludes: “If we back up our brand with sustained product quality then we will always be on the high end of the demand.
“We have to compete with the world. We have to constantly offer quality at the right cost. This takes a lot of hard work, and we at FVC need to lead the growers, inspire them and show them that they can compete with those outside of South Africa.
“We have proven we can do this over many years and must continue to do so more than ever before.”