The future of food & greenhouse design

Interview with KUBO CEO Wouter Kuiper.

For this Inside-Out interview, we sat down with Wouter Kuiper, CEO of KUBO, a company specializing in Fresh Food Concepts by building greenhouses, and one of the newest contributors to EatThis.

Wouter, as the third generation leading the family company KUBO, were you always destined to step into your grandfather’s and father’s footsteps?

“Well, kind of, to be honest. The family company and the sector in which it’s active always had my interest, but you also have to have certain talents and the drive to make such a step a success. My dad and I agreed that after I graduated, I got one year to see if the company really suited me, and vice versa. That worked out well, and I continued to grow out to commercial director in 2002 and overall CEO and ownership in 2005 when I turned 30.”

It’s clear from your company’s history and the sector you’re active in, that innovation plays an important role. Already in 1965, KUBO invented the aluminum Venlo deck, a revolutionary step in greenhouse design. You were the driving force behind the so-called ‘Ultra Clima Greenhouse’ that came on the market in 2007. What does the future of greenhouse design and technology look like?

“That’s a rather complex question. First of all, I think that the operations in greenhouses should become much easier. The technology of growing healthy food in a sustainable and efficient way should be more accessible and affordable. I am also convinced that as a sector we need to take responsibility to minimize our outputs. I know that currently many are talking about greenhouses as big time energy-guzzlers, but I also want to put the topic of CO2 on the table. I truly believe it’s possible to build CO2 emission free, or even negative, greenhouses and that’s the way forward. As member of the horticultural ecosystem in the Netherlands, but also internationally, I reckon that innovation and improvements in these fields are our license to operate.

Secondly, I firmly believe that production in greenhouses is climate resilient and to that end I can imagine that in the (nearby) future much more high value crops will be grown in greenhouses. Think of leek, onion, maybe also wheat and corn. In greenhouses you can grow more, target should be a factor 20 or more, because of the controlled environment that you create. In this way, more land will become available for reforestation. I truly believe that we have the technology to achieve this.

At KUBO we created the Blue Lab, our own experimental laboratory, a place where we can test our crazy ideas and see if they would also be feasible in the ‘real world’ so to say. One direction we’re exploring is vertical farming. I truly believe that a greenhouse is the most sustainable production environment, but I am very curious how to use some of the preconditions of vertical farming in the most efficient way possible. When I look at my role within the company, I do think I am a generator of ideas, a catalyst so to say, having my eye always on innovation and improvement. I am nearing 50 now, but want to step aside timely and make room for new leadership in the decade to come. However, I will always come up with new ideas and look for ways to take them forward.”

You’re a passionate ambassador for the greenhouse production sector. You sometimes hear it’s difficult to attract young talent to the world of horticulture and food production. What is your experience with this at KUBO?
“We see that graduates don’t always know what to expect when you talk about greenhouses or vegetable production. However, when you share the company’s and the sector’s story, you see their interest grow and they really get enthusiastic. I feel that horticulture is at the crossroads of biology, physics and technology, the sector impacts climate change and vegetables should be a bigger part of our everyday diet, therefore I have no doubts that our sector offers an attractive workplace.

At the same time, I find it important to share our story. In our sector, technology can already solve many problems, but not everything. I think it’s important to create more awareness about the production of our food and focus more on emotion. Technology is a lot of things, but it’s not emotional. Food on the other hand, has a lot to do with emotion. It’s one of the reasons why we became contributor to EatThis.: We need to get our story out and connect to society. KUBO’s door is always open, so please, be curious and come visit us if you want to know more about your food!