Agrifood leaders in Manawatū say regions within New Zealand must collaborate, work together and use their combined strengths to compete in the world.
Manawatū’s Journey to Becoming a Top Global Agrihub was the focus of the first Manawatū Growth Series event, launched by the Central Economic Development Agency (CEDA), in June. CEDA and organisations in the industry are working collaboratively to achieve a combined vision of having Manawatū recognised as one of the top three agrihubs in the world.
Leaders who took part in the first event included FoodHQ’s chief executive Dr Abby Thompson, The Factory’s chief executive Dean Tilyard, Accelerate25’s lead team member and chair of Rangitāne o Manawatū Investment Trust Ruma Karaitiana, CEDA’s board chair Malcolm Bailey and CEDA board member Lucy Griffiths, who is the founder of Innov8 Aotearoa.
Manawatū is already recognised internationally as being in the top 10 agrihubs, so what is needed to be in the top three?
The panel was challenged by the audience on whether aiming for top three in the world was a lofty, unrealistic goal, but panellists strongly refuted that. They said it will be a challenge to get there, but the region has the right ingredients and people to make it happen.
“Global counterparts in leading universities and companies in the agrifood, agribusiness and agritech industries don’t hesitate to acknowledge Palmerston North as hosting one of the world’s top 10 agri-clusters,” said CEDA’s board chair Malcolm Bailey, who is also a local farmer and agritech investor. “FoodHQ is the game changer for New Zealand and will help us get into the top three.”
FoodHQ is a national collaboration that involves the majority of New Zealand’s publicly funded food science and innovation capability. It is headquartered in Manawatū because it is where most of New Zealand’s food science capability is concentrated. It wants to further intensify and leverage that capability to support the food industry in the development of premium products that capture value in New Zealand. Many of FoodHQ’s partner organisations have food related R&D activities based in Palmerston North. Local partners include research and educational institutions such as AgResearch, Massey University, Plant and Food Research, the Riddet Institute and others, commercial food companies such as Fonterra, and supporting organisations including CEDA. Leaders within those organisations sit on the board of FoodHQ and recognise that working together benefits New Zealand’s food industry by increasing our ability to do business internationally.
“Most people don’t realise the wealth of expertise in science, technology and innovation we have here, and we are not taking full advantage of this,” said Dr Abby Thompson, chief executive of FoodHQ.
She stressed a bigger, global view needs to be adopted by all those in the sector.
“We will fail if we are only focused on becoming a national agrihub,” she said. “We need to think globally because everyone is concerned about the same challenges facing the agrifood industry: the environment, natural resource limitations, what the world is actually going to eat. No one country is going to solve these by themselves, and for New Zealand to succeed we need to be able to collaborate with the international leaders in these areas. Those leaders aren’t going to want to work with us if they do not see us adding value to them, so we need to figure out what we can do really well and then work together in order to ensure we are truly excelling.”
She said FoodHQ is seeking to take a NZ Inc approach where it can help join up the interesting and varied activities happening across the country to minimise duplication and encourage collaboration. Manawatū’s strength in food science means that it is likely that work undertaken by local researchers will play a key role in the development of our future food sector.
Malcolm Bailey referenced the Netherlands as a global leader in agrifood. It is a small country with a population four times that of New Zealand, but it exports far more food that we do. They own a lot of the agrifood and agritech intellectual property. For example, for onions and potatoes they own about 90 per cent of the global plant varieties.
“They make money while they sleep because they own IP and sell it around the world. By being smart with limited resources, businesses and nations can be very wealthy and this is where New Zealand needs to continue its focus,” Bailey said.
Dr Thompson echoed this and said the Netherlands does provide the leading overseas example of a successful food science and innovation hub, and that it has been in the fortunate position of having very clear centralised strategic alignment and millions of dollars’ worth of investment over the past 15 years, but she says there’s no reason New Zealand can’t shortcut this process by learning from others.
