Food for thought in Asia insights
More than 130,000 New Zealanders headed along to Fieldays in Hamilton this month, taking the opportunity to get a taste of the future of farming and the future of food.
We took along seven Southeast Asian agribusiness entrepreneurs as part of the Asean Young Business Leaders Initiative, a project the Asia New Zealand Foundation delivers for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. While in New Zealand, the group also met government agencies, visited farms and businesses and spoke at several events where they shared their own experience and tips about farming.
The entrepreneurs represented six countries in Southeast Asia and a range of industries – including dairy, strawberries, crickets and mushrooms.
The visiting group was focused on organics, reflecting a growing trend in Southeast Asia. While Kiwi consumers buy organic products for a range of reasons – to avoid chemicals, perhaps, or for concerns about the state of the planet – access to safe food is a pressing daily concern for millions of Southeast Asians.
The Southeast Asian entrepreneurs told us that the key driver of the growing appetite for organics in the region wasn’t necessarily an interest in sustainability. They were growing organic produce because consumers in their home country were genuinely scared about the safety of the food they ate.
Thailand’s Walaiporn Phumirat saw her organic Backyard Strawberry business grow rapidly amid heightened concerns about pesticide use. In her spare time, she works with environmental NGOS.
Cambodia’s Neak Tharen is the founder of Natural Garden, which has supported more than 500 farmers to convert to organic farming. When he started the business in 2008, 70 per cent of his product was exported. Today, Cambodians buy up to 60 per cent of the food.
Natural Garden is involved in a New Zealand aid project run by Plant & Food Research focused on improving traceability, and helping meet the demand for safe food in Cambodia.
Coincidentally, the taxi driver who took me to Wellington Airport that week was originally from Cambodia – and spent most of the journey discussing his concerns about pesticide-contaminated food in his home country.
Our visitors also expressed a sense that their countries had been missing out on opportunities. Indonesia’s Tissa Aunilla started her bean-to-bar, single-origin chocolate business after realising that major European brands were using Indonesian cacao beans to make their chocolate. Working closely with Indonesian farmers, her company, Pipiltin Cocoa, now produces high-end, ethical chocolate as good as any in the world.
Similarly, Vietnam’s Nguyen Hong Ngoc Bich turned to farming crickets after researching the industry – and discovering most producers of that emerging protein were in Europe or the Americas. She now works with farmers to breed crickets in shipping containers, and sells the resulting protein to food producers. The company feeds the crickets cassava leftovers, which would otherwise be burnt by farmers, thus diverting some 50 tonnes of CO2 from the environment annually.
Southeast Asian entrepreneurs are thinking as much about the future of food and about sustainability as anyone. They will be aware of the same buzzwords and ideas familiar to New Zealanders.
But the motivators are often different and the challenges are bigger – so New Zealand food producers wanting to work in Asean countries (which have a combined population of about
640 million) need to understand the drivers for emerging trends such as organics.
We need to pay attention to what consumers in Asia really need. That doesn’t mean just modifying existing products slightly and whacking a fern on the packaging.
A recurring theme expressed by our visitors was that farmers were at the bottom of the pecking order in their home countries. They saw a need to make farming more appealing to young people, and for innovation.
In this, they saw plenty of potential to collaborate with
New Zealand in areas such as knowledge transfer, growing the awareness of the need for safe and sustainable food, and valueadded production.