Ron Simpson from The Avocado Show on the impact of the avocado supply chain.

 

For Walk the Walk #4 I visited Ron Simpson, one of the founders of The Avocado Show. The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘avocado’ is usually toast, directly followed by: “OMG all that water!” Google ‘avocado + water’ and you’ll find all kinds of information about water usage and rivers drying out. Some websites claim that you need 1000 liters of water per avocado and others claim that you need 1000 liters per 2.5 avocados. That’s quite a big difference, so I wondered how exactly this all works.

The Avocado Show is frequently on the receiving end of questions about sustainability. They’re growing fast, and now have four locations - so they want to have a positive impact on the avocado supply chain. Because there’s a downside to avocados, I was very interested to find out how The Avocado Show deals with impact and sustainability, and went to discuss the avocado chain with Ron. It was an honest and candid conversation:

 

The Avocado Show, what a fantastic concept. I’m a big fan because you’ve built such a great brand and work behind the scenes to achieve a positive impact. You developed the idea to set up an avocado restaurant, went completely viral and as a result, received lots of questions about sustainability. How was that experience for you?

“It was really interesting. It wasn’t necessarily a wake-up call as such, because we knew that there was a lot of room for improvement in terms of sustainability in the food service industry. But we hadn’t thought about avocados themselves in that much detail. The initial associations we have with avocados are positive: avocados are really nutritious and contain unsaturated fat. It was because of these questions from our fans that we gave it more thought: ‘Oh there’s more, and we need to look into this.’

When someone started to ask questions about deforestation in Mexico, I thought: ‘I just opened a small restaurant with 42 tables in Amsterdam - what can I do about this problem in Mexico?’. We can now see the possibilities that are open to us, and we want to dream big! Now that we’re growing, we can steer our growth in terms of sustainability within our future. That feels good, and it’s become a big part of our company culture. We believe that if the avocado is one of the most nutritious fruits in the world, then we need to find a way to make it universally sustainable. And with the right techniques, that’s possible - so why not? Of course, there will always be challenges, but we’ll be able to solve those in the long-term.” 

And what are your biggest challenges?

“The biggest challenge that we face is, of course, is scale. It’s a huge industry, where small players don’t have much impact on the supply chain. But that changes as soon as you grow, and we’ve already proven that a small company can have huge media impact. The next big problem we ran into was the lack of consumer knowledge about the production process. In particular, there’s lots of uncertainty around water usage: the internet says you need anywhere between 100 and 2000 liters of water per kilo. That’s obviously not very useful.”


I read somewhere that you need 2000 liter PER avocado.

“Oh, so the perception is even worse! This is what I mean. What research was that? In which country? And on how many hectares of land? Thanks to Nature’s Pride, we have been able to visit our entire supply chain and do some field research in South Africa, Mexico, Chile and Peru. We learned and discovered so many new things there that no one ever talks about. The most important thing is that avocado trees are planted in the right climate and on the right soil. Our farmers are in the right locations and therefore have nature on their side. Take South Africa for example, where most avocado trees grow in the valley. They don’t give the trees any water there, and the challenge is instead to drain rainwater from there. In Chile, you hear a lot about Petorca where there is indeed a water shortage. For that reason, neither Nature’s Pride nor TAS work in that area, but instead in regions where there are natural water supplies through a subterranean river and lake. And at the places where they do need to give their avocado trees water in the dry months, we do that through drip irrigation, so no drop of water is wasted. And that’s definitely not 2000 liters of water per kilo of avocados, because that doesn’t even make sense economically!”  


“We believe that if the avocado is the most nutritious fruit in the world, then we need to find a way to make it universally sustainable.”


How come people have this negative perception? What’s the reason for these bad measurements?

