Tunnel farming: SA goes Dutch

Greenport Holland International (GHI), comprising 50 Dutch horticultural businesses, has formed as partnership with SA companies and stakeholders in the industry. Called the RSA-NED platform, it seeks to develop a successful SA horticultural sector. GHI’s Harm Mater talks to Nan Smith.

Tunnel farming: SA goes Dutch
Harm Mater Photo: Courtesy of Harm Mater
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Greenport Holland International (GHI) calls itself ‘a horticultural partnership’. Could you broaden this description for Farmer’s Weekly readers?
GHI is an independent foundation that connects Dutch businesses and expertise with horticultural businesses in other countries. Fifty leading organisations from the Dutch horticultural cluster belong to GHI. The Netherlands is a world leader in horticulture technology and South Africa is developing horticultural production and becoming a leader in its region. This led to the development of a partnership between the two countries: the RSA-NED platform.

READ:Farmers must do their homework before expanding into Africa


Can you give an overview of the RSA-NED platform and its purpose?
We started this platform in March 2013 with various stakeholders. There are two co-chairpersons; I am the co-chairperson from the Dutch sector and Elton Jefthas of the Western Cape is the SA co-chairperson. The stakeholders are private companies, grower organisations, trade organisations, universities and government representatives with five representative stakeholders from the Dutch sector.

Together, we discuss development in the SA sector by sharing knowledge of the markets, production techniques, innovative advances and education. There is a need for more efficiency in South Africa because of increased labour, water and energy costs, and a rising middle class that is becoming more aware of food safety and quality.
Our goals are to initiate projects, accelerate the development of a sustainable sector, and form a strategic partnership between South Africa, the Dutch government, GHI and universities.

The platform has a good representation from the South African horticulture sector including vegetable, fruit and flower growers. We also involve unions, retailers such as Woolworths and Shoprite, and academic institutions, and see the involvement of government as important. As the Dutch ambassador has said, SA farmers are informed and willing, and research and academic institutions are working and have capacity, but the government is not fully supportive.

The Dutch ambassador spoke about the ‘golden triangle’ of knowledge institutions, business and government. How will this apply to your approach in South Africa?
In the Netherlands, the importance of the connection between these three major role-players has long been accepted. GHI believes in implementing the golden triangle in all phases of horticulture. We want to do business with committed farmers who adhere to certain standards of excellence and open-mindedness. Business is not generated by endless funding of projects; we are eager to help people who show interest, drive and motivation.

How often do you meet and how do you get from talk to action?
We meet twice a year to form goals and strategy plans. Co-ordinating programmes is part of our planning. There are several projects in the pipeline, among which is a training project in start-up phase at Bapsfontein with K2 Klein Karoo Seeds, managed by Lomo van Rensburg. Through these projects, we hope to create a cycle of expertise and combine it with growing systems and learning. Centres like this can connect local growers and realise the crucial function of networking in business.

The environment of the Netherlands is very different from that of South Africa. Can you apply meaningful solutions to multi-faceted problems and conditions that are unique to the African context?
We try to learn relevant lessons from every country in which we have a foothold. It’s important to look at a country and at its economy closely. For example, Canada has a developed economy accompanied by a very cold climate, and growers must work within these conditions. GHI has networks in countries with a range of economic and climatic systems and we grow our capacity to operate efficiently within divergent frameworks.

In Kenya, for example, where we have successful projects running, the economy is younger but the availability of light and the ambient temperatures are more supportive of protected horticulture. Our background of experience and our strength in networking gives us an edge which will certainly enable us to function efficiently in the South African context. Apart from this, we keep our approach and our systems flexible and adaptable.

How much of a threat is Israel as a competitor? Are you concerned about the competition?
The Netherlands has a holistic approach to protected horticulture management, embracing climate and sustainable use of resources. Our method is often described as meer met minder (more with less). It’s not in our paradigm to fear competition. In fact, we welcome an open-market system and the opportunity to learn from other sources and countries.

What is the current focus of the platform?
This year, our focus will be on energy saving and connection to the global trade and logistics network. The Netherlands has knowledge and experience in these subjects and is implementing projects, techniques and standards in various countries with local partners. Through a workshop at the undercover farming expo, we’ve started meaningful dialogue with academics, growers and marketing organisations on energy- saving alternatives and the use of renewables. In this way, we hope to find solutions that will work for the South African horticultural sector.

Phone Harm Mater on +31 (0) 174 446660

This article was originally published in the 25 April 2014 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.

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