field farm vehicles

The growing opportunity of agri-tech exports

By Anna Campbell 

When Australia was booming on the back of the mining industry, there was a lot of talk of them having a ‘two-speed economy’: mining and everything else.

That two speed economy is now converging with a shift in activities away from mining towards property growth, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne where immigration rates are high.

Looking across the ditch, New Zealand for once, has a competitive rate of economic growth with Australia, now that the mining bubble has ended. Yet the false economy created through property demand as seen in Auckland is as worrying here as the Sydney splurge must be to Australians. 

The experts tell us, this is just money going round and round, not the creation of new revenue, which is what we really need to drive our economy forward.  

So, while a third of our country is living in the Auckland bubble and politicians are arguing amongst themselves how they might control that bubble, are we taking our eye off the ball? 

The game we need to be playing is creating real economic growth for New Zealand through greater export revenue. Let’s leave those up North to focus on property while the rest of us invest our time and energy into something useful. The opportunity for regional revival is on!

What about Dunedin as a ‘giga-town’, surely this is an interesting proposition for regional revival? As you know, I am an unashamed advocate for food production and agriculture in New Zealand, so when I think about high-tech opportunities, this is the space to which I gravitate. 

As we stand, agri-tech is already an important subset of our technology economy. It is difficult to quantify, but in a 2014 report for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise by Coriolis: “New Zealand’s Agritech Sector”, agri-tech contributed   ̴1.2B in export revenue to the New Zealand economy in 2013.

Interestingly though, when they compared this figure to other developed agricultural exporters, we are underperforming in comparison to countries such as Israel, United States and Ireland. 

Israel, a tiny desert state the size of the West Coast, exports approximately 10 times as much agri-tech as we do. On the positive side, we were late starters to this agri-tech export business and have grown at a better rate than those countries in the past five years (between 4 and 9% depending on the definition of agri-tech), so we still can catch up.

What exactly is agri-tech? Broadly speaking, agri-tech can include anything from a newly designed agricultural trailer or fence post to electronics or software products.

Animal and plant genetics are also included in the category, so those high breeding-worth heifers being shipped to China are part of the agri-tech export growth story.

And in this agri-tech story, where does Dunedin sit? I would say, well down the national list, with cities such as Hamilton punching well above their weight. 

For local companies such as TracMap, Techion, Oritain and AbacusBio, agri-tech is our main offering. Other companies, such as Scott Technology, are growing their agri-tech revenue as part of their overall revenue. 

I, like many, am hoping that giga-town, along with the obvious technical advantages, will give existing Dunedin agri-tech companies more visibility and provide a platform for new companies to emerge. 

For this to occur, agri-tech stories and opportunities need to be integral in the programmes of our local schools, universities and polytechnics as these are often the places start-up ideas are born.

Growth in the New Zealand economy must be more than the Auckland property market. It is a given in my mind that we should focus on growing the value of our food products, but let’s include thinking about agri-tech as an ‘up and comer’ in our export mix. 

Markets for many of our future agri-tech products are likely to include the dynamic emerging markets of Asia, Africa and South America.

Young techies, get your thinking caps on, what more exciting food-related challenges could there be than what these markets offer?