Staff Profile: Peter Abma, Fairtrasa Holland

peter-470-x-400Peter Abma is the Sales Manager for Fairtrasa Holland. He has more than 3 decades’ experience in the fresh fruit sector and has spent the last 15 years devoted to organic fruit. He is passionate about the health and environmental benefits of organic fruit and about the importance of empowering organic fruit growers. Here, Peter discusses the origin of his career in organics, his experience in the sector, and his hopes and vision for its future.

Read Peter’s profile on Medium.

What inspired you to work in the organic fruit sector?

In 1984, when I came out of military service in Holland, I took a job in the fruit and vegetables section of a local supermarket, just because it was available and I liked the guy who offered it to me. I enjoyed the job and learned a lot from my boss, and eventually moved on to another supermarket chain, where I was in charge of purchasing, and then into importing and exporting. This was the late 1990s, when organic was just catching on in Europe, but the price difference between organic and conventional was still huge.

One day, a man I was buying fruit from — the managing director of a large organic fruit seller — said something that really impacted me: “If you look at conventional food and the damage it’s doing to our environment and health, who is going to pay for it in the end?” This idea woke me up. I got interested in organic food and began reading more about the damage that conventional food and pesticides do to our bodies and environment. Soon, I had my son, who is now 15 years old, and I realized that I didn’t want my family putting any more dangerous pesticides into our bodies.

So I decided to devote myself to developing the market for organic food in Europe. I joined a company that marketed organic fruit, and then started my own company, GR Organics, which imported organic fruit from Greece and Argentina. Then, in 2013, I joined Fairtrasa.

Why did you choose to join Fairtrasa?

When Patrick Struebi knocked on our door to discuss a partnership in 2013, I already knew him well. Earlier in my career, I was actually the buyer for Fairtrasa’s first container shipment — the world’s first container of Fairtrade Organic avocados. I knew his story: how he left his career, went to Mexico, saw the problems that small-scale farmers were facing, and searched for a solution. That is not easy to do, and it impressed me. So our relationship was already very special, and I knew that we shared the same philosophy about organics.

Also, I felt that my company, GR Organics, eventually, needed a larger network for sales and supply to create impact. By joining forces with Patrick and Fairtrasa, I knew I’d have the opportunity to make this happen, which was always my goal.

What were the most important lessons you learned about growing the organic market during those early years in the industry?

I learned many lessons, but one of the most important was to focus on quality. Quality was a big problem in the organic sector in the early 2000s. Quality control was more difficult for organic supply than for conventional fruit, even though the quantities were much lower. In the very early days of organic, it was expected that you might have quality problems and be short on supply; but eventually, as demand grew, the supermarkets started putting more pressure on suppliers. You couldn’t just say, “I can’t help it,” because the supermarkets would say, “Okay, if you can’t help it, who can?”

Of course, this is even truer today: the quality standards for organics are getting higher and higher, along with the size of the demand. So I learned at a very early stage that you need to keep your stocks clean and you need to plan your sales ahead of time, to ensure that your organic fruit has a buyer when it arrives. That’s why, at Fairtrasa, we’re so committed to quality.

Another lesson I learned was the importance of caring about your growers. You really need to know your grower, treat them well, and build relationships. At GR Organics, with our growers in Greece and Argentina, I knew who they were, their families, their farms, their packhouses, and they liked it. When they came to Holland, I’d bring my family and colleagues to meet them, so they could know me better. We have that same philosophy and interaction with growers now at Fairtrasa.

It’s important to show yourself and not just your business. You have to connect with people. If you’re always level with each other, then you’ll have the courage to critique each other when you need to. That’s the best way to grow our market: by being honest with each other.

What trend do you see in the organic market currently?

It is growing enormously and there’s no way to stop it! The market is getting more and more demanding. A lot of supermarkets have the courage now to go all-organic on certain products, such as lime and ginger. And I think we can increase volume even more as consumers learn more about the clear health and environmental benefits of organic. I believe that in 20 years or so, the market will be 50/50, organic and conventional. But it’s not just about the consumers changing their preferences. It’s up to us to keep expanding supply and improving quality.

Why do you think people are buying more and more organic?

Health seems to be the number one reason, along with environmental concerns— the effects of chemical pesticides on the body and environment.

Is organic a big part of your life outside of the work you do?

Yes, certainly. Along with eating organic, I buy and wear organic clothing as much as possible. I also think the decisions we make about energy are very important for the same reasons: health and the environment. I try to use solar and wind energy, and I drive an electric car.

What changes have you brought to Fairtrasa as Director of Fairtrasa Holland?

The main thing was helping Fairtrasa create a vertically integrated supply chain. Initially, Fairtrasa was selling its fruit to import companies in Europe, who would then sell the fruit to wholesalers and supermarkets. The first big change we made was to start selling directly to the wholesalers and supermarkets ourselves. To do this, it’s been crucial to plan our sales programs well, so that all of our supply would find a buyer. We’ve done a great job at this, and our supply companies in Latin America have done a great job of meeting demand.

To your mind, what makes Fairtrasa unique as a company?

For me, it’s about the team — all of the different people who are part of Fairtrasa. Fairtrasa is a magnet for people with the right “Fairtrasa DNA”: passionate, hardworking, and committed to quality, sustainability, and helping small-scale farmers. On the sales side of Fairtrasa, we’re not just “traders.” We really care about the farmers we represent. And on the supply side, of course, it’s not just about “sourcing.” It’s about helping farmers develop themselves. In some ways, the people on our team are very diverse, because we come from so many countries and do so many different things. But we love each other, because we’re on the same side. We’re committed to the same goals.

What do you think is the key for Fairtrasa to keep growing and scaling its impact?

If we want to make a difference in the organic market, we have to keep growing our supply while keeping quality up. The market is asking more and more and from us, so we have to keep finding new supply sources, which means partnering with more farmers in more countries. Fairtarsa’s supply companies are doing a great job increasing volumes and impact on farmers. It’s up to us, on the sales side, to keep finding the right customers and delivering high quality.