Food for thought in Asia in­sights

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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