We need to set standards for agriculture of the future and to bridge the global urban-rural divide.
The Dutch model of horticulture is characterized by land-independency, high technology input, and high-value products. This is especially attractive for developing countries with fast-growing cities, such as China. However, to translate the growing international interests into real business cases, knowledge, understanding, and trust has to be built.
“There is a huge demand for Dutch horticulture in China,” says Tiffany Tsui. She relocated from China to Hongkong and the United States, and then to the Netherlands thirteen years ago, where she founded the Greenport China platform in 2011.
“The Westland region is very interesting for the Chinese market as a regional economic engine,” she says. “All the major players in the entire chain of greenhouse horticulture are concentrated there, from seeds to growing, to packaging, transport, and trade, and all are supported by an innovation ecosystem of government, knowledge, technology, and research.”
Tsui explains that Greenport China is envisioned to be a platform that serves as neutral and trusted body to facilitate the exchange of information and strategic cooperation from an international perspective. Together with the Westland region, which has supported the platform since 2016, Tsui advocates an integral and knowledge-driven approach to internationalization. Her goal is to connect the Dutch and Chinese governments, knowledge institutes, and the entrepreneurial community with a business case-driven approach.
It’s important to build trust on both sides and to establish long-term relationships, emphasizes Tsui, who is also pursuing a PhD at Wageningen University & Research about trust in entrepreneurship. Understanding is still lacking on both the Dutch and the Chinese side, she finds.
“The first step for the Dutch horticultural sector is to know its real strengths and weaknesses and hence the value to others.” According to her, developing a deeper knowledge of the different markets is essential. “It is age-old wisdom that knowledge, whether in the form of data, intelligence or understanding, is fundamental to any successful strategy and long-term trusting collaborations.”
Throughout her career, Tsui has focused on innovative business models, sustainability, and China. From 2001 to 2005, she was the founding director of the China operation of EMSI, the first international firm to develop standards and business models for ‘green buildings’, buildings that are certified according to a set of criteria, which led to a market transformation in China.
In 2010, as project director at Royal HaskoningDHV, she managed the overall planning of Greenport Caofeidian, a 1,000-hectare Metropolitan Agro-Industrial Park with an estimated total investment of €400-800 million. The plan was to build a cluster of integrated horticulture and supporting functions at a new city development area approximately 220 kilometers from Beijing. However, the project – a collaboration between the Chinese government, Wageningen University & Research and Royal HaskoningDHV – has yet to be implemented.
One of the reasons the project hasn’t been carried out is the fact that not enough knowledge about the entire chain of horticulture is available in China, clarifies Tsui. “There is a fundamental need for investment in human capacity building and knowledge generation.” There was also a lack of sound infrastructure and logistics, especially in the cold chain, the process from storage to transport to consumer, to guarantee the quality of fresh products.
Nevertheless, the experience from Greenport Caofeidian gave birth to the idea to establish the Greenport China platform. Tsui is confident that with the development of national policy, consumer demand and urbanization infrastructure, the horticulture sector will become one of the most attractive industries to invest in in China. “Every Chinese city wants a ‘Westland’. That means tens of thousands of hectares of greenhouses over the next five years.”
The Dutch Greenhouse Delta can be an excellent foundation with which to cooperate, Tsui believes. “Everybody agrees that the sector needs to work together. We share the same goal of bringing governments, knowledge institutes and companies together to develop business cases and long-term relationships.”
“Every Chinese city wants a ‘Westland’. That means tens of thousands of hectares of greenhouses over the next five years.”
According to Tsui, there is not enough cooperation among the different parts of the sector. “It’s easy for people to agree that cultural differences exist between China and the Netherlands without acknowledging that the ‘cultural’ differences within the Netherlands itself is often the reason why people or organizations cannot work together.” She thinks that finding a common ‘language’ is both important internally, between the different players in the Dutch horticultural sector, and internationally.
Dutch horticulture companies aren’t huge multinationals, she continues, but they are highly specialized and leading in the world. “That’s the strength of the sector, but without a unifying goal, the sector is at risk of losing its collective power and becoming increasingly fragmented. The sector therefore needs to focus on an entrepreneurial and business case-driven approach.”
Tsui believes that in order to work with the ‘mega cities’ of the world, such as in China, ‘mega’ systems are needed. “However, you can’t measure global strength or influence in physical size only. ‘Soft powers’ are sometimes just as important, such as education, respect, knowledge leadership, and the ability to set global standards.”
She goes on to clarify: “Chinese urban consumers in super cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, are willing to pay very high prices for fresh products, especially from known brands, brands with international certifications and accreditations on quality and safety, and also those brands that have ‘stories’ or ‘emotions’.”
These characteristics, she explains, represent the fundamental value of trust, which can be said to be the most prized commodity in China at the moment. “The potential and the prospective business cases for the Netherlands is therefore immense. I therefore advise the horticulture sector to take a leading role in developing production and product standards for horticulture and to differentiate between premium, high-quality, and niche products”.