In Belgium, cooperative BFV has been taking steps to keep its employees and customers safe during the current coronavirus pandemic, while reacting to rapid developments on its domestic and export markets.
“Some of our people are working from home,” said commercial director Marc Evrard, “but our commercial and packing departments still need to prepare and sort out the orders and lorries transporting produce abroad or to local retailers. For everyone concerned, we are all maintaining a safe distance of 1.5m-2m, avoiding contact, washing our hands regularly and using gels and cleansing towels.”
According to Evrard, the crisis has really shown the resilience of the fresh produce business. “For the most part, fruit and vegetable businesses are well-oiled machines where people really love their jobs,” he said. “Despite the current challenges, the crisis has given my colleagues a great sense of pride, showing them that they really matter.”
The vital role played by fruit pickers will be evident in the days, weeks and months to come, as European strawberry harvests kick off amid concerns over worker shortages.
“The crisis has shown the importance of valuing all workers,” said Evrard. “The reliance on cheaper labour from abroad has proven to be challenging.”
Pickers, drivers and retail staff have come in for praise for continuing to provide essential services during the crisis. For Evrard, the recent outpouring of solidarity is one positive to emerge.
“We haven’t seen this sort of social responsibility and awareness for a long time,” he said. “This is something we have to cherish.”
In addition to creating additional challenges at home, closures and lockdowns have also hamstrung sales overseas, including to India. “In India, we will have to keep following the news,” said Evrard. “The lockdown decision came very suddenly. We will have to see how our partners cope with all this. We have had to suspend topfruit supplies at this time. The market stalls are closed so it’s much harder to sell there right now.”
In India, he said, logistics – which was an ordeal well before Covid-19 – is still an issue. “It’s a worry, because you see the challenges that China is facing, and in China they have good logistics, a well organised retail system, social security,” he said. “In India, the challenges that have always been there have been exposed a little, including the state of roads and general infrastructure. Also, most people live very close together, especially in the most densely populated areas, so there is little chance of isolation. Sales there also rely much more on small individual sellers. We hope the situation will be manageable, first and foremost for people’s everyday lives.”
In China, on the other hand, the wholesale markets are starting to open up again. “Planning for China is encouraging,” said Evrard. “There have been substantial additional fees from the shipping lines, but demand is good. In China, sales shifted at the outset from markets to supermarkets and online, but sales have continued. We are seeing the same in Europe, as everyone is cooking at home. At times like this, people want to eat healthy. And thanks to well-chosen measures and good relationships with our partners worldwide, we are not suffering too much.”
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