How closed borders have affected New Zealand’s agrifood tech sector

By Peter Wren-Hilton 

When New Zealand closed its borders at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, the agrifood tech community held concerns on the future of offshore market development plans. However Peter Wren-Hilton, Executive Director of Agritech New Zealand and Co-Founder of the Australia New Zealand Agritech Council says a new ‘buy local’ campaign will help drive regional agri-focussed supply chains and businesses should take full advantage of this trend.

As New Zealand’s agritech sector emerges from COVID-19 lockdown, industry is celebrating the government’s recent Budget announcement of NZD 11.4M to support the delivery and implementation of New Zealand’s Agritech Industry Transformation Plan (ITP).

The Agritech ITP saw industry, research and government work together since early 2019. This collaboration reflects the strength of the country’s agritech ecosystem. We identified key sector challenges and opportunities that needed addressing: more investment, better skills and training, the commercialisation of research, expansion of global connectivity, agreed data standards and regulation. Collectively these workstreams have been designed to help New Zealand agritech businesses grow and scale in a post COVID-19 world.

Challenges of course remain. Closed borders mean that some offshore market development plans have been put on hold. For others, planned capital raises have either been delayed or placed on the backburner. Yet despite these unprecedented times, all the evidence suggests that the sector is adapting to this new environment, with an expanding range of highly innovative products and solutions. In part this has been driven by the ongoing and growing offshore demand for high quality New Zealand food and fibre. Primary sector exports are on track to grow by $1.7 billion on last year helping underpin New Zealand’s COVID-19 recovery.

Going forward, the potential opening up of New Zealand’s borders with Australia offers an unprecedented opportunity for the wider trans-Tasman region. As a Co-Founder of the Australia New Zealand Agritech Council, I understand the value of increased collaboration and engagement. So too does the New Zealand government. Support for the Agritech Council is embedded into the Agritech ITP.

In 2019, one of the highlights of my year was the development of the New Zealand Agritech Story. First previewed at National Fieldays in June, it saw its international red carpet launch at the Irish Ploughing Championships in September. It rocked. The opportunity now exists for the development of a trans-Tasman Agritech Story; one that promotes the region as a global agritech hub to the rest of the world. evokeAG. embodies the value of this trans-Tasman currency. It’s one that is critical to the growth of the wider regional ecosystem.

In recent weeks, I’ve been encouraged to hear David Littleproud, the Federal Minister of Agriculture, talk about the importance of innovation and technology. The establishment of the Australian Agritech Association is undoubtedly helping drive this. As consumers and businesses across the world are encouraged to ‘buy local’, the development of new regional agri-focused supply chains will only increase. I believe that the trans-Tasman region is uniquely placed to take full advantage of this trend.

As we emerge from COVID-19 lockdown, new thinking is required. Whilst it is easy to be distracted by some of the ongoing challenges that many face, it’s important that as an industry we focus on some of the valuable opportunities that are now becoming apparent. When I look around the world today, I cannot think of a country or region better placed than New Zealand and Australia to address them.

It’s a set of opportunities we should embrace.

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