Circular enterprise in the food sector: new wine in old bottles

Food entrepreneurs at the former swimming pool Tropicana

What potential does the circular economy hold for entrepreneurs in the food sector? Opportunities abound, but there are challenges, too, as was clear from the experiences of the entrepreneurs who recently participated in the ABN AMRO Food Circular Workshop. “It was nice to see they’re not daunted, though, and are getting support from other entrepreneurs.”

TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, has already done the maths. The circular economy is expected to provide a real boost to the Netherlands in the form of EUR 7 billion and over 50,000 jobs. Not to mention a 10 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, 20 per cent less water used by the industry and a 25 per cent decrease in imported raw materials. The agri and food sector, for its part, will benefit from an inflow of EUR 930 million, plus a 150 kiloton reduction in carbon emissions and a smaller land-use footprint (2,000 sq. km. less).

Many opportunities

Iris van den Akker, who oversees ABN AMRO’s Medium-sized Food and Retail Enterprises entity, stresses that all stakeholders in the chain have to work together to ensure the success of the circular economy. “The circular economy won’t just happen overnight – we have to grow towards it,” she says. “The good news is that there are so many opportunities here in the beginning stages, which is why we’re organising the Food Circular Workshop. It offers entrepreneurs a chance to inspire one another, and shows the bank where we can contribute more effectively.” And what better place for the workshop than the former Tropicana swimming pool in Rotterdam – a shining example of circular enterprise? Tropicana went bankrupt in 2011, but the pool has been repurposed since 2013 as an urban greenhouse, a restaurant and even a mushroom farm. In 2015, the venue was sold to BlueCity, a group of entrepreneurs whose aim is to create a playground for the circular economy.

Flexible forms of financing

Fifteen food entrepreneurs attended the workshop held at the former swimming pool on 13 December. Among them were Peter Koolen and Jelte van Kammen. Koolen is the director of Elvee, a company trading in chocolate and confectionery, while van Kammen oversees Harvest House, a specialist firm that grows fruiting vegetables for the wholesale and retail markets. Both came to the event to hear how other entrepreneurs engage with the theme and meet the challenges they face. The bank, too, has a role to play, says Koolen – both as a lender and as an influencer. He says, “I hope ABN AMRO will recognise the barriers to the circular economy which we face as entrepreneurs, and can put them higher on the legislative agenda.” Van Kammen, for his part, sees added value in flexible forms of financing, a point van den Akker agrees with. “The bank is certainly willing to work to accommodate these entrepreneurs and their needs,” she says. “After all, that’s in the interests of our own future and investment.”

Capitalising on success

Both entrepreneurs have already come a long way on their own. Van Kammen has embraced the circular economy. For example, the tomatoes his company fails to sell because of minor cosmetic imperfections are used to prepare soups and sauces. He says, “I’ve banded together with a number of other entrepreneurs to form a cooperative. In order to capitalise on our success, we now want to set up a private limited company.” Van den Akker says it’s the perfect blueprint for how entrepreneurs can get started: “A good first step is to analyse your own value chain and determine where you can make the most impact. Also be sure to figure out where you can work with other players.”

Pillar to post

Things aren’t always easy, though, admits van Kammen. His own initiative met with resistance after he applied to have his organic crop certified on an artificial bed. “I was passed from pillar to post – the authorities in The Hague said I had to apply to Brussels, and Brussels sent me straight back to The Hague. Two years on, I was still at square one and had no sense of clarity about the project.” Van den Akker, too, says she sees the challenges the circular economy poses to the food sector. “Players in this sector are expected to ensure the traceability of their products. Believe it or not, traceability can sometimes make it difficult to recycle residual materials. It’s fantastic to see that the entrepreneurs who took part in the workshop aren’t daunted by such obstacles and that they’re getting support from other entrepreneurs and from their bank.”

Fair prices

Koolen says the main ingredient in sustainable enterprise is time: “As an entrepreneur, you can decide you’re only going to sell certified chocolate bars, which is what we did. But you have to be sure you’ll have customers, too. They may see the need for fair prices, but would obviously prefer not to pay more. Sourcing organic ingredients takes a lot of time, too. I personally don’t mind that so much because I truly believe it’s my moral duty.” For Koolen, the next step is circular enterprise. “There’s an important step we can take involving packaging, for instance, but the Warenwet (or Commodities Act) imposes very strict requirements because packaging is in contact with the product. That’s why we still mainly use plastic at the moment. During the workshop, I heard other entrepreneurs who are further along than I am talking about how they deal with their waste flows. We’ve agreed to talk more about this, and I’m excited to benefit from their expertise and experience.”