Fresh produce supply chains: Ripe for innovation

Gerhard Stander, Retail and Agriculture Director, CHEP sub-Saharan Africa
Gerhard Stander, Retail and Agriculture Director, CHEP sub-Saharan Africa

Having shown great effectiveness during the pandemic, the fresh-produce sector will need to remain flexible, adaptive and open to new ideas as it finds new ways to feed our people effectively, writes Gerhard Stander, Retail and Agriculture Director, CHEP sub-Saharan Africa.

As a society, our time during the lockdown has underlined the importance of food and agricultural products in our lives. As our household expenditures have shrunk, the primacy of nutrition has been reinforced. Fundamental to this human need are the value chains that get food from the farms to our homes.

As we ease out of the lockdown and back towards more familiar ways of doing business, there are some business processes that will change forever, and supply chains will be no different. Already the supply-chain sector is seeing some fascinating trends shaping the way we move fresh produce.

More agile delivery

The lockdown brought the need for flexibility and innovation into stark relief. With some port operations being closed or limited, and even produce markets being shuttered, growers and logistics firms had to pioneer new routes and new partnerships.

Decisions had to be made at incredibly short notice, and with fresh produce having a finite shelf life, the urgency was massive. It was critical that produce reached the retailers in time, despite disruptions to established supply chains.

In one case, industry players even established a new fresh-produce market within a matter of days, when municipal markets were closed during the depths of the lockdown. The new facility, on Johannesburg’s West Rand was vital, linking growers to retailers, and thousands of informal-sector traders.

So successful was this new produce market, that it is likely to remain in service once the lockdown ends. This is yet another example of how the pandemic has accelerated changes that may have been needed for a long time.

The ability to adjust and adapt at short notice is now an industry prerequisite. Whether it’s health pandemics, weather events or political instability, societies are becoming less stable, and supply chains must become more flexible in order to continue moving produce in this environment.

Health and safety

As we all became more concerned about the state of our immune systems during the pandemic, fresh produce experienced high demand. Soft-citrus such as clementines, with their high vitamin C content, became especially popular.

However, in delivering fresh produce, with all its health benefits, we also need to find new ways of ensuring retail is as safe as possible, and that there are as few touchpoints as possible along the supply chains.

Doing this will require innovation around Last Mile Solutions, and the development of pallets that can move from farm to shop floor without any need for repackaging. This process is already well underway, and has also been accelerated by the pandemic.

We may also need to change our shopping habits. The days of squeezing fruit on display to check its freshness may be behind us. But there are innovative new ways for retailers use to demonstrate the freshness of their produce.

Digital channels, human relationships

Perhaps more than other commercial enterprises, agricultural is driven by personal relationships. This is particularly so among the farming community and those stakeholders who deal directly with the growers who produce our country’s food.

This was obvious when the pandemic began lifting. Our experience was that our retail partners were more than willing to continue engaging via remote meetings. On the other hand, the farmers we deal with could not wait to get back to meeting in person.

Fresh produce and agriculture in general is relationships based. Deals are based on friendships, and contracts concluded on a handshake. For this reason, any innovation around fresh-produce supply chains will have to proceed from a position of trust, with the human needs and experiences of everyone involved being considered.

The e-commerce challenge

Consumer trust has also been vital to the rise of online shopping, which many consumers have embraced with unprecedented vigour during the lockdown.
However, fresh produce has traditionally been underserved in the ecommerce space. This may also be because of consumer inexperience with fresh food in the online retail space, and a reluctance to buy fruit and vegetables “sight unseen”.

Changing this will require building trust among customers. With retail deliveries now happening in less than an hour, and the rise of direct, “farm-to-fresh” business models, trust will inevitably grow, until many of us buy our produce online, much like everything else.

The ideal e-commerce solution is still in development, but it is definitely something that our industry is looking into – combining innovations and best practice from around the world, in packaging, logistics, digital solutions and customer experience.

The internet of things may offer useful tools, such as metrics to measure freshness, the number of touchpoints and temperature stability to build customer faith in the quality of their food.

Ultimately the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of areas in fresh-produce supply chains that are “ripe” for innovation. It’s going to be an interesting time for our industry, as we apply the learnings from this uniquely challenging time to improve efficiencies for all stakeholders.

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