Flanders’ FOOD is a strategy-driven platform for the facilitation of innovation. Could you explain the exact role of Flanders’ FOOD?
Inge Arents: Flanders’ FOOD levers the innovation capacity of Flemish agrifood companies by enhancing their scientific and technological knowledge. We do this by taking an integrated approach to knowledge creation and dissemination and partner matching.
At its core, Flanders’ FOOD is a broker/matchmaker. We’re the central hub in a network of over 300 companies. About 70% of our members are food producing companies and their direct suppliers in the food chain (raw materials, ingredients, ancillary materials…). The other 30% are companies from the larger agrifood eco-system: machine builders, retailers, technology providers, etc.
Could you shed some light on how Flanders’ FOOD collaborates with its members?
Inge Arents: It’s really about bringing the different parties around the table. Finding them a matching partner for their new innovation project. We want to support our members, challenge them, encourage them to take steps towards innovation. We help them draw up strategic roadmaps, find ways to facilitate product development. Other times, we stimulate them to invest in technological and social innovation. Of course, in the end, it’s up to the companies themselves to take action.
Flanders’ FOOD has been around for over a decade now – do food companies and other parties find their way to you easily? What kind of questions and projects do they approach you with?
Inge Arents: Over the years, we have become more and more visible and today, the threshold to approach us is very low. There comes a certain point in every food company’s lifecycle, when it realises it can’t do it all alone. That’s when food companies typically reach out to us.
And there is a whole range of questions they approach us with: from investments in new machinery to managing their waste, from product development to exploring new types of crops. Responding to the trends and consumer’s demands like less sugar, less salt, clean label, etc. are typical challenges as well.
What does the future hold for Flanders’ FOOD and the food industry?
Inge Arents: As spearhead cluster agrifood, we will broaden the scope in which we have been operating for the past decade. Collaboration will become more important than ever. We intend to put more effort into collaboration across the value chain, cross-border and cross-sectoral. We are truly evolving from linear thinking to end-to-end system thinking.
As far as challenges for the food industry go, we think digitalisation is definitely high on the agenda right now. We want to make companies aware of the fundamental changes digitalisation (and related trends: industry 4.0, big data, Internet of Things,…) is bringing about, but also of the unique opportunities accompanying this trend.
The Belgian food industry has a unique reputation for producing delicious, high-quality food. Maintaining that reputation and guarding our competitiveness is a constant battle, especially given the relatively high costs for wages. From that perspective, operational excellence will always be a central theme. At the same time, more and more conditions and demands relating to health, sustainability, etc. need to be met. We strongly believe collaborating on these themes will be fundamental in order to overcome the challenges.