While greeting customers into his shop, Saul Roa pushes fresh sugar cane through an industrial juicer. Sourced from Brazil, the 5ft long stalks enter like tubes on one end, and come out as flattened straws on the other. Tossing the scraps into a bin, Roa offers me a drink. He gently turns a spigot and like a fountain, the fresh-pressed juice falls out of the machine into my cup. A sugary aroma fills the air, calming music plays over the speakers, and I settle into the welcoming environment of Petit Village.
“Petit in Catalan is small, and then a village is like something local,” Roa says. “The idea was, like in a village, you can find everything. We have the fruit and veg, we started having the groceries, also you have coffee, and you have juices.” Located on Deptford High Street, the shop also sells plants and artwork, and hosts a range of gardening classes. As a team of one, Roa balances several responsibilities to keep the shop running seven days a week, but his hope to create a more equitable business experience for farmers keeps him going.
Roa, 32, was born in the Dominican Republic, where his father used to be a farmer. At the age of eight, he moved to Barcelona where he grew up and went to school, but in 2012 an opportunity arose for him to enter the farming business with his father.
“One of the neighbours from my father was an old man. (When) he died; the sons and family didn’t want to take care of the land, so I bought and we started growing avocados.” It takes five years for avocado trees to grow and produce fruit, so for a small farm like Roa’s it was challenging to pay workers and take care of the plants, but in 2017 things took off. Roa began shipping and selling avocados in England. Everything was going great, according to Roa, “It was an amazing project and then COVID just happened.”
The global pandemic put a halt to international travel which meant there were no flights to transport produce from the Dominican Republic to London. That is when Roa began using shipping containers to transport his goods. “We couldn’t bring it by air, so we start to bring it by sea.”
“It was a big challenge, but we started selling it, people like it, and it was great.” However, not every farmer was able to adapt to the challenges caused by Covid. Sao says local farmers began asking for his help in shipping their produce because they faced similar struggles.
“They need that money for the family – to pay for college, you know, to get the nice houses and to live decently, and they couldn’t do that because of Covid.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, before the pandemic, about 30 percent of the world’s food was lost or wasted each year; but closures and disruptions in the agrifood chain onset by covid have resulted in increased food loss and waste during the pandemic.
Throughout Latin America many farmers went several seasons without selling any of their crops. That was how Roa began shipping produce, mainly mangos for other farmers, but in the end “it was a disaster.” At the time, there were a lot of mangoes simultaneously coming from Brazil to London, causing the market price to fall to the floor.
“Normally the price was £6 a box – we were selling £1 a box – it’s a big difference.
“And some of the wholesalers say, ‘No, we don’t want it because we have a lot there’s too many.’” In the end, Roa had to dump half of the container because he was unable to sell it.
After that experience Roa began to envision a new solution. “I was thinking, ‘If I have a shop or something where I can sell directly to the customer at least I could sell to different growers, because I know I have the customer and I could sell this amount of produce.’”
So when a commercial space for a new shop was available on Deptford’s High Street, Soa jumped at the opportunity. To bring the space to life, touches of Deptford’s local identity can be seen throughout the shop with handpainted art hanging along the wall. One of the largest pieces is a gift from a local artist born in Deptford. Roa says the artist “gave it to the shop like a present to bring good luck.”
If the painting works, in the future Roa hopes to work with more companies who “that really take care of the growers and take care of the people who work with them.”