The New Zealand Government is putting an increased focus on growing the agritech sector. In its recent report Growing Innovative Industries in New Zealand – From the Knowledge Age to the Digital Age – it says agritech, a $1.5 billion industry, is a prime area for expansion and improving investment and capabilities, given the global attention it is attracting.
Overcoming the biggest barriers to growth
A lack of access to venture capital is one of the Manawatū’s and New Zealand’s biggest barriers to growth, according to The Factory’s Chief Executive, Dean Tilyard. In the last five years, $20 billion of venture capital has been sunk into companies around the world and New Zealand has only seen 0.2 per cent of that.
“Ten years ago, no one was talking about startups, venture capital, or entrepreneurs, but that’s changed,” he said.
“Capital investment or putting money into companies is a critical part of the tapestry. We don’t have large agritech companies here in Manawatū because we need access to capital. Capital comes to where it’s wanted, so we must be aspirational and support companies who are starting and growing in the region.”
A recent local success story is agritech company BioLumic, who received a funding injection of more than $6.5 million of capital investment from around the world. Tilyard said the community’s focus must be on keeping companies like BioLumic in Manawatū, so they grow and employ more local people.
He said a long-term view must be taken. “We need a region that’s attractive to talent and focus our sight on the next 10 years because new companies are not built and grown overnight.”
Partnering with iwi to grow
Ruma Karaitiana said the Māori economy was estimated to be worth $50 billion in 2017, but there is no indication of how much is tied to agrifood or agribusiness. He urged the audience not to treat the Māori economy separately, but part of the wider, integrated ecosystem.
Iwi in the wider region – Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Raukawa – were about to enter into settlements, which will be in the top 15 of all settlements in New Zealand.
“As a region we have a unique opportunity to get in early and work together collaboratively on future plans and development, especially around skills and expertise. The worst we could do is treat Māori farming and agribusiness separately – but we need to explore how we integrate this more widely.”
He noted iwi in other areas of New Zealand who have built corporations and use unique branding and value propositions to connect with consumers overseas and says that’s largely untapped in our region.
Future opportunities in tourism
Future opportunities for the region include better connecting the region’s strength in agrifood and agritech with the visitor sector, and CEDA board member Lucy Griffiths touched on the work CEDA is leading in this space around connecting food producers and farmers to tourism, and developing strategies to encourage these businesses to look at diversifying into the visitor sector because the region has something “truly unique.”
So, where to next?
FoodHQ and its partners’ mission is to support the development and export of high-value food and beverage products, underpinned by science and innovation. They want to continue growing this expertise and capability across the country by attracting more of the world’s smartest minds in this sector – from researchers, businesses and investors, for the benefit of New Zealand’s primary industries.
There is a commitment to work more collaboratively across sectors too, and CEDA, in partnership with Sprout, has developed a Manawatū Agritech Strategy, with input from numerous industry leaders and businesses in the sector. The strategy, which has just been completed, identifies the sector’s strengths and weaknesses, what barriers exist and what opportunities can be leveraged. The next stage will be to implement the strategy and develop work programmes that progress the three-year objectives identified, which include developing talent, training, and positioning Manawatū as one of the top three agrihubs in the world.
Building the region’s profile and the country’s awareness of the expertise and capabilities that are based in the region, as well as the career and lifestyle opportunities that exist in Manawatū is a priority area for CEDA. One example of our work in this space is the development and delivery of New Zealand AgriFood Week each March, which shines a national spotlight on the region’s expertise and leadership in the agrifood sector.
“This journey [to being recognised as a top three global agrihub] is complicated, and we need to be ok with that,” said The Factory’s Dean Tilyard. “We have entrepreneurs, small and large businesses, investors, iwi – all of whom have different perspectives and need to create their own value proposition. We are building a centre of excellence of agrifood and agritech globally and we must work together to package the region to attract more people and businesses here.”
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