“For the media, the most shocking statistics are of course the most interesting. They shock people and draw the most attention. That’s how the world has worked for years and it’s super effective. And often good too, because problems get the attention they deserve. However, it’s important to have perspective with the facts, but that’s often left out. If there are 100,000 hectares with automatic drip irrigation, that’s not mentioned, but if there are 10 hectares with trees that are sprayed with a garden hose, that is often presented as the industry standard. But if you look at the situation very simply and economically, a farmer with 100.000 hectares of land … would they spray or lose that much water? No, they would invest in a sustainable solution. Drip irrigation and other techniques are used to keep down both the costs and usage of water. However, not every farmer has an enormous plot of land. Often, small farmers only have a few hectares and first try growing another fruit, like grapes or oranges. When they then try out avocados, they don’t immediately invest in drip irrigation or other systems. That costs a lot of money and most small farmers don’t have that.”


Ahaa, I get it …

“You often see that for the smallest avocado farmers, the avocado was not their first attempt to grow fruit. If they have previously failed with other crops, you can’t blame them for trying to grow something that actually can’t really grow in that area - purely because they aren’t in the right climate and on the right kind of soil. They’re trying to save their business and feed their family. But as soon as that farmer’s efforts start working, the moment will indeed come that too much water or effort is needed to grow avocados … The reason that the big boys can grow so fast, is because they’re working in the right climate, with the necessary budget and knowledge to make the right investments. Because of that, everything naturally works in their favour, otherwise they could never grow so fast. They’re organised a lot better and more professionally than the smaller farmers that are all of a sudden faced with bigger challenges.” 



Would it maybe be a solution to work together with these smaller farmers? Through education or sharing resources, for example?

“That’s not really what it’s about - they simply don’t have the scale to be able to invest sustainably. But they can’t do anything else, they need to bring in money to take care of their families. The bigger the business becomes, the more resources you need. We can’t work with them directly because suppliers need avocados on a large scale to keep their supply chains feasible, but the bigger farmers from the region can, and they do.

That’s where the solution lies. They often buy the harvest from smaller farmers, help with the sale to local markets and share knowledge, education, partners, and even the tools and techniques they no longer use. That way, everyone is working to improve the industry. 

It’s not the case that there aren’t any problems. I know for certain that there are problems with water in some areas, and that’s difficult to judge from another country. There are already systems like water rights and certifications, but it still goes wrong sometimes. It remains difficult to have to solve the problem from this part of the world. Of course we are responsible for the demand and therefore for the growth of the industry, but if we don’t have water in the Westland all of a sudden because of all the greenhouses, should Rio de Janeiro then solve this? Or should we do that ourselves? That’s how it sometimes feels. We gladly help out, but mainly through coming up with creative solutions and deals. We have to be able to make an impact by contributing ourselves, not only having an opinion on the problem.”


You have created a strong brand, and simultaneously are making steps in terms of sustainability. How do you do that?

“By seeing it as a lifestyle or a company mission. Changing small things, continuing to talk about it, and working together. We’re working on sustainability within our organisation, because we completely agree that it’s important. If there is a choice or possibility to do it better, then we do that! Not everything is possible, sometimes choices have to wait as well, but we’re following developments closely. If there are opportunities like not using plastic straws or bottles anymore, then we go for it. Simple solutions that are feasible, that’s what we try to work on.”

 

Impressive that you’ve combined sustainability with such a f*cking cool brand!

“Building a sick brand and working on sustainability, that’s the new standard of the future.”


You’re growing fast, and I can already imagine that you’re becoming one of the leading figures. How do you ensure that you also inspire others to further their sustainability efforts?

“I think that there’s no other start up that invests so much time, effort and love into sharing their message. This message is also a part of that. We make content, put on inspirational talks everywhere from large stages to schools and have even made a documentary. We do this not only to disseminate content, but also because we want to learn. We need to engage in discussions instead of judging each other too quickly. I think that people can have negative perceptions about anything very quickly by reading 2 articles on Facebook, but then you haven’t done your homework about avocados. It’s so great that it touches people and that it provokes conversation, but doing a bit more research into something you have such a clear opinion would already be a considerable improvement. And then there has to be way more information available. In particular, there’s lots of uncertainty about water usage. But the avocado itself contains an enormous amount of nutrients and the fruit is not unnecessary either because it’s a natural product, and should be a part of any diet. I completely support it and think that we need to tackle the production methods and how we provide of information. It’s a challenge - but I look at it positively.” 


