‘Maori edge in Asia’: New Zealand targets SEA’s untapped potential for trade and food tech innovation

By Si Ying Thian

- Last updated on GMT

Asia NZ Foundation says Maori entrepreneurs have a cultural edge when it comes to engaging with Asia for business © Asia NZ Foundation
Asia NZ Foundation says Maori entrepreneurs have a cultural edge when it comes to engaging with Asia for business © Asia NZ Foundation

Related tags Maori agrifood New zealand trade agreements International trade

South East Asia’s food tech expertise is offering a ‘huge area of potential collaboration’ to creating value-added Maori products, with significant interest apparent on both sides to pursue agri-food innovation.

A delegation of nine Maori food and beverage entrepreneurs just recently returned from Singapore and Thailand via programme organized by the Asia New Zealand Foundation to explore new opportunities for collaboration in South East Asia.

The programme sought to connect the delegation with private and public stakeholders in the South East Asian food innovation ecosystem.

In an interview with FoodNavigator-Asia​, senior business advisor Ethan Jones highlighted that it was key to have diverse Maori trades represented in its delegation:

When we selected the companies, it had to fit into the broader picture of how Aotearoa New Zealand and Maori can better engage with South East Asia. We didn’t have 900 companies, only 9. So, we couldn’t have everyone doing the same thing.

“We had someone from sea food, dairy, functional food, wine, non-alcoholic beverages, and F&B tech services. So, it’s a broad spectrum rather than being narrowly focused. When we went up to Singapore and Thailand, they can connect with a lot of what Maori businesses were doing.”

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NZ delegation with Shiok Meats' CEO © Asia NZ Foundation

Seven of the nine entrepreneurs were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with two being larger, established food businesses, also known as Iwi.

The private and public partners whom the delegation met in Singapore and Thailand included the Singapore Food Agency, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign affairs, cultivated meat company Shiok Meats, food testing company FoodPlant, logistics companies and importers, and major supermarket chains.

Match made in business

According to Stats NZ, as of April 2023, New Zealand’s top export markets were China, Australia, United States, Europe, and Japan.

As an export-dependent economy, the foundation is eyeing new export markets in South East Asia.

For the Maori economy, they are even more dependent. It is one in three businesses that are export dependent. Maori-led enterprises account for around about 50% of the fishing quota in New Zealand, about 30% of the sheep and beef production, and 10% of dairy production.

“While exports are going up for China and the rise of value-added products in Japan, the trip is about exploring new opportunities and building connections to understand the opportunities in South East Asia,” ​Jones explained.

While dairy and Manuka honey are Maori’s key exports to South East Asia, there remains untapped potential to value-add these products, such as infusing honey in cosmetics, said Jones.

The programme also allowed the entrepreneurs to showcase a greater variety of other Maori products to its South East Asian counterparts.

Jones pointed out food tech innovation as another potential area of collaboration, which explained its strategic choice of placing the delegation in Singapore and Thailand: “We were seeing a lot of innovation in the F&B space, and getting a flavour of how Maori enterprises can connect with this level of innovation and complement with our comparative advantage.

“For example, we have a company called CiRCLR who runs a tech services platform to match F&B companies to deal with waste. In Thailand, CP Group is one of the largest companies doing a lot in the agricultural space. Is there an area where the tech platform can help them to deal with waste challenges? These are the kind of collaboration opportunities we are exploring.”

While Thailand has a strong agricultural sector that aligns with New Zealand’s economy, Singapore makes for “a really easy first point of contact into South East Asia”,​ given the use of the common English language and ease of doing business.

Maori’s cultural edge in Asia

Interestingly, Jones highlighted that there is an alignment in culture of Maori and Asian businesses, especially in terms of relationship-building.

The Maori community has a word for hospitality, called Manaakitanga.That was the same kind of generosity and hospitality we experience in Singapore and Thailand. The willingness of business and government leaders to open their arms to welcome us.

“So, I think as we talk about collaboration between Maori and South East Asia, we cannot go beyond the fact that it’s these cultural connections and relationships that are established first, then the business flows from there.”

In terms of leveraging on the relationships established, Jones said that it is expecting an inbound delegation of seven South East Asian entrepreneurs in the next few weeks to explore opportunities in New Zealand’s agritech space.

I think once you've had such a successful trip like this and built those strong connections, there is an innately a strong desire to have to have it continue. We’re already speaking with both the delegates and the partners about how we can support the connections that they've made going forward.”

Aside from the programme, the foundation also hosted the Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI)​ targeting New Zealand and South East Asian emerging entrepreneurs below 40 years old.

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