An interview with Rob Baan should not be missed in our series 'In conversation with'. Rob is a key figure in the Dutch horticultural sector and the founder of Koppert Cress , a leading company in the cultivation of microgreens and edible flowers. He calls for greater pride and awareness within the sector and highlights sustainability and energy efficiency as crucial areas of innovation. Rob shares his vision on the energy transition, with a focus on ambitious goals and the potential of hydrogen. He also emphasizes his commitment to restoring the connection between food production, health and the environment.
The first question comes from Peter Klapwijk, with whom we had a conversation last time: “What do you think are the most important points on which Dutch horticulture needs to innovate, where can we still make gains?”
Rob: “Health and happiness. These are the core values that we must cherish and promote. When you visit a greenhouse, you are flooded with information, knowledge, warmth and creativity. However, in public we see modesty, while we should actually be proud of what we do. Health and happiness are of enormous importance, not only for us as individuals, but also for the sector as a whole. We must realize that the horticultural sector is just as important as the port of Rotterdam and Schiphol, as the second largest economy in the Netherlands.
When it comes to innovations, sustainability and energy efficiency are crucial. We must continue to invest in smart technologies, such as hydrogen and other sustainable solutions to reduce our ecological footprint. It's not just about the hardware, but also about the software. We need to tell our story better and make society aware of the importance of the horticultural sector. That starts from the bottom up, from our own sector. That's why I give lectures and share my insights. We should not wait or call in external agencies; we have to take the lead ourselves and tell our story.”
How do you think the new generation of greenhouse horticulture entrepreneurs does this?
Rob: “I am impressed by the new generation of greenhouse horticulture entrepreneurs. They are brilliant and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. They may be less focused on traditional horticultural methods and more focused on efficiency and entrepreneurship. I always feel that entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in our sector and that will not change anytime soon. But I think we have to be careful that our companies don't turn into just lean production machines. It is important to recognize the value of our product and not sell it at too low a price. That wouldn't be smart.”
We often hear from industry leaders that we should talk more about horticulture. It seems that many in the industry agree that we need to share our story more and pay more attention to communication.
Rob: “That's right, that's absolutely true. We need to share our story and create awareness about what we do. However, there is also a challenge on the receiving end. Some people outside the industry have little understanding of what we do and may be given incorrect information. It's important that we focus not only on what we share, but also on who receives our message. We need to ensure that the right people get the right information.”
You are known for your innovative and sustainable approach to the greenhouse horticulture sector. Can you tell us more about the drivers behind your vision and how it has contributed to the development of Koppert Cress into a pioneer in greenhouse horticulture?
Rob: “That's simply because I want it. My motivation for innovation and sustainability comes from my desire to continuously improve and innovate. I can't sit still and always do my best to make things better. It's also a way to grow my business. Growth requires constant innovation and creative planning. That is one of the reasons why I want to preserve the greenhouse horticulture sector in the Netherlands; it offers an ideal environment to test innovations.”
The greenhouse horticulture sector is facing major changes, ranging from technological progress to changing market demand. What inspires you to look to the future of the sector with optimism?
Rob: “I am convinced that the greenhouse horticulture sector in the Netherlands has a promising future, but this requires a joint effort to break with old habits and invest in sustainable energy sources. We need to tell the story and take the right steps to embrace this change.
I have been against the use of gas in horticulture for 15 years, because I think it is old-fashioned. The Netherlands receives more energy than we need. If we use them wisely, we can generate a lot of energy ourselves without fossil fuels. The problem is that gas has been the norm for a long time and we have therefore been slow to embrace new technologies. I converted my company completely to green energy in 2010. My customers, including 80,000 restaurants, are critical and value sustainability. I tell them that they are not dependent on seasons with my products thanks to my fossil-free approach. My goal is to be energy neutral and CO2 neutral by 2025. This is important to my clients and achievable with available technologies. However, the abundance of cheap fossil fuels has reduced the urgency.
It is possible to operate without fossil fuels, but this requires a significant change in business processes. Many companies are still reluctant due to the high costs and complexity of the transition. It is important that the government promotes green energy and discourages investments in fossil fuels.”
The energy transition is a crucial topic in the greenhouse horticulture sector, with a growing emphasis on sustainable energy sources. Can you share with us your vision on how the sector can evolve towards more energy-efficient and climate-neutral production?
Rob: “It is essential that we negotiate with the government to set ambitious goals for achieving energy neutrality and CO2 neutrality. We need to stop procrastinating and focus on short-term goals. The government must play a role in this by implementing policies that promote sustainable energy sources and practices. Hydrogen is a promising option for horticulture, but we need to convince the government that it is worth investing in this technology. Hydrogen can be produced and used efficiently in the sector and offers opportunities for large-scale energy storage.
I believe that the greenhouse horticulture sector can be one of the most innovative and energy efficient sectors, but we must work together, embrace new technologies and adapt our business processes to achieve this.”
You've often spoken about the importance of restoring connections between food production, health and the environment. How are you committed to strengthening these connections and what do you expect your efforts to mean for the broader horticultural sector?
Rob: “My involvement in initiatives such as the Nutrition Leeft foundation is a way in which I try to strengthen the connection between food production, health and the environment. We have proven that nutrition can be a powerful tool for restoring health. If we can show that we can cure type two diabetes through diet, we can change the dialogue about how we approach health and food.
I am also involved in initiatives to bring healthy food to hospitals and change the mindset about what people should eat when they are sick. It is a slow process, but I hope my efforts can inspire others in the horticultural sector to take similar steps.”
What is your advice for young entrepreneurs and professionals interested in entering the greenhouse horticulture sector and pursuing innovation and sustainability?
Rob: “Continue to learn and always be open to new ideas. The greenhouse horticulture sector offers many opportunities for innovation and sustainability, but it takes dedication and determination to bring about change. Don't be afraid to take risks and try new approaches. Surround yourself with talented people and build strong partnerships. And never forget the importance of sustainability and responsible entrepreneurship. Not only is it good for the environment, but it can also provide a competitive advantage and secure the future of the sector.
Finally, be patient and willing to learn from mistakes. Innovation is often accompanied by challenges and setbacks, but it is precisely those experiences that help us grow and progress.
Finally, the next candidate is Willem de Bruijn, from Vollebregt-Barten. What question do you want to ask him?
Rob: “The housing market is looking very eagerly at Westland. The 2,300 hectares of greenhouse horticulture is ideally placed next to the cities, has a perfect power infrastructure, a geothermal heating roundabout, a perfect supply industry and excellent distribution. How long can we keep this up?”