Food exporters go digital

It is now over four months since the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The far-reaching impacts of this invisible spreading disease have shone a spotlight like never before on the fragility of supply chains and the over-exposure of many businesses’ sales channels. Like tourism and higher education, Australia’s food and agribusiness industry instantly felt the effects of this unprecedented disruption.

For the businesses that service the $11 billion food service and wholesale sector, many of their customers were forced to close almost overnight – from hotels and restaurants, through to schools and nursing homes. This decimated the sales of these businesses, simultaneously leaving them with an oversupply of stock that they needed to find alternate retail channels to sell their wares.

The story was not too different for the businesses that export the almost $42bn of food and agribusiness products each year. When countries around the globe began closing their borders to passenger planes, Australian food and agribusinesses were left stranded as to how to get their products to market. Unbeknownst to many of the passengers sitting up the top of the cabin, these planes are loaded with tonnes of perishable food products.

With the food and agribusiness industry being such a significant contributor to the Australian economy, the Australian government acted quickly to support it to navigate this disruption. The export sector was given a $170 million to get it back up and moving. This saw hundreds of flights relaunched to deliver produce to the key export markets – China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Despite the movement of freight being reinitiated, it was far from business as usual for industry. For food and agribusiness exporters, continued growth is essential. This growth requires regular, in-market presence. With international travel and tradeshow attendance an impossibility, the sector was left scrambling for how to maintain the connectivity with customers and markets that will aid recovery. As the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre, Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL), responded immediately to this pressing sector need with a number of digital solutions.

In just over a month after the new state of play became apparent, FIAL launched a new event – Virtual Meet the Buyer. A digital version of its tried and tested Meet the Buyer, where suppliers are able to connect with international buyers from all around the globe and access in-market information. Virtual Meet the Buyer is the only one of its kind in Australia. It provides export-ready Australian food and agribusinesses the opportunity to secure a one-on-one meeting with buyers – from China’s Shandong Province, through to the most recent event in Thailand.

To date, over 220 meetings between Australian businesses and international buyers have been facilitated. The benefits of this are three-fold for the sector. Commercial outcomes continue to be secured; Australian businesses can keep their foot in the door of a fickle market by creating connections with new buyers; and these businesses can ensure they are still able to have those ‘on-the-ground’ conversations with buyers that are critical for understanding the market potential for their products.

P’Petual and Beston Global Foods are just two of the businesses that have begun exporting to new customers off the back of attending Virtual Meet the Buyers in Singapore, Shandong, and Thailand.

What makes this initiative particularly interesting is how it accelerates the negotiation process. Many will be familiar with the length of time that it can take to convert a contact met at a tradeshow into a deal – sometimes months, even years. As Cathy Owen and Jenny Daniher, co-founders of Garlicious Grown put it, “Virtual Meet the Buyer cuts through a lot of the noise from the tradeshow floor.”

The matched nature of the meetings means that conversations are held in a secure virtual room between buyers that have indicated interest in a supplier’s products. This targeted approach is seeing export relationships continue to be formalised.

Underpinning the delivery of the Virtual Meet the Buyer has been FIAL’s Australian Food Catalogue. The Australian Food Catalogue is a free digital platform that allows Australian export-ready suppliers to showcase their products to hundreds of qualified international buyers.

“We have seen a sharp increase in buyers registering for the platform since travel restrictions came into effect. From here, buyers can request a meeting with a supplier that takes their interest,” said FIAL general manager markets, Rod Arenas.

According to Arenas, the demand for Australian products is not the problem. Australia has earned a great reputation for being a source of clean, safe and healthy foods. This is particularly attractive in the current climate so demand is remaining steady, if not rising. The hurdle has been maintaining connectivity to markets. Based off the response, the Virtual Meet the Buyer and Australian Food Catalogue have filled this void.

It is easy to see how these digital solutions that have arisen from disruption may persist even when international travel is back on the cards and tradeshows begin to repopulate the calendar.

The majority of Australia’s food and agribusiness sector is made up of small to medium sized enterprises. For them, having the financial and staffing resources to travel makes these virtual events and platforms an attractive avenue through which to grow their global presence.

Neil Offner, managing director of Australian Organic Exports, highlighted this exact sentiment when he stated that, “attending the Virtual Meet the Buyer is a low-risk investment – 20 minutes – to meet with a buyer that has requested to meet with you”.

“Being the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre, we work incredibly closely with industry to deliver the bottoms-up offerings that increase the productivity and competitiveness of Australia’s food and agribusinesses. We saw a need for facilitating connections between suppliers and buyers so we delivered,” said Arenas.

As to whether FIAL will continue to deliver these digital initiatives once travel returns?
“If industry is asking for it, then we will offer it.”