Simon Groot, founder of vegetable seed breeder East-West Seed, has received the Mansholt Business Award from the Wageningen University Fund. The company is a prime example of how trade and development aid can go hand in hand, according to the jury. Simon Groot says that graduates from and the cooperation with Wageningen have been very important to the success of his company.
Under the leadership of Simon Groot (80), East-West Seed developed into a major breeding company for tropical vegetables in South-East Asia. “Long before the Netherlands started becoming involved in public-private partnerships and the cohesion between trade and development aid, Simon Groot and his company East-West Seed showed how these concepts could be realised in practice,” says the jury in its report. “Groot therefore serves as a fine example of how the Netherlands and businesses can contribute to development from a sustainable and commercial perspective.” Groot was presented with the Award during the opening of the academic year at Wageningen UR on Monday 7 September.
Groot comes from a long line of farmers in the Dutch West-Frisian region. After studying economics at Erasmus University, he travelled cross the globe as an international seed trader. When the family business was sold to Sandoz in 1980, Groot decided to use his capital, knowledge and experience to help small farmers in South-East Asia. “I saw development opportunities,” says Groot. “At the time, there was no market for vegetable seeds; farmers cultivated their own. But vegetables were a popular ingredient and provided greater returns than agricultural crops. Our improved seeds would allow small farmers to produce and earn more, thereby stimulating economic development. This is why we also provided information on the best cultivation methods. It increased the market and the farmers’ incomes.”
In the early years of the company, various breeders educated in Wageningen were employed in the offices of East-West Seed in Thailand and on the Philippines. They were important employees, Groot underlines. “They had received very practical education with a solid methodological foundation. This enabled them to teach young locals what they had learned. The plant expertise required for plant breeding can best be acquired locally.” Over the past years, company employees have also been coming to Wageningen as international students. “Wageningen UR has an important educational role within global horticulture.”
Groot cites two examples of the countless results achieved in the field of breeding: on the Philippines the company improved the shelf life of red short-day onions by 30 per cent, and it moved the tomato from the highlands to the lowlands. Groot: “Previously in Indonesia, it was only possible to grow tomatoes at altitudes above 1000 metres as the nights were only cold enough there. But they also wanted to breed tomatoes in the lowlands and we managed to make that possible.”
The cooperation with Wageningen UR dates back a long time. Groot refers to the glory days of the IVT (the Institute for Horticultural Plant Breeding) which was later merged into Wageningen UR. This was a public-private partnership before the term existed, according to Groot. “It formed the basis for the dominant role of the Netherlands in the seed sector.” Groot himself was also active for the International Seed Federation, and served as a driving force behind the Asia and Pacific Association (APSA), the largest association of national and international seed companies.
Since 2000 East-West Seed has participated in various public-private partnership projects. In Tanzania the company is currently working with Wageningen UR and Rijk Zwaan in SEVIA (Seeds of Expertise for the Vegetable Sector of Africa) to improve vegetable seeds and cultivation to the benefit of farmers’ incomes and feed the ever growing number of urban dwellers. “Together with applied scientists from Wageningen UR we are working on establishing a proper informative function in horticulture.”
East-West Seed now has 4,000 employees and 12 R&D stations in seven countries. In addition to Asia, the breeder has also been active in East Africa and Latin America over recent years. Groot is still Chairman of the Supervisory Board.
Mansholt Business Award
The Wageningen University Fund aims to stimulate and reward sustainable business by presenting the three-yearly Mansholt Business Award for Sustainable Entrepreneurship, named after the former Dutch Minister of Agriculture and European Commissioner Sicco Mansholt. The award is presented to a corporate alumnus of Wageningen University or someone who works with Wageningen UR, and who has had a sustainable and social impact nationally or internationally. The Award consists of €25,000 and a replica of ‘De Wageningse boom’ on the Wageningen Campus by Sjoerd Buisman.
During his speech at the presentation of the Mansholt Business Award, Simon Groot indicated that he would be investing the prize money in scholarships for education and supporting local development in developing countries.