eco eco interview with Kromkommer founder Chantal Engelen

Key words: Food waste, entrepreneurship, policy approaches

Article reading time: approx. 25min

Audio time: 26min


Unusually shaped vegetables

"We put on a carrot suit and we go to our parliament to talk to politicians and hand out wonky fruit and vegetables, that's actually a very effective way at reaching them." - Chantal Engelen. Founder Kromkommer

Philip: Hey Chantal how is it going? 


Chantal: Good and you? 


Philip: Good thank you, can’t complain, just here in Ascona at the Locarno Film Festival, listened to some nice art talks this morning and now excited to hear more from you guys. 


Chantal: Excited to talk to you, I’m currently calling from Grey Netherland, let’s hope it will change, but that's kind of how Dutch summers are sometimes. 


Philip: To begin with can you tell us a bit about what Kromkommer means, where does it come from 


Chantal: It doesn't really translate, so it's good that I explain, it’s a word play, Dutch people love word plays. The word Cucumber in Dutch is Komkommer, and when you put an “r” in its Kromkommer, it’s pretty much a combination between Krom and Komkrommer, which pretty much is like crooked cucumber, so it’s a wordplay on the word cucumber. 


Philip: How did you guys come up with that 


Chantal: It actually was at a birthday party, someone mentioned the name, and we were like “yep that’s the perfect name”


Philip: For the Listeners can you tell us a bit about Kromkommer and how the initiative started. 


Kromkommer is a social enterprise that wants to achieve equal rights for all fruits and vegetables and what we mean by that is that currently up to 10-15% of all fruit and vegetables are wasted because they are not pretty enough or because there is simply too much of it. We think that with fruit and vegetables, we should look at the inside, because it's all about taste, freshness it's about a healthy product and it shouldn't be about looks. So we want to change, the quality perception of people and that they look differently at the quality of fruit and vegetables.  We started with this because we found out that in 2012 that 1 ton of fruit and vegetables get wasted in the first step of the chain, at the farms the vegetables and fruits are sorted out, because they are not pretty enough and that's something we wanted to change, and that's why we started Kromkommer

We try to achieve this mission in different ways, we make soup of these wonky vegetables, we have toys of these fruits and vegetables, and we also do a lot of campaigning. 


Philip: Amazing that's really cool. So what does a typical day look like for you, you have been at this for quite some time now.... Is your time spent, it is spent mostly promoting the product or do you spend time looking for new farmer partners, would be nice to hear some of your daily experiences. 

Chantal: It's a funny mix of things we do, were quite small but you have to be active on many levels, so on the one hand we are a commercial company so we have to sell enough soup to be financially sustainable as well, on the other hand we do campaigns towards the consumers, for example last year we put a huge container with 9 tons of wonky zucchinis in the middle of Dam Square in Amsterdam just to get people's attention to the topic, so we do stuff like that, but we also lobby into politics, to get it on the agenda there, we do sampling of our soup to our customers at stores, or restaurants, where the soup is for sales. So we are actually active on many levels of the whole chain. 


Philip: That's amazing to hear that you are also active on the political level and also trying to change things on a policy level, because we also think that this is very important. 

Chantal: There is legislation on the looks of fruits and vegetables,  there is a European quality norm for fruits and vegetables and we believe that they form the basis of the whole industry.  So we think they should be changed, which is why last year we decided to involve politics in our mission. 


Philip: In this European legislation, there are I’m guessing aspects about the looks of these vegetables.

Chantal: There is various legislation about basic requirements : so a vegetable should be fresh, it should be healthy, it should not contain any bacteria or other things that you could get sick from, so those are jind of the basics that are very need. But it also contains all sorts of rules about size, or shape, the shape of a pepper for example, or how big any spots on the skin of an apple should be.  So that's kind of funny, because we you eat a vegetable that's not really relevant, what is relevant is whether its tasty, and healthy for you.



Philip: That leads us into the next question very well, which as you just said, it's more about the taste, the inside, and it seems that irregular fruits or vegetables taste the same, so what's really strange is this human desire for perfect things, or even the conception of beauty we have this “ideal standard” from your experience from your company and also from other kind of consumer good products, why would you say that we have these standards. 

