Kipster’s climate-neutral poultry farm is the winner of the Rabo Sustainable Innovation award 2018 in the Food & Agri category. Does the self-proclaimed world’s most sustainable egg offer a new model for poultry farming worldwide?
The idea for Kipster (‘kip’ is the Dutch for chicken and ‘ster’ for star) was hatched (if you’ll excuse the pun) when sustainable entrepreneur Maurits Groen, and poultry expert and university lecturer Ruud Zanders met. Groen has been the driving force behind a number of sustainable initiatives and coalitions, including producing the Dutch version of Al Gore’s book and film An Inconvenient Truth.
The two began to philosophize about what the most bird-, farmer- and environment-friendly poultry farm would look like. They were driven by the question of how to feed the world’s growing population in an honest way. They eventually hatched their plan together with farmer Styn Claessens and media strategist Olivier Wegloop. And so Kipster was born: a climate-neutral poultry company located in Venray, the Netherlands. The response has been egg-cellent. We spoke to Maurits Groen to find out more.
How did you manage to set up such an innovative company in four years in a shrinking sector?
Groen: “Because the founders all came from different disciplines, we could look at the sector with different eyes. We ignored the so-called law that says 'everything is about the lowest cost' which comes at the expense of animal welfare and the environment as well as farmers’ margins.”
What was the most important hurdle you had to overcome to get Kipster started?
“The financing. We circumvented the traditional roads by signing a contract with Lidl in the Netherlands. They are our exclusive sales channel and buy all our eggs and roosters. We received credit from the bank thanks to the contract.”
“They are a discounter that sells their own brands. Their assortment is limited - they don't stock 30 types of egg – so the offer is clear. That way we can tell our story about selling ‘the best eggs’.”
Your eggs are neither organic nor free-range, but you have the highest attainable quality seal from the Dutch Society for Animal Protection. How did you achieve that?
“There are a few important aspects to bird welfare other than the kind of feed and whether there is enough space per chicken. Kipster tries to do everything as well as possible: being animal-friendly, having the lowest footprint and lowest emissions. We ensure the chickens are comfortably housed, we do not gas the baby roosters when they hatch and we generate more energy than we need for ourselves. In addition, we feed our chickens with residual flows from bakeries and agriculture. That means we do not need agricultural land to produce the feed and we prevent waste at the same time. Our packaging is as environmentally friendly as possible, and we run an education and meeting center.”
“We outlined our ideals first and organized everything around them”- Maurits Groen, co-founder of Kipster
Your eggs sell for 5 euro cents less than organic eggs at Lidl. How is that possible?
“Because we started from scratch, we could outline our ideals first and organize everything as efficiently as possible and generate other revenue around these. By using a clever combination of techniques and always weighing up whether something makes sense or not, we manage to keep our eggs relatively cheap. Lidl's five-year sales guarantee also plays an important role. It means our risk is proportionally lower and we don’t have to deal with brokering.”
Most poultry farms gas the rooster chicks because they cannot earn money from them. How do you approach this issue?
“We raise the roosters and sell their meat in the form of rooster burgers. This takes about 120 days, whereas the standard for meat chickens is just 42 days. Lidl has also committed themselves to selling these. In doing so, they have stuck their neck out, but also score points. Animal rights activists in the Netherlands who are usually very critical about the meat in supermarkets praise Lidl because of Kipster.”
Is Lidl your only sales channel?
“We have one farm of 24,000 chickens, producing about 8 million eggs annually. We want to grow further and sell more eggs and roosters. This could be done via Lidl in the Netherlands, but also abroad; it is the largest supermarket chain in Europe. Besides retail, we are considering other sales opportunities such as manufacturers of sauces and ice cream, and the hospitality sector.”
Do you hope to grow more?
“Further growth is not a goal, but you need volume to have as much impact as possible. We want to get rid of the poultry system in which a 'race to the bottom' seems to be a law of nature. We are proving that consumers will buy eggs that are not only better for the chickens and the environment, but also for farmers.”
But the system won’t just change overnight. Everything is based on a certain way of thinking and working…
“That’s true, it’s only possible one step at a time. You have to deal with livestock and long-term investments. In the Netherlands you can only start a new poultry farm if the rights are available. The switch from caged chickens to free-range birds and eggs took several years in our country.”
“You need volume to have as much impact as possible”- Maurits Groen, co-founder of Kipster
Have you had interest from abroad?
“Yes, a lot. Kipster is particularly attractive in countries where little attention is currently paid to animal welfare, while the consumer wants alternatives. An example is the US, where they still have battery-hen eggs. We are already talking to an American supermarket chain.”
Are you not afraid that Kipster's concept will be copied by others?
“No. Actually, that would be fantastic. We would like this to be the new way of producing eggs.”
Why is Kipster farmer-friendly?
This is a good question for Kipster’s farmer, Styn Claessens. He learned all about poultry through his family’s free-range farm and knows what the sector’s pressure points are. Claessens: “Kipster is good for farmers in that we don’t look at the lowest possible cost price, but at an honest, minimal yield. We work according to a fair deal with Lidl, where we are open about our business case. We do not have to wait for orders, but can simply deliver. As a result, we are less at the mercy of the vagaries of the market and feed prices.
Feed prices have a major impact on margins in our sector. We have agreed with Lidl that we will compensate each other, within certain limits, if feed prices are higher or lower than expected. We will probably also be less affected by fluctuations by working with alternative feed. We are now slowly switching to residual streams from bakeries, such as bread and rice cakes. We have to figure out what works as we go along as there are no examples that we can follow. But pioneering is exactly what makes the farming profession fun. Especially if you know that it’s also good for the environment, people and yourself.”