I’m writing this on the plane back from Indonesia, after spending three days there on a trade mission. The grey 757 we lovingly nickname ‘Air Force 1’ will soon be touching down next to the real Air Force 1, with the US Vice President’s plane waiting for us at Whenuapai. We’ll be there soon, Mr Vice President, just need to refuel in Aus first to make it across the Tasman.
The past three days have been a whirlwind – we left Auckland on Sunday, back Wednesday night, and in that time we’ve been to both Jakarta and Surabaya, and we seem to have been eating constantly. It’s one of my insights into Indonesia - they love doing business over food. Yesterday we somehow managed to have two lunches, and of course out of politeness I was compelled to eat both. Also the Beef Rending was outstanding – New Zealand beef, mind you, cooked Indonesian style. I did have a flashback memory of another trip to South East Asia on a business trip, when I polished off an entire plate of noodles, not wishing to cause offence, only to have another one presented to me. Careful not to start a diplomatic incident, I forced myself to eat that too, after which they brought out pastries, fruit and a milkshake type thing. I steeled myself and started forcing that food down too when the local guy leaned over to me and asked if I was finished yet – they were running out of food. Typical of the cultural miscommunication that can happen if you read the guidebooks too literally.
Trade missions are a bit like a school trip, only you are better behaved and better dressed – on the RNZAF flight they have a strict dress code: no t-shirts, no jeans and no miniskirts. God knows what they do if you turn up in a denim mini, I’m not keen to try it. But the camaraderie of a school trip is there, along with the fact we sit down the back, wearing badges with our names printed on them, and the exhaustion/exhilaration that comes with an increasing lack of sleep. We pack our agendas very full – on average 6 or 7 events a day, most revolving around food. It’s an opportunity for New Zealand business leaders to meet with prospective customers and partners, and hear from politicians, economists, and local experts to really get to know the market. My classmates on this trip are 22 leaders of NZ business across food, dairy, aviation, energy, education and tourism sectors. (flash fact: a New Zealand company is currently building two geothermal plants in Indonesia – we are world leaders in geothermal technology; those pretty geysers in the middle of the North Island aren’t just for show!). And on this trip, we are accompanied by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Trade, ambassadors and civil servants like me.
Travelling with the PM allows us un-precedented, but actually-Presidented, access. We’ve met with Indonesian business leaders, senior politicians, Mayors and Governors, and yes even the Indonesian President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Looking through the newspaper, I see those quote marks always seem to be used when they say his name. Again, another difference between NZ and Indonesia – somewhat ironically, they seem to have much more respect for their political leaders than we do (much pomp and ceremony), and yet give them quirky nicknames.
Another big benefit of being with the PM is that they literally stop traffic for us. The legendary Jakarta traffic, which can have traffic jams days long, was no obstacle to our visiting a packaging facility outside of town. Amazing to see a New Zealand company establishing a large investment here, and supporting the local economy as they do so.
Why are we here? Well, Indonesia represents an enormous opportunity for New Zealand companies to work with. Already the world’s fifth biggest country, Indonesia is rapidly becoming the obvious heart of the ASEAN region. The population is variously described as 250 million, 255 million, 260 million - that should tell you something, when our own country’s population is lost in the margin of error of this one, we are dealing with serious scale. And they need what we’ve got – not just dairy products and meat (although they are important) – but other high-value exports too. The IP around geothermal, our knowledge and systems around solar power and clean tech, our aviation services. Another flash fact; Indonesia is planning to build around 20 new airports in the next decade, and they need pilots, air traffic control systems, baggage handling systems etc etc. I wasn’t aware, but where Indonesia has 1 aircraft for every 250,000 people, New Zealand has 1 every 1,000, and manages an airspace of 35 million square kilometres. It turns out we know a thing or two about aviation.
And that’s not all – while we were here, New Zealand firm Fishpond signed a deal to supply millions of products via its Online Marketplace/ eCommerce/Web SAAS/Insert-Your-Buzzword here system. Fishpond will partner with a large online store in Indonesia to do product fulfilment.
Trips like this one give us the opportunity to showcase the finest New Zealand has to offer, and to learn more about the local market. The facts and figures are mind blowing (and all available via Google, so I won’t bore you here), but the real opportunity is in the connections and contacts we’ve made over the past few days. And again, here is another lesson in different business cultures, and another similarity to a school trip: when you meet a contact in Indonesia, the way you follow up is with the messaging app WhatsApp. It feels weird – and a bit like a teenager - basically texting someone you’ve just met (“What u doing? Want to buy 400 tons of beef?”), but it’s the main way business is done here.
Overall though, stepping outside New Zealand even for a few short days, allows us to look back with a fresh perspective on what we have in our favour – our clean, open landscapes which create high quality products; our innovation and inventiveness which allow us to be experts in all sorts of amazing disciplines; and our open hearts and welcoming nature, which make New Zealand such a great destination for visitors and guests. It would be fair to say most of the Indonesians we met were not experts on New Zealand, but they know about out landscape (thank you Lord Of The Rings), our food, and our people. As one of the Indonesian delegates wistfully told me “New Zealand – you are so lucky, such a rich country”. Yes we are. Terimah kasi.