Chantal: Yeah exactly, it's understandable behavior, its something we grow up with that when your in super markets, you just pick the nicest thing, because you want value for money, and actually a large part of the consumers, has no clue about wonky fruits and vegetables, because they simply just have never seen them, so they also don't know that they never make it to the supermarket. So e really think the awareness is a really important thing, as more people begin to know about these wasted products, they become more open to it, and that is needed to get supermarkets to make actually make the steps, they have to know that the consumer is open to it, otherwise there is too much of a risk to get into this market. 


Philip: seems like a big issue… I was speaking to someone in preparation of this call. The other day I heard of a similar company in Switzerland , and heard about a company who sells wonky fruits and vegetables discarded by farmers ..a point was raised that there is certain machinery need to process certain types of fruits and vegetables , is it possible that these fruits and vegs don't fit into machines, so out of economic terms its not worth it to adjust it manually for for all of these different ones, and some aren't compatible, so you just throw them away. Is that something you have encountered? 


Chantal: It's definitely efficiency, is definitely is  an important reason why we got this far. It's understandable that a crooked cucumber doesn't fit as easily into a box as a straight one. So I think at the beginning of all this, maybe the reason why this happens is because we got so far into this that we came up with all kinds of rules that have no function anymore. Because why would a carrot that is like one centimeter bigger be an issue? We got so effective at making standard products and lost sight of the goal with it. So we have to go back to normal


Philip: with the next question what interests us as well is whether you have any way you are measuring the impact Kromkommer is having, do you focus more on waste reduction, analysing carbon footprint, how do you guys go about that?


Chantal: well were a social enterprise: and as a social enterprise it's part of your job to measure the impact you have. Its does however remain a bit of a challenge, because for us it's very easy to measure how many vegetables we rescue, because that's you direct impact, that's something you did yourself. So that's quite easy to measure. But what we see is that our indirect impact is actually much more important. What I mean by that is that the impact you make in the chain if a supermarket chain in the Netherlands starts copying what we do, you make much more impact than when your rescue vegetables by yourself, so the indirect effect is actually much more important. So that's a bit harder to measure and how it's related to your actions, but that is something we are keeping track of. 


What we see now for instance is that the whole wonky vegetable things is much more a topic now than it was five years ago. That's for a large part due to our efforts. That's what we see as impact, and if you look at the fruit and vegetables we rescue ourselves on the scale of things that's nothing, because the amounts are big, but that's why we try and be an inspiration for others, because that's how you make much more impact.   


Philip: That's an interesting way of looking at it.  Leading on, from inspiring others, have you guys looked whether companies like your are existing in other countries, and is this a gal you guys have to help others you are trying to setup something like this in their own countries. Is that one of the goals for Kromkommer. 


Chantal: with our activities we focus our efforts on the Netherlands, because the Netherlands is one of the largest fruit and vegetable producing countries in the world. So there is a lot of impact to achieve. But we do know that in many countries like ours there is companies like ours, in the US there are a lot of companies that sell fruits and veg in misfit boxes, but Kromkommer is quite unique because we focus on politics and policies but we talk to other companies to share knowledge and experiences because everybody is struggling with the same things 


Philip: From the policy approaches what are things that you have learnt that could be useful for others attempting to go down this avenue? 


Chantal: First off we were quite hesitant to go in this direction, because we are quite small, we don't have people that can spend a lot of time in this, and we also didn't know much about policy and how to approach this. But what we found out is if you do it in the way that actually fits you and in our way, that means we put on a carrot suit and we go to our parliament to talk to politicians and hand out wonky fruit and vegetables, that's actually a very effective way at reaching them, because they are used to boring documents and large papers they have to read, but once they get something on their plate that's something very specific and that they get touched by, you can make a much bigger impact, i would say if you want to go into this direction don't do what the others do but stay with you own way of doing things and get the policy makers to think differently of things. 


Philip: That's an amazing approach, very creative 



 you are talking to people and that's what we sometimes forget, even though they are in politics they like to be touched by certain things and a long boring paper doesn't really do that. So I think that is  an effective way for that field. 


Philip: another call that we had which will also be online at some point was with coral vita and one of their founders mentioned, that in the space of conservation, a lot of scientists try to convince you with numbers, and statistics and that is something that you also just outlined now, that there are many other ways that are much more effective than just a report. 


