Social responsibility and sustainability are just two ways in which German fresh produce company Don Limon is hoping to build a competitive advantage. Produce Business UK finds out more from The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference exhibitor
By 2050 – just 34 years away – it’s estimated that the world’s population will have increased to 9 billion. That’s 2 billion more than the number of inhabitants today. Developing a sustainable food system is one of the most pressing concerns of leaders across the world. That’s why in 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) established the How To Feed The World 2050 initiative.
Thankfully, fresh produce companies have woken up to the need for sustainability. Germany’s Don Limon is one such enterprise that places great stock – and pride – in its sustainability programmes across the world. As such, the company will be pushing this message at this year’s inaugural Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference, where Don Limon will feature as part of the Sustainability Knowledge Centre.
“It’s something we’re really passionate about,” admits the company’s Lena Ingenillem. “When we started producing in the southern hemisphere and other developing countries – for example our Indian table grapes or Mexican limes – we were able to work together with smallholder farmers there and support them and manage a smooth process in our production. They are able to produce high quality product that meets European and North American standards and we are able to buy them from them and give them international market access.”
Based in Hamburg’s bustling wholesale market, with offices and production centres across the world, Don Limon grew out of the family wholesale business, Pilz Schindler. Originally a mushroom trader, Pilz Schindler gave birth to the Don Limon brand in 2007, initially focusing on Mexican limes. So although the company is still in its infancy, it actually has more than 60-years-worth of experience to draw upon. Consequently, keeping a watchful eye on market trends is integral to the Don Limon offer.
The Don Limon brand initially focused on Mexican limes
“A decade or so ago sustainability wasn’t such an issue in the produce business,” says Ingenillem. “Probably not for most supermarkets or retailers either. But now the customer has become more aware and conscious of what they’re eating, how it is produced, what are the residues, what are the pesticides being used.”
Ingenillem notes that it is about striking a balance though. Sustainability hasn’t permeated every level of the supply chain, nor does every consumer shopping for grapes or limes know or understand its importance.
“It is something that is just coming up and we are trying to be at the forefront of this,” she says. “But sometimes it’s a struggle because we want to present what we are doing – that it’s a great thing to buy our sweet potatoes or our limes because it’s not only a great quality product, but as well it’s helping rural regions. It’s still a massive step for many retailers and customers. It’s not got through to everyone yet. Most of the people don’t have this other agenda when they buy something.”
Sustaining competitive advantage
However, as more and more consumers, and thus retailers embrace these concerns, Don Limon’s early forays into sustainability give them a competitive advantage.
Ingenillem replies: “Well, obviously retailers become more aware of what the end-user wants, so they have their criteria for their producers and suppliers that certain residue levels are not exceeded. So that of course is really important and we have to align with those requirements. In terms of an advantage, I think so. I think when we can tell potential customers to look at our website and check out what we have got already it might give them a comfortable feeling. They will hopefully realise that we know what we’re doing. So, yes, I hope potential customers think along these lines.”
Moreover, the benefits are more than just food sustainability. Social responsibility and social sustainability feed out of Don Limon’s programmes. Don Limon support developing countries and rural regions; it works with local farmers and enables those growers to have a stable income and work with Don Limon as partners.
“And that is the really great aspect for us,” says Ingenillem enthusiastically. “We thrive on that. It’s what makes it so interesting. It’s not like one big farm where everything comes from. We’re actually in close contact with our farmers, we know the farmers we work with, our traders go there on a regular basis – visit the production, visit the people. We can be sustainable with them, so they can support their own households and so on.”
The Don Limon partnership team in Mexico
Two projects are already in place, supported by a public/private partnership with the German Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development. One is in Mexico, centred on limes, and the other is located in India and is focused on table grapes.
“We have a pretty international team of traders and those traders come from Mexico, they come from India and they come from Honduras and they work closely with the farmers over there,” explains Ingenillem. “That helps us of course to communicate better and overcome any cultural barriers and language problems.”
Elsewhere at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference, Don Limon is keen to demonstrate its capabilities as a global producer and supply-chain manager.
“We want to be transparent so our customers and clients trust us,” says Ingenillem. “We want them to see that we’re at the origin and we’re able to monitor and control their supply chain until its arrival at the customer. So they feel they can trust us with that. We really want to make a social, environmental and economic impact for people all around the world. Not only for us as a customer that seeks to make profit, but also for the producers.”
For Ingenillem this relationship with its growers and suppliers is paramount. “It’s the main target,” she says. “We feel like the fruit business is a people business and we want to be close to the people. We want to understand them. We want to be partners, not only business partners, but we want to have a real relationship with those people. This is also key for us for success. It’s working really well that we know the people; we know what they ship. We can call them and discuss issues, address problems, look to take advantage of opportunities that arise. Understanding every step in the supply chain is key.”
As such, apart from its office in the Hamburg Wholesale Market, Don Limon also has offices in Guatemala and South Africa. Ingenillem says the company is still growing – the Asian market for instance is on the company is keeping a watchful eye on.
So where does Don Limon want to be in the future? Ingenillem notes that the company want to grow naturally – something it has managed to achieve so far. But the focus remains squarely on sustainability.
“We can see that UN is going in the same direction,” she concluded. “We feel that as a fruit producer we can really have an impact. We want to start something. We want to do something. So I think that is something that will continue. We are really keen on initiating a project in the Ivory Coast and [one in] Nicaragua. We are already in communication about that. So I think it is something we will continue with and the projects that are already in operation we hope they are still running. We hope people will continue to receive the message that we are sending out.”