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How Kiwi businesses can carve a niche in Asia

Nearly 4.5 billion people live in Asia – and the world’s most populous continent is only poised to become more important as the economies of its 48 separate nations continue to develop.

This, of course, means there’s big money to be made for Kiwi businesses wishing to export their products to Asia – or import products from there. But let’s be honest: it’s well-known many New Zealand companies struggle to achieve success overseas.

So what can be done to fix the problem? That’s precisely what the Asia New Zealand Foundation is trying to figure out – and it’s doing so by bringing together Kiwi entrepreneurs and their Asian counterparts to discuss the challenges.

Top Southeast Asian food and beverage business leaders and entrepreneurs spoke at the New Zealand Food Summit in March as part of a programme run by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. The seven Asian entrepreneurs who took part visited Aotearoa through the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative, managed by the Asia New Zealand Foundation for the New Zealand Government.

The visit also included meetings with innovative New Zealand food and beverage companies, such as Ripe Coffee, CHIA, Wellington Chocolate Factory, Fix and Fogg and Spring Sheep. Those companies have already made connections with Southeast Asian counterparts through the ASEAN Young Leaders Initiative.

ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative project manager Adam McConnochie says the Asia New Zealand Foundation is pleased to be giving Kiwi business leaders the chance to better understand consumer behaviour in Southeast Asia.

“New Zealand has a long history of selling food products to Southeast Asia, but less experience with consumer branded products,” he says. “What better way for exporters to achieve success than by engaging with people who have a local perspective on what consumers respond to.”

Ade Permata Surya from “Hearty Foodie” in Indonesia, right, and Luong Ngoc Duc, from Vietnam.

One of the Food Summit participants, Talita Setyadi, lives in the Indonesia capital of Jakarta these days, but she was educated in Auckland. Trained in Paris at the famed Le Cordon Bleu and running her own bakery called Beau using high-quality artisan ingredients, she says she saw a huge opportunity in Indonesia because the quality of products is often not the same as the Land of the Long White Cloud.

“The economy is emerging,” she explains. “They’re starting to take on a whole lot of the Western trends. We have this whole generation of kids coming back home. Because I’ve grown up in New Zealand, I’ve kind of taken it for granted.”

Another participant, Hang Do, is vice president of a retail holding business in Vietnam called Seedcom, a conglomerate which includes a coffee chain, a farm, a pizza chain and more. While she sources many of the ingredients her businesses use from Vietnam, she says the perception of New Zealand products of being of a high quality and “safe” makes Aotearoa an attractive place to source products from. She says she’s worried, however, that Kiwi businesses aren’t doing enough to get the word out about what it is they’re doing. “There’s lots of potential for New Zealand businesses in Vietnam.”

Do’s views are similar to those of Singapore’s Alan Goh, head of global sales lead of Oddle, an online ordering system for restaurants that aims to provide a holistic end-to-end solution for merchants with a presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. ‘There’s a need to utilise advantages, such as high-value products,” he says. “Embracing change is the key.”

Goh says New Zealand has a serious need to market itself – something which his home nation of Singapore has a fair bit of experience in. “We’re a small country, but you can see us as an enterprise as well.”

He says Aotearoa could learn a fair bit about how Singapore – a nation with a little more than five million people – has been able to carve a niche for itself among its far larger neighbours thanks to its focus on tech and value-added products. “We can’t compete on price,” he says. “It has to be on quality.”

Luong Ngoc Duc, right, from Vietnam, with Jacqui Wales, founder of Libertine Blends.

ASEAN is a grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations with a combined population of more than 620 million. New Zealand has a free trade agreement in place with ASEAN through the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA (AANZFTA).

Since 2012, the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative has brought more than 60 dynamic entrepreneurs and business leaders from Southeast Asia to New Zealand, building business connections and facilitating trade links. The initiative has also enabled New Zealand entrepreneurs to participate in sector-specific programmes in Southeast Asia, including a food and beverage tour to Indonesia, an agricultural visit to the Philippines and a tech visit to Thailand.

While New Zealand may not be able to compete with larger economies such as Australia or the United States in terms of volume, Setyadi says Kiwi businesses can help carve a niche for themselves in Asia if they focus on selling value-added products – and work to educate consumers about the advantages of value-added products. “If you think about it, New Zealand is much closer to Asia than Europe,” she says. “In Asia, we haven’t been educated as much with New Zealand products.”

The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Adam McConnochie says there are plenty of opportunities for New Zealand business leaders to learn about Southeast Asian markets through the programme, and build valuable networks into the region. The Foundation’s latest offshore programme is an F&B tour to Malaysia, and plans are underway for a fashion and design visit to Thailand later in the year.

But equally, he encourages Kiwi companies to take up the opportunity to engage with visitors from the region while they’re here in New Zealand. “The visiting Southeast Asian entrepreneurs often become really energetic advocates for New Zealand in their home countries, and can open a lot of doors.”

The Asia New Zealand Foundation is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation with a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to forge valuable links to the region. Founded in 1994, the Foundation works in five main areas - business, arts and culture, education, media and research. It also runs a Leadership Network and takes a lead role in track II (informal diplomacy) bilateral and multilateral dialogues in the Asia-Pacific region. For more information: www.asianz.org.nz.