5 Minutes With… Monique van Wijnbergen from Natural Habitats

5 Minutes With… Monique van Wijnbergen from Natural Habitats

“We really want to change the conversation in the market that palm can be grown for good.”

Palm oil is a contentious commodity. On the one hand, it is frequently associated with deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. On the other hand, it is odourless, high yield, and features in more than 50% of all supermarket products (both in food and non-food categories).

Yet, there are companies who are changing the dichotomy of palm oil’s controversial reputation. Natural Habitats is one of those companies. It is committed to the sustainable production of organic and fairly traded products, including organic palm oil.

Here, Bio Insight Markets’ Liz Gyekye caught up with Monique van Wijnbergen, corporate communications director at Natural Habitats.

Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind Natural Habitats?

Monique van Wijnbergen (MvW):

Natural Habitats was founded in 2009 by Alfons van der Aa, a Dutch entrepreneur with a vision for redefining the palm oil industry. He wanted to develop his company on a sustainable model. With a background in international business, strategic management, and building companies from the ground up, Alfons recognised that the conventional palm oil industry was causing severe negative impacts on the environment, native species and local communities, and was convinced that it could be done differently.

When he started out, he had a small plantation in Ecuador. In order to scale up, he had a vision of incorporating and converting conventional palm oil farmers, who were already working on the land, into his plans to help grow the business. Ultimately, the conversion of the farmers from conventional to organic and sustainable practices is our approach to make impact and grow our business. .

Natural Habitats helps farmers to convert from traditional methods to growing palm oil to organic, sustainable ways.

Fast forward to today, and Natural Habitats still works in Ecuador. The farmers in our collection network grow the fruit and cultivate it. We turn it into crude palm oil. We then take this crude palm oil to our processor who turns it into ingredients and consumer products, which we ship to the US. Our main market is the US, but we also have customers in Europe. In fact, we work with an independent organisation, who markets and distributes our ingredients in Europe.

LG: What positive things can you say about palm oil?

MvW: Palm oil is the most sustainable vegetable oil worldwide because the efficiency of growing it over a piece of land is far higher than any other vegetable oil crop. In this sense, it is the most sustainable oil because it is the most “land efficient”.  Over the last 20 years, negative issues have surfaced around palm oil because of the fast increase in demand for the commodity.

The Malaysian and Indonesian governments have taken this commodity as a catalyser for economic growth. They have developed land so fast to grow palm trees and this has resulted in burning of trees and deforestation in both countries. Hence, it is not the fault of the crop itself, it is rather the fast development of using more and more land to grow the palm trees to facilitate palm oil production.

LG: What makes your palm oil sustainable?

MvW: It is our mission to ‘do palm right’. The palm that we grow and bring to market is 100% organic and sustainably grown. We really want to change the conversation in the market that palm can be grown for good. Doing palm right means that the palm we grow is 100% organic, deforestation-free, wildlife-friendly, fair and social. We are Organic, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Fair for Life and Rainforest Alliance-certified.

Essentially, our values are integrated into the way we operate.

LG: What were you doing before you took up this role?

MvW: I started working in commercial roles after graduating from university. I worked in the FMCG sector for ten years in commercial roles. I worked for companies such as Sara Lee Douwe Egberts, United Biscuits and Tivall, a subsidiary of Nestl.  For Tivall I developed and implemented the commercial strategy in the Benelux for the new category of meat replacers, resulting in growth of brand sales and total category sales.

I then moved my family to India and after that to Poland, returning to Holland four years later.

Upon my return in Holland, ten years ago, I decided to change sectors, which led me to sustainable agro-commodities.  A few years later, after joining Oxfam I stepped into the world of palm oil. Through Oxfam, I got connected to Natural Habitats and got intrigued by the fact that they operated a sustainable model since their inception.

LG: How important do you think sustainable supply chains are for businesses?

MvW: I think if you don’t truly integrate sustainable practices into your operations, you won’t have long-term survival as a company. I think it’s crucial. Of course, we see companies moving away from non-sustainable practices to sustainable ones and we see many more companies wanting to know how their supply chains look like. They are mapping their supply chains and want to create transparency. I do see a lot of positive change there. At the same time there is another challenge and question of ‘are we willing to pay for these sustainable practices?’ There is profit that needs to be made, but there are also long-term changes that we need to see. However, I do see a lot of companies going in the right direction.

Recently, big announcements have been made by FMCG giants like Danone and Unilever, who say that they will look into more regenerative agriculture. So, there are lot of changes about to happen.

LG: What’s your biggest challenge?

MvW: Making sure that markets and production work together. So, making sure we have enough production to take forward the growth we see in our market. At the same time, we have to make sure that the market players are willing to pay the extra premium for organic and sustainable ingredients.

LG: Where does your produce go to?

MvW: It goes to a wide range of products including food, oils, personal care and cosmetics, and household products.

LG: What are you doing next?

MvW: We want to scale-up our production in Ecuador because we see that demand is growing and we also see customers focusing more on organic, sustainable supplies. So, at this moment in time, we are looking to expand in Latin America and move into other countries there. Essentially, we want to take the same model and grow our business.

LG: What advice would you give to somebody looking to get involved in this sector?

MvW:  You need to start from a sustainable model from the beginning. When sourcing ingredients, you need to know where the ingredients originate from. There are still a lot of companies that don’t, and they will need to know: where does it come from, who produced it, how was it produced and what is the impact on the communities and the environment.  Companies need to be able to answer these questions.

LG: What can help to change the negative perception of the palm industry?

MvW: Natural Habitats Group has created a movement to prove that palm oil can be grown for good and show that when done right palm oil can bring significant positive impact to the world. That movement is called ‘Palm Done Right’, and is bringing together manufacturers, retailers and consumers to increase awareness around the environmental and social benefits of palm grown organically, with fair-trade practices, working with independent farmers and the ethical treatment of farm and plantation workers.

We want to have a different conversation about palm oil. As I mentioned before, palm oil is the most sustainable vegetable oil worldwide because the efficiency of growing it over a piece of land is far higher than any other vegetable oil crops. If we are to replace palm oil by any other vegetable oil, it would mean we would need more land. The functional aspect of palm oil also outperforms many alternatives. Not many people realise this because there has been so much focus on the destructive side of producing palm oil, including deforestation, and wildlife habitat loss. Nevertheless, it is good to highlight these practices because they are there and they need to change. However, there are some emotions with some people that everything to do with palm oil is bad, but that is not the true story.

The solution is to choose sustainably-produced palm oil.

LG: What’s your favourite sustainable product?

MvW: It would be sustainably-sourced chocolate.

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