Franco Fubini, CEO of food and veg supplier Natoora, says people have become disconnected from their plates. In an interview with the Times, he explains the importance of fresh produce – and how his firm adapted to thrive amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Meet Franco Fubini: Argentine empresario and visionary CEO of fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora, a company based in the United Kingdom that wants to revolutionise the global food system.
Fubini was born in Buenos Aires, to an Argentine mother with German heritage and an Italian father. He moved around a lot: when he was just four, he moved to Italy, followed by spells in Egypt and The Netherlands. He remembers his time in Argentina and family holidays in Uruguay. And most of all, he recalls eating incredible produce as he grew up eating in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Blessed with a rich exposure to local food and flavour early on, Fubini was raised with an understanding of the value of fresh produce - something that became fundamental to his career path. Gastronomy is one of his passions, and he explains that in his early 20s he started cooking more, eventually coming to a realisation that would become the foundation of his business ethos: the vegetables and fruits available in supermarkets had no real flavour, nor resemblance to the produce from his youth.
“Everything you purchase at a supermarket or at a restaurant has an impact on the food system,” he explains. “It’s damage that is complicated to undo, and one that is core to my vision for Natoora – to re-educate consumers by revolutionising the quality of fruits and vegetables available via everyday channels, all over the world.”
The businessman fears that people are becoming distanced from their dinner.
“The average consumer is becoming dangerously disconnected from how their food grows and gets to their plate,” he says passionately. “A lack of understanding and know-how means that shoppers are demanding an ever-narrowing range of intensively grown, year-round produce, losing touch with natural seasonal shifts, as well as missing out on the dietary diversity available to us.”
Fubini has managed to build Natoora into a leading supplier to some of the world’s finest dining establishments, sourcing the best produce for the best restaurants. The firm now has a global reach that spans office locations across London (their HQ), Milan, Paris, New York City and Los Angeles, and a global supply chain which counts with over 400 farmers across Europe and the United States.
But like everyone, Natoora has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the company’s business model was split two ways– 60 percent focused on supplying restaurants and 40 percent focused on supplying their business-to-consumer retail operations (five locations in London), as well as partnerships with supermarkets WholeFoods, Waitrose and Ocado.
The pandemic posed a new and immediate challenge, resulting in Natoora pivoting their operating model in early March. The company decided to swing the launch of their existing business-to-business fruit and vegetable delivery mobile app towards home delivery, resulting in staggering growth, both in their revenue and staff hires. Fubini describes it as “a miracle.”
It’s no surprise this proved successful, both Fubini and his staff have a profound grasp of the gaps in the global food supply chain. Natoora’s 2019 Impact Report publication says that 60 percent of the world’s calories come from only three crops: wheat, corn and rice. Additionally, it states that there are only 130 varieties of fruit and vegetables available to consumers at a mass commercial scale per year. There are more than 300,000 varieties of edible plants, yet three quarters of the earth’s food supply is limited to only 12 crops.
The need for change spans across countries. In Argentina, the agribusiness industry took a sharp turn when then-president Carlos Menem passed a 1996 law which allowed farmers to plant genetically modified soybeans.
Over the last 20 years, that legislation has had huge repercussions, causing tremendous environmental damage and infringing on human rights. A study by international farmers organisation Via Campesina found that “today soybean cultivation occupies more than half of Argentina’s productive land.” The organisation argues that small farmers have lost out as big business has moved in. “Long before the arrival of the multinational soybean plantation companies, the land was largely farmed by local and indigenous farmers,” the organisation wrote. “In 1988, there were 422,000 small farms based in Argentina’s countryside. By 2002, this number had fallen by almost 25 percent.”
Today, Argentina is the-third largest producer of soy worldwide, with 97 percent of its harvest destined for China and other countries. It is also the only country in the world to dedicate so much terrain to one single GM crop, according to small farmers rights organisation GRAIN. This devastating lack of biodiversity has displaced Argentina’s position as a self-sustained economy, with the country now forced to depend on international imports of processed vegetables and legumes, all of which were harvested locally at a much wider scale before the soy monoculture took over.
Full of flavour
Fubini says Natoora is transparent and committed to working with farmers who are driven by flavour. The company is focused on “ecosystem biodiversity, seed selection, resource conservation, traditional growing techniques, soil regeneration, and a minimal use of chemical intervention.”
Flavour is the focus for Fubini. “There’s a very intelligent link in why flavour leads to healthy food. Mark Schatzker calls this nutritional intelligence,” he says, referring to the award-winning journalist and author of The Dorito Effect. In that book, Schatzker explains how the “flavour of tomatoes is inextricably linked to nutrition,” detailing how the “top 20 compounds that make tomatoes naturally delicious are a mix of amino acids, fats, and carotenoids,” all of which are “essential for human survival.”
Natoora doesn’t only source produce, it grows it too – the company has two farms in Italy and the UK. In truth, they are invested across all stages of the supply chain and invest in farmers who supply them, says Fubini.
“We’ve built a supply chain that empowers every person within it – whether you’re a grower, a chef or a home consumer – to be part of positive change,” says the Argentine entrepreneur.
And what about his homeland? Natoora isn’t yet available in Argentina, but Fubini confirms he has plans to expand into Latin America in the future.
Until then, we will just have to be the bringers of positive change, he says. What we can do as consumers – today – is to start having these conversations within our local communities, to create awareness in order to increase demand for nutritional biodiversity.
“The key is to develop the infrastructure to make positive change happen at scale – this means understanding where a compromise is right and where it deviates from our purpose,” says Fubini.
Natoora’s 2019 report underlines that same theme. “What and where you buy matters,” it reads. “Through your purchasing choices, you have the power to influence fundamental changes in the way food is farmed and supplied.”