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Idealog's Guide to Tauranga: The field of dreams

Tauranga’s agricultural success isn’t limited to growing things. From cutting-edge work in robotics, to brand new species and colours of kiwifruit, to new ways of monitoring farms, technology is being harnessed in the region to improve the industry. 

Culture club

While the horticultural sector is a crucial part of Tauranga’s economy, Ngaria Rolleston, the communications and business development manager for Te Awanui, wants more Maori to get into it – and elevate them into positions higher up the value chain within those businesses. 

Te Awanui is a Maori-trust owned company that has interests in horticulture, dairy and sheep and beef, among other areas, and Rolleston says she’s working to change the idea that horticulture is a low-skilled career for Maori to enter.

“Generally speaking, there’s low awareness of the vast career opportunities that exist,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that horticulture’s for the ‘dumb kids’ and consists of packing, is a monotonous routine, and is low-paid type work. What we’re aimed at doing is trying to create awareness of all the different opportunities that exist within the horticulture sector by stimulating interest and channelling pathways.”

Te Awanui works with the likes of Plant and Food Research, Zespri and Seeka, as well as local colleges to create programmes and pathways to get more Maori into the sector. Rolleston says although Maori make up about 15 percent of the Tauranga population, they are generally underrepresented in all levels of the primary and horticulture sector. But, most importantly, her goal is to get more Maori into high-level positions in areas such as science, technology and post-harvest.

“We don’t want them to be growers, we want them to be managers. We want to see Maori sitting at the boardroom table of Seeka and Zespri,” Rolleston says.

“We want more Maori at the cutting-edge of technology in the science and technology industries. We want more Maori getting bachelor level and higher education so it lifts the whole sector.” 

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One of the Bay of Plenty’s strengths is its thriving agricultural industry, with hectares of orchards sprawling across Tauranga, producing everything from kiwifruit, to citrus fruits, to avocados.

Out of all the produce, the Bay of Plenty is kiwifruit heartland, with the area producing over 80 percent of the crop nationally.

This is no small task, either: kiwifruit is New Zealand’s largest single horticultural export by volume and value.

At the forefront of this is Tauranga-based Zespri, a horticultural business that’s considered a world leader in kiwifruit. Last season Zespri had record sales of $2.26 billion and an after-tax profit of $73.3 million. General manager of innovation Carol Ward says close to 80 percent of its production and 2,500 growers are within an hour of Tauranga. The port of Tauranga is a major point of export as well, and there are major research partners close by. It’s like a horticultural hub and it greases the wheels of business.

Although it’s renowned for the hairy fruit it produces, what people might not realise is Zespri’s innovation in produce.

Soon after the PSA outbreak threatened the industry (to fight PSA disease, natural resources and marine bioactives like seaweed are being looked at by local researchers), the company launched the gold kiwifruit category globally through a partnership with Plant & Food Research, and this has now become a staple in its offering.

Ward says Zespri is investing into creating brand new types of kiwifruit, but patience is key, as it can take 15 years for a new product to come to market in terms of planting the seeds and developing the new strains.

“Gold kiwifruit has been such a success for us, so what is the next type of kiwifruit we can bring into the brand? There are some exciting new varieties that are coming through the pipeline in reds and greens and we’re looking at how we might be able to commercialise those into the future, but they’re still a few years away,” Ward says.

Though the new colours of kiwifruit are exciting, Ward says the company needs to be confident any new product has a unique taste profile, a guarantee around its health properties and the ability to be grown in sufficient quantities.

It’s not enough just to create these new varieties. Zespri is also working hard to educate consumers on both the health benefits and provenance of its produce. For example, it is investigating ways to strengthen product recognition and promote traceability as one of the various ways to counterfeit Zespri products, including in China. Opportunists have been putting fake Zespri stickers on their own produce to sell it at a premium price point, so the company is experimenting with ways to authenticate its products outside of an old-fashioned barcode.

Zespri is also investing heavily in research to scientifically prove, and then educate the customer on the nutritional benefits of Zespri kiwifruits. Zespri’s health and nutrition innovation leader Dr Juliet Ansell says green kiwifruit effectively helps with digestive discomfort, so it needs to start that conversation with health experts like doctors and nutritionists. This also provides an indirect way of communicating to consumers, she says.

For the future, Zespri has an aspirational target of achieving $4.5 billion in sales by 2025 – and it is already halfway there.

Creating a buzz

Another heavy hitter in the food exporting space, Comvita is also successfully running its business out of the Bay of Plenty. The company was founded in 1974 by Claude Stratford, and is best known for its work harnessing the healing properties of New Zealand Manuka honey.

“Tauranga is the home of Comvita – it all started in a garage just around the corner from where we are today,” CEO Scott Coulter says. “It’s a great place, as there are companies like Zespri based here that are doing similar things to what we’re doing – developing markets, growing their brand and creating value for New Zealand.”

Comvita’s Manuka honey is used in products for wound treatment, including diabetic foot ulcers, which Coulter says makes up a significant portion of the world’s wound costs.

