VU alumnus Sander Breedveld saves avocados from rotting in the rubbish bin. His start-up Soilmates started stocking supermarket shelves with cooking oil last week.
How did you come up with the idea for Soilmates?
„My business partner Dave comes from a family that has been growing avocados in Kenya for four generations. When he came to the Netherlands for an internship, he discovered that a huge amount of avocados were just thrown out. Around 20 percent of the 12 million kilos of avocados that arrive in the Netherlands each week goes straight into the rubbish bin. Simply because they look ‘ugly’. Even if they have just a tiny gash in the peel, they can’t be sold in the supermarket anymore. But you can still make excellent oil from an avocado that’s a bit bruised or over-ripe."
„Dave and I were drinking a beer one day, when he asked me to join him in his plans. I’ve worked at a few different start-ups, where I was responsible for making sales scalable. So he thought we’d make the perfect team. Our marketing lady Jasmijn soon joined us, and we officially founded Soilmates in November 2020."
How do you get the avocados?
„We get them from several importers in the Netherlands. It’s a seasonal product, and right now they mainly come from Kenya. All of the avocados we use are GlobalG.A.P. certified, which means they’re good for people, nature and the environment. We can’t check them for 100 percent, of course, but when you use certified products it means you’re at least trying to buy only ‘good’ avocados."
You hear that certifications for other products, like fish, are sometimes just available for sale.
„That’s right. As with all certifications and seals of approval, you have to trust that it’s all on the level. But the problem we’re trying to solve is that many of the avocados that come to Europe simply go to waste. That’s the circular principle that we aim to address with our product. The certificates are important to us, but that’s not the problem we want to solve."
I’ve noticed that the bottle doesn’t really show that it’s avocado oil.
„That’s right. That was a deliberate choice. People in the Netherlands aren’t really aware that avocado oil is the best type of cooking oil. In America it’s common knowledge, and the average supermarket has six different varieties. So we’ve decided to market it as the best cooking oil, which just happens to be made from avocados."
„The unique thing about avocado oil is that it’s perfect for cooking. It can be heated to 270 degrees, and it’s the only oil that retains all of its nutrients at that temperature. Olive oil loses all its nutrients at 160 degrees. And your pan can reach 270 degrees in no time. You can get there just by heating the pan to fry up a steak. Plus, it doesn’t have an outspoken smell or taste. That makes it different from sunflower oil, which can make your house smell like a fast food restaurant in no time."
You’ve worked at other start-ups like Bloomon and Deliveroo. What lessons did you learn there that you could apply to what you’re doing now?
„The main thing about working for a start-up is that you can’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s also crucial for you to think extremely logically. With every step you take, you have to ask yourself: what will it earn us? And also: can we still use this process if we grow five times as fast? A lot of times, you see that people at start-ups are racing against the clock and just putting out fires because they’re growing so fast. If you organise those processes well in the beginning, then you can grow faster without all the growing pains."
So you don’t have to put out fires anymore?
„It’s absurd how many fires we have to put out at the moment. For example, we received the fantastic news that Albert Heijn wanted to buy our product. But that meant we had only eight weeks to get it on the shelves at every Albert Heijn in the Netherlands. So we spent a whole month at our production site in Spain to make that happen."
Why is the oil made in Spain?
„The process of making avocado oil is pretty much the same as that for olive oil. There are a lot of olive presses in Spain that usually only work from October to January. That means they’re sitting idle the rest of the year, which is ideal for us."
What’s your next step?
„Right now we’re focusing on expanding to Germany, and hopefully the rest of Europe will follow. We’re also talking to several parties about doing something with the avocados left over in the supermarkets. Our main goal is to make sure that fewer avocados go to waste."