Chantal: I personally think it's more effective to talk to the heart than to talk to the head.  It's important that you have a case, there should be some kind of numbers, because at the end of the day, people will always ask about.  But with food waste it is very difficult because there are no good numbers, if you still have to involved people you have to tell stories. We don't have huge data sets with fruits and vegetables we saved but what we do have is a lot of connection to a lot of farmers, and we do know what they waste and make sure we bring that to the right people. So talking to the heart and not the head is good advice for this. 


Philip: Moving on, taking a bit of a tangent what are your personal goals, is it your idea in life to be focusing on these kind of environmental  problems or do you also have other goals that you would like to achieve in the next years and decades


Chantal: I’m not someone who makes long term goals for myself, but what I do know is that already as a kid i wanted to do something that makes the world a better place, that sounds very cheesy, but that's really how it is, I always thought that these adults are making such a mess of this world and wondered why we are doing this. Took awhile for me to figure out how I could contribute until Kromkommer became the thing for me .  The problem got to me and it turned into some sort of a life mission and for now thats where i focus on but I can imagine that in two years something else comes my way, and then I’ll continue with that, but it definitely will be food related because food is my passion and I sincerely don’t understand why we make such a mess of things. We can make much of these problems much better by changing little things and that's how I want to contribute. 


Philip: Leading on from there, from our research it shows us that it is quite difficult to do projects for the environment for society and still earn a living. So for all the people that desire to follow in the footsteps like yours or other areas, do you have any tips about how you got started. 


Chantal:  It's one of the biggest challenges, as an entrepreneur and with the major goal to change something and for us the balance of having a profitable business and changing the food system is a double challenge you are giving yourself. For example, if your just an entrepreneur with no social mission, it's much easier because you don't have to worry about making the world a better place, you just have to worry about making money. So you do make it a lot harder for yourself, but I do think if your a social entrepreneur that's the only option for you. 


But for us it's also a challenge, we are still not a profitable company, and the market we are in, the soup market is a very competitive low margin market, so you do make it very difficult for yourself.  So that's definitely a challenge. But to overcome that what we think you have to do is involve your community, we call it the Community, we started off for instance with crowdfunding, so our community, actually funded our first product line and by involving your community you can make things a bit easier.  We also applied for funds that help you set up your social businesses, there are quite a few funds that at least in the Netherlands and I also think in other countries so definitely look for that. Because that makes life a lot easier if you get a bit of money, for example to give yourself a salary, because you have to pay your rent while you are saving the world, look around if you can find funding, or subsidies, there are a lot of startup competitions, try to do that. Look at crowdfunding to involve your fans and people that support you .


Philip:  To go a little deeper with these kind of grants and sponsorship payments, from organisations or governments provide are there any tips you can give people that you've heard to maybe give people more know how and advice on this point. 


Chantal:  find it hard to say, depends on what business you are in. But it's the same tip as when it comes to policy, that when you stick to your own story, even in you application to a fund is inspiring, you are much more likely to achieve your goal, because at the end of the day the people who are judging, you applications are also people that want to be inspired by other people, they have to be grabbed by a story. You have to make sure that its a sound plan, and your budgets should be all set, and you should have thought about the details, but make sure you also inspire people with your plans and make sure to get them on board. 

Philip: we've reached the end of the interview, so with the social entrepreneurship talks we have we would like to inform the community on how they can support  your cause. I understand you guys offer the soups in the Netherland, but then you also have some kind of Wonky vegetable toys, could you tell us a bit more about these toys and where people can find them and what they are for and what the ideal present would look like. 



 Last year we launch our Wonky Fruit and Vegetables Toys, because we wanted to involve kids in our mission, because if you want to change how people think about quality, you better start at a young age. So that's why we wanted to come up with something for kids. So we joined forces with plants toy a sustainable toys company from Thailand. They make toys out of old rubber trees that don’t produce rubber anymore and the saw dust that comes from the cutting is what our toys are made out of. So from waste… They are shaped in Wonky Fruit and  Vegetables pieces and they are two halves that stick together with velcro. So kids can play with them cut them, and stick them back together. 


Philip: Chantal thanks a lot for talking to us, on behalf of Fabric One Collective and our community we wish you and Kromkommer a lot of success and good vibes and luck to bring your mission to the next level. 

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