The column was first published in the May issue of Produce Business magazine.
Looking back over the past year, I realize I have covered most of the topics that I hold dear: sustainability, circular economy, working with young people, health, retail … For this final column I did a lot of soul-searching to identify a topic for my ‘swan song.’ The opportunity to import fresh produce from the far corners of the world has given me many brilliant experiences beyond the business transactions that take place, so I thought it fitting to share some of these with you.
In June 1996, I was invited to Finland to talk about the opportunities that would be created by the deregulation of South African fruit exports. Following my meeting, I was invited on a surprise weekend trip to a rural village. This involved the annual village hunt for 20 moose, starting very early on an icy-cold Saturday. I was positioned at the slaughterhouse in the forest. For the rest of the day, I was surrounded by blood, guts and moose heads. For a ‘fruit and vegetables guy,’ it felt like a scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. On the one hand it was terrifying, yet on the other hand it was beautiful to be part of a tradition that has been maintained for centuries. The post-hunt party involved a variety of home-distilled vodka, with exotic berries from the forests adding flavor. Later that night, I dove headfirst into the snow, but the rest is a mystery. To this day, I love traveling to Finland.
In December 1998, I was invited to visit pineapple plantations in KwaZulu, a South African province bordering on Mozambique. On the way to my destination, I saw giraffes, wildebeest and a variety of antelope along the way. It was like driving through the set of The Lion King. I stayed in a lodge high up on a plateau overlooking a river. Dinner in the evening was — as can be expected — a South African braai (barbecue). A group of Australian backpackers joined the party, and as it often happens with Aussies, the barbecue turned into an all-nighter. Knowing my limits, I went to bed before midnight. The next morning I heard that the Aussies had even gone for an illegal skinny dip in the river. I thought nothing more of it, until two months later when I read in the newspapers that a local tribesman had been eaten by crocodiles in the same stretch of the river. I often wonder if the Australians had read the newspaper too.
In October 2005, I visited Egypt for the first time. The objective of this trip was to orientate myself on the amazing array of agricultural opportunities this ancient civilization brings. My visit coincided with Ramadan, the period of fasting when the religion of Islam dictates that believers do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. After breakfast, our host collected us to visit various remote desert farms. The day turned into an ‘empty stomach’ nightmare. The closest we got to food was bottled water, and some unripe oranges. By the time we got back to our hotel at 6 p.m. we were ravished. That was when our host informed us that he would collect us at 2 a.m. for lunch. Huh??? I was completely ignorant of the traditions during Ramadan. Breakfast was eaten after sunset, lunch after midnight, and dinner shortly before sunrise. This was the first of many trips that I have made to Egypt during Ramadan, and to this day I love this ‘upside down routine’!
Peru, October 2008, and I was traveling with a colleague to the mango and grape regions of northern Peru. Our host had decided we needed to go and see a new grape plantation that he was developing. ‘It has been raining and the road is very bad. We will all go in my off-road truck. Don’t worry, it will be fine’. It was 95 degrees, with a relative humidity of 75 percent. About three bumpy miles on the back of a truck into the forest, we came to a dead stop in the middle of what can only be described as a muddy swimming pool. The sun was beating down, and the mosquitoes were feasting on me. Our host called a tractor to pull us out of the mud. We waited and waited. At one stage, a Spanish-speaking agricultural engineer said: ‘Ah Nic, no worry, it is Morfilo’. Being naturally inquisitive, I asked who this Morfilo was. His answer caused me to collapse in tears. ‘Morfilo – you know, sheet happens’. Aaaaaaah – Murphy’s Law.
The objective of my first trip to China in 2011 was to train our garlic suppliers in social compliance. What happened instead is that I received a lesson in being ‘lost in translation.’ The most memorable one was at the urinal at Jinan airport, where I was confronted by the following sign. ‘To preceding half step a civilized stride.’ It took me quite some time to figure out that what airport authorities were actually telling visitors at the urinals is that they need to take a half step forward, and by doing so they would be placing themselves at a more civilized distance from the urinal. Definitely pre-Google Translate time.
That evening, we were invited to a traditional wedding reception. Our host claimed that custom dictated any foreigners had to drink a toast of Chinese rice wine with every member of the newlyweds’ families. I was not expecting such an extended family but gallantly did my bit for Europe-China relations. I vaguely remember making a brilliant speech in which I even quoted Chairman Mao’s words about a frog, a well, and our view on the world. Really, I did!!!
There are many more examples. The big storm in Iceland that I experienced while sitting in a thermal pool. The simply amazing scenery of the Faroe Islands, where cliffs up to 700 meters rear up out of the Atlantic Ocean. The out-of-body experience of leaving Europe at minus 50 degrees, and arriving 24 hours in Namibia at a whopping 120 degrees. And don’t get me started on the many amazing friendships that I have been able to forge. …
Fresh produce – never dull, always an adventure. Love life!
Nic Jooste is the head of Corporate Social Responsibility at UK-based The Jupiter Group.