Are there trends or innovations that you see in the world of avocados?

“Yes, many. The demand for avocados is growing enormously. Because of that, there are smarter approaches to the expansion of avocado production. If you go to old plantations, you can see tall trees planted randomly around one another, criss crossing over each other. At new plantations, trees are at the right distance from one another, and not taller than 2 meters. People can just pick the avocados without ladders or machines, and there’s also enough space for electrical vehicles to pass through. It’s through these sorts of measures that we’re working in a smarter and more efficient way.”


Can we soon get rid of all the concerns around avocado production?

“I think that people are concerned because they don’t know all the facts. If you ask me whether an avocado can be cultivated sustainably, then the answer is ‘yes’. How do we do that? When are we going to do that? Those are solutions that the entire industry needs to discuss with each other and make happen, but it’s definitely possible. I completely understand that you get angry when you read a few facts that don’t apply to the whole market. But I came back from our documentary trip a lot happier. We need to focus on the positives. There are so many positive developments taking place. We’re looking at the situation from our European perspectives, but we forget that it works differently in Africa or South America.”

So you look at it pretty positively?

“Yes we need to stay focused on the positives and ask ourselves important questions:
Can it be done sustainably? Yes. It just requires some more work.
Do we need it? Yes. It’s one of the most nutritious fruits in the world.
So why would we not do it? I prefer looking at improvements in solutions. We all want the same thing but the way we deal with the situation sometimes differs.”

I read that you work with Nature’s Pride to improve the supply chain. How does that work?

“For us it’s important that we have eco-friendly and sustainably grown avocados. That also requires having the right certifications, treating staff well, et cetera. Nature’s Pride is our supplier and we have a good relationship with them. They put us in touch with growers, and we learn how everything works from them. If we see opportunities, they’re happy to help and that’s great! We share the same vision: we can improve and we must improve. If someone can do it, it’s us, working together. I see us continuing to improve in the future.” 


What has to happen to make the industry more sustainable?

“What do we need? Lots of education: both on the side of farmers and growers, and on the consumer side. You also came here with the idea that you need 2000 liters of water per avocado, but where do you get that information from? How does it actually work? Look into those things properly for once! We have done that ourselves, and found out that there’s not enough information. It’s not concrete, or it’s outdated. Through creating and sharing content, we are also a source of information.”

Your brand is fabulous and you’ve been able to make an impact in the supply chain. An impressive achievement! What’s your tip for young entrepreneurs who want to reach a similar landmark?

“We want to do it in this way. We do it well and I think that the brand, the execution and everything we do around it, interests people. This doesn’t come from the drawing board but from the heart. Even if the media didn’t exist, we would do it this way. And that’s the thing: you can want it but you also need to do it and then you’ll see what happens yourself.”

 

This doesn’t come from the drawing board but from our heart. Even if the media didn’t exist, we would do it this way.”

 

And the last question, avocados in packaging in the supermarket. That really bothers me. Do you have a tip for supermarket chains that do this? Like the ready-to-eat avocados from Albert Heijn?

“Plastic packaging for avocados is ultimately unnecessary. There are so many ways to do packaging. To some extent, I can understand that they want to protect the avocados with packaging, the skin does protect the fruit, but if it gets knocked it will go brown on the inside. That doesn’t happen to most other fruits. And people are more likely to squeeze avocados that aren’t packaged… so they get brown faster. I’m not saying that we should do away with packaging, but that the execution of the packaging could be better.”


The Avocado Show is a young company that’s growing fast, and is able to make a positive impact within the chain because of that. Ron let us know that more sustainable surprises are around the corner, so stay tuned!