“We’ve got a lot of product solutions – olive oil extract, Manuka honey – which can support the emerging trend of increasing diabetes,” he says. “We’ve designed product ranges that fit these health solutions – cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar management – and invested in fish oil for the same reason.”

The other area Comvita has pioneered is the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF). Coulter describes the UMF phenomena as something that not only changed how people perceived honey, but created enormous value for New Zealand and for the industry.

“I remember we were working on the higher UMF products, and one of the biggest marketing mistakes we made was we developed a UMF20 and we were sitting in a room thinking ‘what price would consumers pay for it?’ We thought $50 was about as high as we would dare to go. That same honey would go on to sell for $1,000 a kilogram,” he says.

“If you get all of the factors right and you build a product that’s really premium, price is an important part of that story – it creates value in the consumer’s mind.”

Outside of Comvita’s products, Coulter says the company is focused on innovating right through the supply chain.

“One of the classic examples is our agri-business. We’re focused on not just buying honey as a bulk raw material, but actually producing it ourselves from our own hives, planting the trees, and actually owning the land or partnering with the land owners,” he says.

An example of this is the mobile hive units it’s created to increase the yield of honey each season.

“Our mobile hive units are designed so they’re easy to move considerable distances. We can mobilise them quite quickly and put them in the areas where the Manuka is flowing,” he says.

Plus-sized business

Plus Group is a Tauranga-based company that’s been around since 2003 and is made up of several different businesses targeted at horticulture, including Pollen Plus, GroPlus, Robotics Plus, BioSoil & Crop and Newnham Park, a business park that’s home to these four businesses plus several other food-related companies, such as Heilala Vanilla.

“With the likes of kiwifruit, avocados, the Port of Tauranga and a number of food processing type companies based here, there’s already an ecosystem,” Plus Group owner Steve Saunders says. “The vision of Newnham Park was about pulling a number of food horticulture companies together onto one site with no real agenda – more of an organic growth agenda that’s about forming good relationships and collaborations, which help create and drive momentum … That’s the culture here – and we’ll step it up this year.”

Now, the businesses on site have revenue of more than $100 million collectively, he says. Some of its most interesting work is being conducted in the agricultural robotics space through Robotics Plus. The company has earned plaudits – and plenty of new business – by experimenting with robotic apple packers, which are now heading to customers in the US. 

The automated apple packing machines place apples in a tray with the stems aligned using sensors, software and electromechanical technology. It was a finalist in the innovation in agribusiness and environment, innovation in design and engineering, and innovation excellence in research categories of the 2016 NZ Innovation Awards.

“Our real focus is on labour and efficiency,” Saunders says. “If you look at the New Zealand apple industry we employ 14,000 people, 50 percent are RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) workers, 25 percent are backpackers, 25 percent are Kiwis. It’s high risk and the costs of labour are continuing to increase, but technology costs are coming down, so it could quite affordably replace some of those tasks.”

He says though there are concerns people’s jobs could be replaced by these machines, he says the reality is there’s not enough people there to meet the demands of the industry.

“Robotics, in my view, won’t displace a whole lot of jobs. The technology will create new jobs of a different kind and create the ability for people to be more self-employed. We’re also creating new education opportunities.”

Robotics Plus is also working on a vehicle that can drive itself autonomously without a driver, whilst carrying out tasks like distributing fertiliser.

Wide blue yonder

In the ag-tech space, Tauranga-based Bluelab is leading the way in creating new, technology-driven ways to monitor and aid plant growth. The company makes electronic metering and control devices to assist plants growing in controlled spaces, such as greenhouses, using hydroponic and aquaponic systems.

It’s also moved into the data and internet of things space with the creation of an app that connects horticulturists to real-time data about the pH levels in their greenhouses.

“One of the real customer insights we picked up last year is 24 hours away from the growing environment is just too long,” head of innovation and product manager Jono Jones says.

“The mobile platform means they can move around and access that key information they need to know remotely for peace of mind.”

The company now exports to over 15 countries and has been the recent recipient of a Callaghan Innovation Growth Grant.

Jones says Bluelab’s innovative approach goes beyond its product offering, with the company following Doblin's 10 Types of Innovation framework to understand and build it into the different areas of its business.

“It’s a great framework for us, because it’s really highlighted that innovation can be across the business, and even our overseas teams are intimately involved in this,” he says.

Jones says while the idea behind the product is quite innovative, it’s also everything else around the product they’ve taken a unique approach with, such as the customer experience, educational programmes and the intuitiveness of the design.

Jones says this focus has moved the brand from number five to number one in handheld pH metering devices globally.

Chief executive Greg Jarvis says Tauranga is a great place to be based due to the collegial business climate.

“You get to connect with a lot of people from different companies,” Jarvis says. “Anyone who’s an exporter is trying to innovate in some way, so you can pick up the phone and talk to people who are facing the same challenges from an export point-of-view.”

He says a great example of this is the Design Thinking Meetup, which Bluelab is a part of. For now, the company is focused on how it can use its instruments’ data and extend it to the internet of things. And, like many up-and-coming exporters, it’s doing it all very happily from Tauranga.