The fresh produce industry has been thrown a ‘Dragon’s Den’ challenge by Dr Diogo Monjardino de Souza Monteiro. Produce Business UK finds out more from Newcastle University’s senior lecturer in agribusiness management
The Portuguese academic, based in the university’s School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, wants to develop a more stimulating agenda for students in their approach to and interaction with the world of work.
“There’s a lot of change going on at the university,” says Dr Souza Monteiro, “especially in our school. We are reshaping our undergraduate programme portfolio to make it more in tune with the food industry.
“A number of our students are asking us to put together modules to help give them a greater understanding of the issues in and around the supply chain.
“To meet that challenge we need to continually update our knowledge, so an on-going dialogue with people in the business would be of great benefit.
“I’m very keen to hear from companies about how they might like us to put modules and courses together. Of course we have constraints on what we can deliver, but we are open to a dialogue with the industry or specific businesses to tell us what sort of training they would like us to be giving our students.
“We would also like to know what businesses look for in terms of the range of skill-sets when they are looking to employ graduates. Moreover, as all our post-graduate courses are now delivered in a weekly or bi-weekly intensive mode, we would be keen to hear from industry wanting to send their staff for further training or other forms of staff development.
“I would be very open to bringing food industry representatives into the university to talk to students, explaining the problems and challenges facing the fresh food sector and perhaps helping in case studies to widen the knowledge and experience of students within the sector.”
Souza Monteiro’s vision includes an interesting produce mash-up of two TV programmes to present the skills of students to the industry. “I would love to have a sort of ‘Dragon’s Den’ opportunity,” he says, before describing a Dragon’s Den cum The Apprentice style concept by suggesting that a Lord Sugar figure from the industry presents a challenge to the students, perhaps as an extra-curricula activity, and they then tackle that specific problem in groups.
“It could even be an optional course within a course,” says Monteiro. “I would see it as a very hands-on, very practical way for students to evaluate problematical situations in order to come up with solutions and present them as a ‘pitch.’
“It would certainly create some lively involvement in the classroom, giving the students something to get excited about and to develop skill-sets that would give them added value as graduates when they are looking to set out on their careers.
“I am sure that it would also be a very good way of promoting the fresh produce industry to the student body and, importantly to us of course, vice-versa.
“What the Dragon’s Den TV programme did was to create a platform to have spaces of dialogue, to encourage bold thinking and ingenuity, and that’s what I want to do hopefully in conjunction with fresh produce players.
“So if anyone in the food industry thinks that may be a good idea and would like to jump on board, then let’s sit round a table and talk about it – I’m all ears!”
The Dragon’s Den idea is just one way in which Monteiro is looking to creatively expand his department’s network of contacts in the fresh produce industry.
The School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, formed in 2002 from the Departments of Agriculture and Agricultural Economics and Food Marketing, has built a fine reputation in its 13 years of operation to date.
The school had previously been in operation under alternative organisational structures for over 40 years and has had a significant impact on both British agriculture and the shaping of British and European agriculture and food policy.
But while Newcastle University has historically been a supporter of the produce industry, for instance through research on its two 100-year-old farms, the agri-business lecturer feels that, given the renewed interest in the fruit and vegetable industry, it is imperative to enhance and extend existing contacts with the industry.
“Closer contact is now required with companies to enhance the department’s course structure and the quality of its graduates,” he says “This is imperative if we want our research to be impactful and if we want our students to reach their full potential.
“We already have some success stories with produce-related companies,” notes Monteiro, “for example one of our doctoral students in food and nutrition was sponsored by Asda to do research work on the conservation of tomatoes in warehouses.
“And we are currently liaising with Farmcare, discussing the opportunity to establish a partnership where we would engage at different levels with them. Hopefully for some of our students there will be opportunities to have internships, placements and to go into their graduate programme and eventually get employed by the company.
“I would like to work a lot more with firms on research and problem solving, bringing our knowledge together with the industry’s to co-learn and co-create.”
The School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Developments covers the whole spectrum across the supply chain, from agricultural production through food manufacturing to consumer research.
So there are plenty of areas where the curricula are a good base to work from, believes Monteiro, whose own current research is focused on an investigation into consumer demand for and industry supply of healthier foods.
“Some of our undergraduate programs,” he says, “have one-year work placements, which are very formative and almost invariably end with students coming back to the university more motivated and more focused after learning about the real world out there. I believe this is also beneficial for businesses as they can identify and influence future leaders.
“We also have internships, normally lasting around six weeks during the summer, and as with placements this is an area I would like to grow.
“I would be very happy to have an announcement board on our website offering these types of opportunities to students, some of whom I should say are switched on and are able to organise their own work placements – but there’s a good number that don’t know which way to approach a career path.
“It would be great if we could put together a group of mentors from within the fresh produce sector, people who could hopefully come into the university but in any case could open and maintain a dialogue with students, explaining the ins and outs of the industry and the opportunities that are available.
“We have open days and recruitment fairs on the campus, and I would quite like to explore the possibility of holding fresh produce-specific events like this.
“Companies attending that type of event would have a captive audience, but of course students these days can also be engaged via social media – ‘be where the students are,’ would be the message to potential employers.
“We want to produce high quality graduates, and the food industry could help us to do that through the sort of co-operation I would love to see us develop. So we are looking forward to use events like the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 and the New York Produce Show and Conference 2015 to engage with industry and start discussions on how we can partner and work together for our mutual benefit.”